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Supergirl and Gotham Are Bucking TV's Rocky Road with LGBT Storylines

Two coming-out storylines are (so far) being responsibly handled

Alexander Zalben

Mark the date and time: on Monday, Oct. 24 at 9 p.m. ET, DC Entertainment took not one, but two bold steps forward for the depiction of LGBT characters on superhero TV shows. Coming off a year where sci-fi and fantasy TV took multiple knocks for employing negative LGBT stereotypes and killing off LGBT characters (see: the "bury your gays" trope), and already the new TV season is feeling like a huge step forward.

At the very least, it's a step back in the right direction.

So for those of you who don't have two TVs going at the same time (or aren't able to keep up with the approximately 3 billion comic book based TV shows currently being aired), what happened? Well, I'll tell you what happened, and thanks so much for asking.

For months, producer Greg Berlanti has been teasing that a "significant" character on one of his shows (he's the man behind the so-called Arrowverse, which includes CW shows Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl) would be exploring their sexuality (not including the animated spin-off show The Ray, which will have a gay lead).

Turns out, by all indications from Monday's episode of Supergirl, that character is Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), Supergirl's adoptive sister. Meeting -- and working with -- openly lesbian detective Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima), Alex has a few flirty encounters and is left on a wistful note, as the recently single Sawyer leaves to go on a date.

It's entirely possible this might not be the LGBT pairing Berlanti promised, but Danvers' sexuality has never been defined on the show -- she went on a few dates last season with Peter Facinelli's Maxwell Lord, but that was usually more about distracting him from his villainous plans -- and it's certainly a missed opportunity if the show sets up the possibility of this relationship, without following through.

Having a character (particularly an original character) like Danvers explore her sexuality isn't new for TV, or even groundbreaking. But given the usually straight, white, male-focused storylines inherent in superhero mythology, every alternate take seems like a huge step forward.

Over on Gotham, which airs at the same time as Supergirl on Fox, it was far more firmly taking that step. During Season 2 of the show, fans freaked out (in a good way) about the engaging chemistry between The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), aka the Riddler, when the two ended up temporarily sharing an apartment. Fans called it "Gotham's best bromance," and asked for more.

This season, they got more. Way more than some fans had bargained for, in fact. First by breaking Nygma out of Arkham Asylum, then making him Penguin's chief of staff (Penguin was recently elected mayor of Gotham), the show has shown the two growing closer over the past few weeks.

The cues have not been subtle. Long, drawn-out glances in front of a roaring fire. Quivering, wet lips in close-ups. Embraces, hugs and everything but a kiss or a profession of love. Gotham has always been arch and gothic, though, so you could have read the bromance either way. Honestly, sometimes Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) looks the same way at a book.

As of this week's episode, though, you can officially upgrade the bromance to romance. Penguin tries multiple times to tell Nygma how he feels, ultimately inviting him to his house for dinner. Nygma offers to pick up a bottle of wine, and while Penguin is waiting, he practices, telling the empty chair in front of him that he loves him. Nygma, not the chair.

As soap operas are wont to do (and superhero shows are nothing if not soap operas with science-fiction flourishes), Nygma encounters the identical twin of his dead ex-girlfriend, so Penguin is left practicing alone to his empty chair. We don't know if Nygma reciprocates, if the duo will strike up a relationship, or what will happen next.

But Penguin's open admission that he's in love with another man is a huge step forward for the genre. It's not that superhero TV shows haven't had LGBT characters before -- far from it. The Arrowverse has a healthy handful, including the openly bisexual Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) and committed gay man Curtis Holt (Echo Kellum); Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had gay Inhuman Joey Gutierrez (Juan Pablo Raba); Jessica Jones featured married, then divorced lesbian Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss). Heck, even Gotham has had a major bisexual character since the first season, as Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) has fluidly moved back and forth between a bevy of women and her "true love" James Gordon (Benjamin McKenzie).

Even if you use their superhero names, though, White Canary, Mr. Terrific, or, uh, Joey Gutierrez are hardly household names. The Penguin and Riddler are household names. They've been featured in movies, cartoons, are all over toys and T-shirts. Yet to make such a big move on the show feels like a completely natural evolution for the characters, versus a forced plotline to shock and awe fans. It's a shot across the bow at the heteronormative character arcs that have defined superhero TV shows, and the comics, for decades.

Less so for Supergirl's Danvers, who while ably played by Leigh is hardly the most recognizable character on the show (that would be Supergirl). But Supergirl has a very different audience and focus than the other Arrowverse shows -- and Gotham -- which aim to capture more of an adult feel and audience. Supergirl is thematically focused to a fault on exploring what it means to be a young woman growing up in the world. To examine the experience of love through an LGBT lens is a huge part of our world, and while it would have been a bigger move to allow Supergirl herself to have the relationship -- particularly as the second season premiere spent a lot of time having her halt her pursuit of her first-season crush because "something had changed" -- it's arguably more important to responsibly show the journey than who is taking it (though it should have been Supergirl).

Regardless, in both cases we'll have to see where the plotlines go next. Maggie and Alex may never get together, or might finally hook up, and then one of them dies (that would be the dreaded "bury your gays" trope mentioned earlier, which happens far too often). Penguin's one LGBT moment could be that lonely dinner table admission.

I sincerely hope not. What superheroes and comic books do better than any other genre is to help process huge emotional moments in life through the lens of superpowers, epic villains and epic fights. Like musicals, which have to drive their characters emotionally to a place where it feels necessary and natural to burst into song, it's same for superhero shows: the execution may often be blunt (sometimes literally), but ultimately its easy to understand and relate to because of the metaphorical aspects. Like IRL when you go through a big life change -- whether it's coming out, dealing with the death of a loved one, or just falling in love for the first time -- the emotions are huge. These things have happened to millions of people before, and millions of people after, but this is the first time they're happening to you.

Having a superhero -- or villain -- to relate to, can only help.

Supergirl airs on The CW on Mondays at 8/7c. Gotham airs on Fox on Mondays at 8/7c.

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS, one of the CW's parent companies.)