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ABC's Brothers & Sisters Tackles HIV/AIDS and the Over-50 Crowd

By Kellee Terrell

May 19, 2010

With May sweeps coming to an end, it's network television tradition to throw in, out of nowhere, cliffhangers that draw you back to a new season in the fall. ABC's Emmy-winning Sunday night drama, Brothers & Sisters, was no exception to that rule. The season finale on May 16 pulled out all the stops with a multi-car pile-up; the death of Rob Lowe's character; and the revelation that Ron Rifkin's character, a 70-something gay man, tested HIV positive.

After Elton's Brent Hartinger reported on the show's May 16 season finale:

Saul is contacted by an old friend (and one-time romantic interest) via Facebook. When Kevin and Scotty casually point out from the friend's profile that he's been living with AIDS for many years, it leads Saul to admit that he's never actually been tested for the virus that causes AIDS.

Saul admits that, decades earlier, he had had a series of random, unprotected sexual encounters that resulted because of widespread ignorance about the facts of HIV/AIDS and his own deeply internalized shame.

After much prompting by the Walker family, Saul finally agrees to get tested. At the testing center, he learns that it is possible to carry the virus for many years without showing symptoms of the disease (and that HIV-infection rates are currently rising among the elderly thanks to sexual enhancement drugs).

Later, after phoning in to get the results of his test (something not allowed in most testing centers), Saul tells the family that he is fine, that he has tested negative.

But the family is later involved in a car crash at the end of the episode -- an accident that ends up taking Robert McCallister's life. Saul is injured as well and is bleeding, but when Kevin approaches to help him, he says, "Don't touch me! You can't."

While the whole blood-phobia scene at the end irked me a bit, I do agree with Hartinger that it is good to see HIV/AIDS on the small screen. Over the years, network and cable television has tackled the subject on many shows, including St. Elsewhere, ER, Commander in Chief, Life Support and Queer as Folk, to name a few.

But as Hartinger notes, it's been five years since we have had an HIV-positive character regularly appearing in a primetime series. And as we approach AIDS's 30th anniversary, it's necessary to have more media representations to not only raise awareness, but to affirm that real people are in the United States living with this virus. HIV should not just be a concept employed as a cautionary tale; that does little to fight stigma or make HIV relevant to the general public. Hopefully, Brothers & Sisters will do more with this issue.

It 's also refreshing to see a storyline that deals with a fast-growing, yet highly ignored group of newly diagnosed people in this country -- men and women over the age of 50. Over the past 10 years, researchers have had their eye on this demographic. Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned public health officials and the public that the number of people over 50 living with and being newly diagnosed with HIV appears to be rising, but public health campaigns remain largely focused on the young.

Past studies have found that almost half of people absorb health-related facts they see on TV. Perhaps this show can have an impact on older viewers to talk to their doctors about their risk of contracting HIV, use condoms and get tested.

But before we give Brothers & Sisters major props, keep in mind that it's unknown where the writers are going to take this next season. Will they tackle real issues that people living with HIV face, such as disclosure, stigma and side effects from meds? Or will they fall flat like many other shows have in the past? What I do know for sure is that ABC succeeded in getting me to tune in this October to find out.

See Also
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More About HIV on Television


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