In an age where great television can be consumed in a myriad of ways–on all the major networks, on basic cable, premium cable, streaming platforms, and YouTube–it’s impossible to watch everything. It’s hard to know why some shows break through the noise and catch on with audiences while others don’t. Certainly some of it is merit, but arguably some shows that find larger audiences don’t have as much to say as shows that struggle, and yet, they find themselves on air far longer than their meatier counterparts because their viewers show up week after week.
This weekend, several Shipping Room Podcast listeners asked me my thoughts on the relationship between Phillip (Tyler Young) and Lukas (James Paxton) on Eyewitness. The show is in the middle of its first season on USA Network and is struggling to find its audience. I hadn’t watched it yet, but I received these tweets within minutes of each other, and the coincidence of being asked the same question by different people so close together got me intrigued. It happened to be a Friday night when my kids were already asleep and my husband wasn’t home — a rare perfect storm of circumstances that allowed me to check out Eyewitness immediately.
I am so glad that I did. I’m still unsure how a show that is breaking such important ground managed to go six weeks without finding its way onto my radar. I found myself wondering all weekend why more people aren’t freaking out (in the best way possible) over this show and its central relationship.
It’s not that there haven’t been exceptional gay storylines on TV before. Shameless’s Ian and Mickey had a stunning arc that shattered stereotypes for four and a half seasons. Looking (and Queer as Folk before it) provided a world where gay relationships got to be the A, B, and C stories. The Fosters gave two male tweens the opportunity to share the youngest onscreen kiss in TV history.
All of these ‘ships have been groundbreaking in their own ways. Now Eyewitness comes along to move us forward even further; it combines all the previous progress and gives center stage to Phillip and Lukas, two teenage boys, on a show that is about far more than the two of them. Their developing relationship — and all the beauty and pain it encompasses — is the axis on which the whole show spins. It motivates the entire complicated plot, shaping the narrative in deep and compelling ways.
It’s not a perfect love story. It is filled with self-loathing, abusive behavior, and tons of confusion on both sides. It raises a lot of questions about how forgiving one should be of a young person struggling with intense internalized homophobia (reminiscent of Shameless’s Mickey). Lukas’s treatment of Phillip is, at times, excruciating to watch. But the show’s fans (and I count myself among them) are drawn to the electric chemistry between Young and Paxton, and the potential of the beautiful moments that exist in between the mess. Paxton’s ability to portray Lukas’s deep-rooted fear elicits empathy even when his behavior is infuriating. Young’s Phillip has the sexual self-confidence Lukas lacks, but his circumstances provide him with his own vulnerability that makes him particularly easy to care about.
Outside of this growing romance, there’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into. Eyewitness is the story of a small rural town rocked by a multiple homicide and a series of suspicious deaths that follow. The cast includes Julianne Nicholson, Gil Bellows, and Tattiawna Jones who all give tremendous performances each week. The relationship between Phillip and his foster parents (Nicholson and Bellows), as well as his impact on their marriage, is a particular highlight, underscored by the brilliant inclusion of a foster parent self-help book-on-tape that Nicholson’s Helen listens to throughout the series.
Eyewitness is a gem of a show that people simply aren’t watching. I feel fortunate that I discovered it and hope you’ll hurry up and find it, too. Phillip and Lukas are blazing a new trail in gay representation, and it’s important that we give them the space to do that. It’s 2016. It’s time.