American TV shows are rubbish when it comes to depicting gay relationships.
Take, for example, ABC’s “General Hospital.”
The long-running serial features a gay character who appears about once every two months to provide comic relief to his bestie.
The love of his life, his now ex-husband, a legacy character no less, has been working on another floor of the hospital and hasn’t been seen onscreen in two years.
Tokens and time-fillers. That pretty much sums up the wasteland of American TV.
Not so across the pond.
BBC’s “EastEnders” has been tearing up the screen – and building a loyal fanbase of followers across the world – with the story of Ben Mitchell and Callum Highway since 2019.
Ben Mitchell is a character who literally grew up on the show. The son of the local mob kingpin, he was abused and neglected as a child, struggled with his sexuality, and watched in horror as his first love was fatally gaybashed.
Now played as an adult by the astounding Max Bowden, Ben has a master’s degree in sarcasm, a chip on his shoulder the size of Scotland, and a deep-seated belief that he isn’t worth loving.
Callum Highway (Tony Clay), like Ben, had a monster for a father. The Army veteran was engaged to a woman and seemingly headed to a conventional soap supporting character life when he bought a used car from Ben.
That car turned out to be stolen, and when Callum blasted Ben, that showdown swerved when Ben clocked he wasn’t the only friend of Elton on the block.
“I smell queer,” Ben said.
From that crazy, shocking, now classic scene, “Ballum” – the fan shipping name for Ben and Callum – was born.
Ben and Callum have faced scores of challenges in the last three years: Callum’s coming out, Ben getting shot, Callum getting kidnapped, Ben going deaf, Callum trying to overcome Ben’s fears of a relationship, Callum joining the police force (and alarming his aspiring mobster boyfriend), Ben discovering his then fiance was working undercover to nail his father just days before their wedding, to name but a few crises they have endured.
Ballum works because Bowden and Clay work overtime to imbue their characters with authenticity, quirks, and nuances you’d expect from real people.
It’s telling that they’re just as good with the heavy drama as they are with light comedy. Some of their best moments swing on some light banter, or as, in a clip below, even when they’re just watching the telly themselves.
“EastEnders” took everyone to a dark place in 2022: Ben was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance.
Traumatized by the encounter, in denial for weeks, Ben spiraled into drugs and almost died.
His assailant gaslighted Callum and even Ben for a time into thinking that the encounter was consensual.
Believing Ben had betrayed him, Callum kicked Ben out of their home and later gave back his wedding ring.
When he finally learned the truth, Callum begged for Ben to give them another chance.
Ben sadly told him they were all out of chances and their marriage was over.
For viewers, the last several months have felt like an endless misery cruise. Bowden’s and Clay’s mighty performances made the voyage worthwhile.
And everyone wondered: Was this love story really over?
In recent weeks, it’s been one step forward, three steps and a fall down a flight of stairs backwards.
Callum supported Ben as he tried in vain to get justice from the legal system.
Mindful of his boundaries, Callum looked at Ben with love in his eyes.
Ben looked at Callum as if he was trying to pass a kidney stone.
But this week, jolted by a dire medical crisis for a loved one, Ben realized how fleeting life can be.
He raced to his husband’s home, and like a Romeo calling up to his Romeo, declared his love for him.
It’s a short scene, but what is remarkable about how much emotion Bowden and Clay pump into every second.
If only we had such rich, romantic storytelling here in the States.
Thankfully, you can watch the story of Ballum on YouTube. There are several channels devoted to clips, and even some incredible fan-made videos. Below you’ll find a few highlights.
Now this is a soap, so you can probably count on some new turmoil for Ballum on the next day of the week ending in the letter “y.”
“I smell queer.”
An already classic scene. Bowden drops a masterclass in acting, and “EastEnders” will never be the same.
Another confrontation goes completely off the rails. Bowden and Clay are fantastic as the public masks of the men fall. Ben and Callum reveal the depths of their loneliness and give into a passion that will mark the rest of their lives.
“I ain’t cancelling nothin’!”
Ben calls off the engagement after learning Callum was spying on his dad for the cops, but Callum stands his ground. Clay somehow manages defiance and contriteness at once. “So don’t do this to us. Please, please.” Who could ever say no to that?
“Where am I gonna go?”
Believing Ben has cheated on him, Callum tells Ben to move out. Clay captures the anguish of a man who can no longer bear the betrayal. Ben is imploding inside, and Bowden says so much with his eyes, the pain might rip your heart open.
The guys watch “Hannah Montana”
It’s one way to relax after sex.