Do I Want to Marry Cary Dubek, or Do I Want to Be Cary Dubek?
Michael Colbert on finding his queer television doppelgänger on HBO’s “The Other Two”
Cary Dubek becomes a gay icon overnight. He doesn’t do anything to earn his acclaim; his thirteen-year-old viral pop star brother, Chase Dreams, sings his second hit about him. “My Brother’s Gay and That’s Okay!” goes from gay hit to “no Moonlight” to Tomi Lahren catnip to camp. After a wild day of internet fame, Cary and his sister Brooke celebrate at a gay bar. An old theater friend approaches Cary, tickled by the video. He says he didn’t know that Cary is gay. Without thinking, Cary replies, “Oh, thanks.” Thus unfold many situations on the HBO series The Other Two, a sitcom about Chase’s jealous older siblings trying to make it in New York.
Cary (Drew Tarver) waits tables and wants to act, booking a role smelling farts in a cat food commercial. Brooke (Heléne Yorke) used to dance and is figuring out her next career move. Created by former head SNL writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, the series flaunts an absurd sensibility and a much smarter commentary than what SNL serves up around midnight.
Cary captured my affection. He’s an adorable, awkward otter that I felt an affinity for through his deadpan disaffection. We present similarly, too: dry and sarcastic, scruffy and strong eyebrows, mostly masculine and sneakily shy. More significantly, his attitude toward his sexuality resonated with me. Chaperoning a school dance, Cary hits it off with the school drama teacher, Jeremy. Jeremy came out in tenth grade. Cary admits he didn’t until his senior year of college, to which Jeremy replies, “Oh, ewww.”
Identifying alternately as bisexual or queer, I came out later, confused by the innominate blend of feelings I’d felt for various people. I often brace myself during the coming out talk on dates with gay men. He came out in middle school, had known, forever, who he was. Would he judge me for taking so long to know who I am?
I grimaced when Cary thanks the guy at the bar for not thinking he was gay. But I knew, too, how often I’d said nothing in similar circumstances. Cary just doesn’t get away with it. When you’re bisexual, people often assume you’re actually gay or straight, that maybe there’s some simpler self you can’t admit. At a wedding, a relative asks if there’s a special guy. I feel seen, my sexuality acknowledged by extended family. I feel weirdly pigeonholed, too. The dog trainer says we can roll out some of our new tricks for me to pick up chicks. I never correct people. Closeted, these comments would have descended me into a well of self-doubt and dread, but now it’s an eye roll, a shrug or squirm. They’re correct in some sense, right? Raised Catholic, I feel the heat of guilt. Being queer and out, it’s not so much outright lying, but lying by omission. An “Oh, thanks,” you realize, is pretty fucked up to actually say out loud.
I’ve been out for years. I’ve been to gay bars and a bathhouse, albeit under the security of a monogamous relationship with my first boyfriend’s guidance. Yet watching Cary in the bar, I knew there were some scars I probably needed to examine.
My boyfriend and I met the easiest way: we were friends first. I’d been out to myself for years at that point but had never given my gay feelings pure oxygen. After we broke up, I lurched back onto the dating scene, ticking on Tinder my interest in men for the first time (in earnest, let’s be honest). I approached dating men the way I’d always known how with women, only modifying my behavior to account for the pandemic. We’d complete a first-date interview over virtual drinks, kindling a romantic connection. I thrilled under this attention. There were really men out there who were interested in me and found me attractive.F
These dates would end with a discussion of what we were looking for. Many of my dates had joined Tinder seeking long-term relationships. The thought of getting into something immediately made me queasy, but when they asked, I’d demur, “I’m not really looking for a relationship, but I’m open to seeing where things go.” Sometimes I’d flake, or we would keep meeting on virtual dates. They wanted to explore. I didn’t, which I’d been open about, but I’d keep going out just in case things changed. Unsettled by what felt like a power imbalance, I felt disingenuous, a liar. Who was I?
Realizing I needed not just to get back out there but also to learn how to enter the gay world alone, I began looking for models of gay life. I did what any millennial with social media would naturally do, and turned to the Instagays the algorithm had been convinced I would stan. These accounts made me miserable. They flaunted a coupledom I had just lost. My apartment has cockroaches instead of a fan favorite goldendoodle. Men with devastating abs work out together while I can only take ironic selfies as a post-run sweat monster. Watching The Other Two, I see Cary not so far from me in my doom scrolling. He’s making missteps in the gay dating world as he comes to openly embrace his sexuality. And within all of this, the show’s humor is cause for joy and celebration.
Nothing is sacred in The Other Two. The parody is so finely tuned that we can see everybody has gone a bit crazy in this media-hungry world. One moment, a group of Instagays might have us in stitches. The next, our laughter dials up a few painful notches when an agent tells Cary, “I’m literally gagging for you, f****t,” or an acting teacher yells that gay sex is all about shame. Cary books the role smelling the fart in the commercial only after he drops his voice an octave; it would be too much if he was at a party, smelling a fart and gay.
As Cary buckles under the demands of the acting world, he invites Jeremy to Chase’s fourteenth birthday party. Cary’s hair has gotten poofier, streaked blond. In a last-ditch effort to “get jacked fast” before bartending shirtless on Watch What Happens Live, Cary got a spray tan that has yet to fade. Brooke tells her ex and friend, Lance, that Cary’s going through something, he’s “a bit orange” inside.
I hadn’t turned orange yet, but I recognized my behavior in Cary on that date—high off of recognition, fundamentally disconnected from the person he’s with. All night with Jeremy, Cary acts like an asshole, obsessed with his trajectory to recognition. After one rude comment too many, Jeremy leaves. He tells Cary that the guy he’d met a month ago would make fun of him today. “It feels like you don’t really know who you are right now.”
Months into my riveting virtual dating life, I was sitting in therapy, fundamentally frustrated by what I was going through. My therapist gets me with her metaphors. She told me sometimes people put up an ad at a racquetball court saying they’re looking for a partner. So you find a partner and then one of you wants to go to competitions and get more serious and the other doesn’t. Maybe I’d put up an ad for a racquetball partner and what I really wanted was to play racquetball. To mix my metaphors like the non-athlete I am, I’d put up too many bumpers. It was easier, safer, to approach dating as if I could one day be interested in something long-term as opposed to admitting I didn’t want that. Instead of defining my wants as not long-term, I needed a more robust vocabulary to articulate what I did want.
If the show’s first season brings Cary to deeper self-acceptance, the second season becomes even more beautifully complicated. More self-actualized, Cary realizes that he needs something else from his life right now.
Cary is with his first boyfriend, a sweet guy named Jess. It’s taken a lot for Cary to get here. His rejection of his straight roommate marks a major moment in which he declares he deserves more. At the second season’s opening, he feels dewy and doe-eyed; he’s so happy, he just says it to himself, “I have a boyfriend,” and a passerby immediately spits, “F****t.” The show’s humor, its vision of New York and the entertainment industry, acts as a crystal ball, the tenor of the jokes revealing Cary’s own complicated—and often unstated—feelings toward self-acceptance.
Quickly, his relationship with Jess is complicated. In one of the season’s best episodes, Cary’s mother, Pat (Molly Shannon), hosts a talk show and introduces a segment in which conservative dads accept their gay sons for a cash prize. Cary watches the day’s guests at the studio and spots them later at brunch with Jess. What they don’t know is that the father-son duo is a couple who found an opportunity in their age difference to cheat the system. At brunch, they decide to “do Grindr” and invite a third. Cary and Jess approach them to say hi and show what a “good gay couple” can be like.
They spend the day together, the two couples, plus the third who suddenly has to pass as another repressed son. After normie activities curated by Cary and Jess, they end up at a gay club. Cary confesses to the “dad” that his dad died before he could fully accept him—he even stopped coming to New York. The daddy kisses Cary. The kiss cracks something open for him. What has he never allowed himself to imagine he could want?
For years, I’d had this feeling that other people looked at me as if they knew who I really was. But I always did know who I was. Most likely, I wasn’t someone who would orange himself to bartend shirtless on Watch What Happens Live. (Most likely, who can say?) It wasn’t that I didn’t know who I was but that I’d never grasped the full extent of what I could want. The messaging I’d consumed was mainstream. Public opinion toward queer people has evolved, but the expectations are still hetero: now that we can get married, we should shut up and dissolve into mainstream society.
A weekend trip with Jess where they encounter a married Instagay catalyzes this realization for Cary, too. Breaking up with Jess, he delivers a monologue unlike any other I’ve seen on TV: “I don’t want to go to Disney Paris. I want to go to regular Paris and find some guy named Pierre on the street and blow him and never see him again. And I think I do want to use a butt plug. That sounds really hot to me. I think I’m just realizing I’ve only seen six dicks my whole life and three of them were straight and one of them is mine and one of them was so bad it shouldn’t even count. I don’t know, I feel like maybe I need to see more dicks before I settle down. I mean, shouldn’t I first see fifty dicks and then there will be one dick that’s like, that’s the dick for me?”
Cary’s story in the second season becomes one of gay discovery; he begins defining himself and his desires in relation to all the queer possibilities he encounters. He has his first Grindr hookup, wrestles his phone in an airplane bathroom to send a butthole picture to a guy he’s talking to. That Cary explores this on screen felt particularly validating after my racquetball discovery. I ignored Tinder, favoring the gay dating apps. I stopped defining what I wanted in the negative—against long-term—and learned to speak a language I’d never known: “looking” and “into” and all manner of acronyms. Just like Cary, I could embrace these desires and all they entailed—photos and Grindr and “preparing” for gay dates.
The rules I’d designated to meaningfully explore gay dating for the first time were written by my past self who’d dated straight and sought monogamy. I have so few friends who are queer men, so while I could certainly discuss my dating life with other friends, I felt there was some lack of solidarity or acute understanding of what Grindr and gay open relationships are like. Cary Dubek—for his presentation, his messy feelings, Tarver’s own bisexuality—became my Virgil into a world I’d wanted to explore but couldn’t articulate why it daunted me. Plus, Cary has Brooke. Their relationship is one of the most poignant aspects of the show; they encourage each other to be unabashedly themselves. Recognizing I can talk about my experiences with my friends, gay or straight, I’ve come to find the journey is gritty, absurd, messy, joyful.
Dating around in the gay world, my wants evolved. I could find connection in different forms of relationships, and I could be open in discussing all this with others, both friends and romantic partners. I could shed the shame and join the other fish in our queer sea.
As a lapsed Catholic, I might still respond to knee-jerk judgements. But the most powerful impression the church left on me was shame. We can talk about how we’ve erred in confession, but otherwise should feel small, guilty. I’d been out to friends and family for years, but it took an extra push for me to embrace my queer desires on queer terms.
The Other Two affirms that it’s as okay to connect with the scheming couple and their third as with Cary and Jess. There are so many ways to be gay. Opening up, I’ve found so much more possibility. Discovering the joy and absurdity in the world of queer dating, I’ve connected more with the gay men I meet. We can bond over the realities we understand. We can go out for a drink and maybe it’s romantic, or maybe we’re forming a chosen family, or experimenting with alternate modes of being together. I’ve found real possibility with all sorts of people and forms of relationships, and in them, the possibility to be open in talking about intimacy, sexuality, and the dating world which we know, together. The show has helped me become queerer on queer terms. I can say up front that I’m looking for something that might not “lead” anywhere, that might not look like a “successful” relationship. Even when I get invited to wedding after wedding without a plus one, I know I’m not alone. I can relish unconventional ways of being with someone because that’s what feels right.
Embracing and naming the discomfort has allowed me to better connect with the men I go out with, to find solidarity in a coalition. I can think a bit more dialectically. I can disagree, and assert myself without plunging into some crisis of identity. Alongside my Brookes and Carys, I can find the support I need to plant a flag, say what I want is worthy, good. So go ahead, send the butthole pic.