"The Great North" Makes A Big Splash For Queer Representation

The episode "Pride & Prejudance Adventure" is a brilliant example of how there are still queer storylines that have never quite been told before.

“The Great North,” a sparkling brand-new series from Fox animation, recently wrapped up its first season. It was created by Minty Lewis, (writer for “Regular Show” and “Close Enough,”) Wendy Molyneux, and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin (writers for “Bob’s Burgers.”) They, along with Loren Bouchard are executive producers. Fans will notice a similar writing approach, art style, and character design as “Bob’s Burgers.” However, the show has been able to differentiate itself in important ways.

One major difference beyond the Tobin family living in rural Alaska is the ages of the characters. With two older teens and one adult brother who’s living with a fiancée, there are automatically different storylines the Belcher kids were just too young to cover. 

There’s also the matter of the absent mother who abandons her family to move far away. This left some emotional baggage for the now-single-father Beef and his four children. The entire first season is full of clever episodes, and heartwarming moments as they navigate staying close as a family, but also finding their own room to grow as individuals. It’s also a genuinely funny comedy with a great voice cast including Nick Offerman, Jenny Slate, Will Forte, and Dulcé Sloan.   

One place “The Great North” really made its mark was “Pride & Prejudance Adventure.” This episode shows what television can do when queer storylines are handled tremendously well. 

The episode follows sixteen-year-old Judy Tobin who is determined to ask her established-from-episode-one crush to a school dance. This isn’t just any school dance though, it’s the Thomas Wintersbone Memorial Ladies’ Choice Dance. Judy tells her plans to ask Crispin Cienfuegos, as well as the origin story of the tradition, to her imaginary friend Alanis Morissette… who appears in the Aurora Borealis as would totally make sense for the show.    

Back in the 19th century, with a single-room schoolhouse and harsher living conditions, schoolteacher Thomas Wintersbone wanted to marry groundskeeper, Ruby Wrench. The plan was to live in two separate cabins because as the saying goes “their love couldn’t be contained by just one cabin.”

Ruby’s father objected, finding Thomas to have too much of an “indoor disposition” to be a good provider, and gave him a test to survive a month in the Alaskan wilderness. Thomas "died in a blizzard almost immediately.” Ruby never married and instead spent the rest of her life in one cabin with her best friend Anne.   

Judy Tobin Thomas Wintersbone Memorial Ladies' Choice Memorial Dance The Great North
Image Source: LezWatch.TV

"The Great North” writer Charlie Kelly did an interview for the Gayest Episode Ever podcast and said, “I think for a lot of people, and especially queer people when they watch the episode, they know from the very first flashback where Judy’s describing the myth of Thomas and Ruby to Alanis that Thomas and Ruby were gay. It’s pretty much there for us to know.”

The town rewriting this history led to the tradition of a girls’ choice dance with any boy who isn’t invited having to stand outside for an hour “in homage to Thomas.”

Before going further into the episode, it’s worth noting just how Ham was established as a gay character, and how his “coming out” was very much not an issue. 

In the first episode, Beef is angry about the family “drifting apart” after Judy gets a job at the mall, and at the height of tension even more secrets are revealed. Ham chooses this moment to pile on by saying, “Also… I am gay.” Younger brother Moon speaks for everybody by saying, “Ham, we know. You’ve come out to us a bunch of times.” Beef then says, comedically still in the tone from the argument, “And we love you just the way you are, damn it.” 

It's not a plot device. It's one line. It's a piece of his already fleshed-out character. It sounds simple, but as writer Charlie Kelly told Pride.com, "a lot of TV treats queerness in characters as a source of drama or emotional tension, and it's really exciting to work on something where that's just not the case."

In the next scene of “Pride & Prejudance Adventure,” the Tobins talk about the dance at the breakfast table and Honeybee asks her brother-in-law-to-be, “Any special guys caught your eyes?” Ham’s answer is no, and here we establish that even though he wouldn’t have minded waiting outside with the “left-behinds,” he’ll be invited in by his cousin Becca who’s in town.     

Judy and her crush Crispin work at the town mall. Judy asks him to the dance at the end of her shift when Ham is there to pick her up. Crispin actually brings up the dance first to ask if Ham is going after it’s clear to the audience he and Ham share a romantic spark.

Pride and Prejudance The Great North Crispin Judy Ham mall scene
Image Source: LezWatch.TV

When Judy officially asks him, Crispin establishes that Ham will go with Cousin Becca, and he can go with Judy, but he and Ham will really be going together. 

Judy does not pick up on this however and is thrilled that her crush is going to the dance as her date. 

The next few scenes are comical and endearing, as Judy treats Crispin as a date would… all the while he and Ham are clearly flirting.   

The audience can see what Judy can’t, and while she’s wrong, she’s not in the wrong. Ham and Crispin are also not annoyed by her being there but are just too captivated by each other to really pay attention to her. 

This carries on until the dance when ultimately Crispin fakes needing a bathroom break to get Judy to leave him alone with Ham on the dancefloor. Ham and Crispin then share a super sweet first kiss. Judy sees this, however, and her innocent delusion is shattered.

Image Source: Fox

Judy is never mad at her brother for being with Crispin and is rather just upset when things don’t turn out to be how she thought.

Out in the hallway, Judy has a conversation with a poster of Thomas Wintersbone, and he tells her the true story behind the dance. He and Ruby were never in love. They were both gay and decided to marry each other to avoid persecution. Poster Thomas explains to Judy that rewriting the truth was not unlike what she was doing to Ham and Crispin, who deserve a proper love story.

It’s not definitive one way or another whether it is all Judy’s imagination and she comes to a new understanding all on her own, or if she is truly visited by a spirit who could properly explain things.

According to the Charlie Kelly interview on the Gayest Episode Ever podcast, it’s “a way to kind of verbalize and activate this realization that she’s having inside herself, and that the people in this town should have had a very long time ago. I think that’s probably where some of the comedy of him being like, ‘girl wake up’ comes from. It’s very obvious that that’s the truth of this town myth.”

Judy then pulls the fire alarm to get everyone outside. She announces to everyone the true story of the dance, and how the tradition shouldn’t stand when there was never really a love story, only two people who couldn’t be themselves. 

Side note: Why is pulling a fire alarm under false pretenses such a casual thing in media? In real life, it’s actually a HUGE deal. 

Anyway, Judy uninvites Crispin so Ham can properly be his date instead. We end with everyone happily dancing together in the gym. 

This is such a genuinely well-done episode, and only gets better the more you think about it. Within the categories of the show, it can be filed away under "sibling-relationship episode." Yet, this is also a “special episode” of a sitcom, even if it doesn’t feel that way… and that’s kind of the point. 

It’s so nicely done in fact, it’s worth remembering what other “gay episodes” were like from the sitcoms that came before it.  

Take, for instance, the 1997 episode of “The Simpsons,” “Homer’s Phobia.” The Simpsons meet John (played by John Waters) owner of a kitschy knickknack and collectibles shop in the Springfield Mall. Homer invites him to dinner and they dance to records. The family likes him for his unique taste and his pop culture knowledge. John finds the Simpsons charming from a "camp" viewpoint in how they truly conform to the American "2.3 kids" family model. 

Homer's Phobia season 8 John Waters Simpsons
Image Source: Fox

The following morning Homer tells Marge he wants to invite John and his wife over for drinks. Marge says she “doesn’t think he’s married,” and asks Homer, "Didn't John seemed a little... festive to you?” When Homer finally gets it, he’s horrified and panics at the thought of a gay man who danced with him. Homer claims his distrust isn't "because he's gay," but rather because he's a "sneak" who didn't "let everyone know that's he's... that way."   

Later John comes over again to have coffee with Marge, and Homer notices Bart imitating him (dancing in a wig he brought.) This is sort of a “last straw” for Homer, and he confronts John to tell him he’s “taking back" his son. 

Homer's phobia John Waters The Simpsons season eight
Image Source: Fox

The rest of the episode is full of increasingly ludicrous ways to “set Bart straight,” after Homer fears the way John’s influence is affecting Bart. This comes from a desire to “protect” Bart, but Homer’s reactions are all drawn in such a way that no one would leave the episode thinking he’s acting rationally or modeling good behavior. 

In the end, Homer comes around to respect John (but only after John saves his life,) and ultimately tells Bart, “Any way you choose to live your life is okay with me.” 

John is a one-off character but is at least still a little fleshed-out for a one-time appearance. His being gay isn’t seen as negative, and isn’t played off as the punchline. The episode, airing in the late ’90s, came at a time when explicit LGBT representation was scarce and won a GLAAD Award and an Emmy.

As explained by Dr. Bryan Wuest, who has a Ph.D. from UCLA in cinema and media studies, as a guest on the Gayest Episode Ever podcast, Homer demonstrated a popular strategy used in sitcoms at the time, which was to “have a protagonist who’s the audience surrogate who has some discomfort with homosexuality and then comes around to it at the end, and it gives…people who aren’t quite sure where they stand with it an entry point.” It’s a roadmap for an emotional journey that the audience might get to have too.

There are even recent examples in television doing a less extreme version of this, such as in “This Is Us,” or “One Day at a Time,” where a mother of course accepts her gay daughter who recently came out, but later confesses to other characters, it’s still a bit of an adjustment.

Obviously, it’s important that there are episodes like this on television. They are still needed, and provide that same entry viewpoint to parents (or anyone for that matter) who want to be supportive, but need a little time to adjust.  

“The Great North” did not make that episode, however. There was no “entry point,” no family member that really needed to be convinced of anything… just simply an outdated tradition, and a realization of who should really be whose date to the dance. The enemy here is subtle heteronormativity, and the rewriting of history to make a story more palatable.    

Image Source: Fox

In short, "Pride & Prejudance Adventure" is a beautiful episode that reminds us that there are so many more LGBT stories out there to tell, especially from the main characters. It also shows that not every story has to come from either conquering homophobia head-on or from a world where homophobia doesn’t exist and never did exist. Both types of stories are important and need to be told, but it’s wonderful and remarkable we got to hear a story that is neither of these things. 

Let’s hope for a future with more of these stories, and applaud “The Great North” for giving the world this one.

Kaydee is a writer who is always looking for her next favorite show. She also loves journaling, graphic novels, and late night comedy.

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