As he descends a staircase in the opening scene of “Vicious,” a new comedy making its PBS debut on Sunday, Ian McKellen overhears his lover, played by Derek Jacobi, reacting to bad news he received on the telephone.
“For a moment, I thought those high-pitched, piercing shrieks were coming from a gaggle of schoolgirls,” says Mr. McKellen’s character, a veteran actor named Freddie. “But now I see it’s just you.”
“Who do you think you are?” Mr. Jacobi’s character, Stuart, retorts. “The Earl of Grantham?”
If it is surprising to see esteemed actors like Mr. McKellen and Mr. Jacobitrading barbs in a traditional, multicamera sitcom recorded in front of a studio audience, “Vicious” further astonished British audiences, when it ran on ITV last year, with its very premise. It cast Mr. McKellen (of the “X-Men” and “Hobbit” movies) and Mr. Jacobi (“I, Claudius”) as two fussy, feuding partners in a gay relationship of nearly 50 years.
“Vicious” was successful enough to earn a second season, but it was also criticized by British publications like The Stage, which said that its “gay characters are nothing more than camp stereotypes” and that the scenarios “bear no resemblance to the lives of the viewers at home,” while The Guardian wrote that the series “cheerfully trades in clichés of homosexuality.”
As “Vicious” arrives in the United States, the debate over its depictions of gay men reopens an argument that has confronted American comedies like “Will & Grace,” “Glee,” “Modern Family” and other shows with gay characters.
Is a television character who exhibits stereotypically gay qualities a stereotype himself? Or does the presence of such figures demonstrate that TV is making progress on gay representation? And who gets to decide what attributes are offensive, or stereotypical or gay?
These are not necessarily the questions that Gary Janetti, the writer and executive producer of “Vicious,” was looking to examine in the series.
“Sometimes you just need a very simple, new relationship when you’re doing a sitcom,” said Mr. Janetti, who has written and produced “Will & Grace” and “Family Guy,” and who is gay. “It felt like we hadn’t seen this before.”
That, too, was the appeal to its leading men, who are both openly gay and have rarely worked together since they were students at Cambridge.
“The fact that it was about two old queens — that it was an out, fun, in-your-face, gay plot — added to the spice and the fun,” Mr. Jacobi said.
Still, among friends as well as critics, Mr. Jacobi acknowledged that “Vicious” had become “the Marmite comedy.”
“Marmite is a spread in England that you either love or loathe,” he explained, “and ‘Vicious’ brought with it a touch of the Marmite.”
It was 16 years ago that audiences found themselves similarly polarized by the first seasons of “Will & Grace,” which starred Debra Messing as a straight single woman and Eric McCormack as her gay best friend.
That NBC comedy also took flak for its depiction of Jack, a gay friend of Will’s played by Sean Hayes, who was loud, excitable and, to some viewers, an embodiment of overused gay traits.
“In my head, I was playing a guy who’s really silly and boisterous and happens to be gay,” said Mr. Hayes, who won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of the character. Even if Jack were straight, he added, “I would have played him the exact same way.”
If Jack was a gay stereotype because he was silly or extroverted, Mr. Hayes said, “there’s a huge list of stereotypical gay men in Hollywood who are straight: Jim Carrey, Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Steve Martin.” He added: “There’s a lot of mincing, campy straight guys that I know.”
Nearly two decades later, a similar debate still surrounds shows like ABC’s “Modern Family” and the characters Cameron and Mitchell, a married gay couple played by Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who have been derided by some viewers as flamboyant and effeminate.
Christopher Lloyd, a co-creator and executive producer of “Modern Family,” noted that the characters also possess numerous qualities that are not negatively or even commonly associated with gay men.
“Mitchell is a legal aid lawyer who avoids physical contact; Cameron is a high school football coach who yearns to return to hog-raising on his Missouri farm,” Mr. Lloyd wrote in an email.
“If that makes them a stereotypical gay couple,” he added, “then I’ve lost track of what the fight is about.”
“Yes, members of many minorities would like to see their ‘kind’ represented only in the most flattering light,” Mr. Lloyd wrote, “but a television landscape populated by nothing but flawless heroes would make it an even more barren landscape than it already is.”
The argument over these characters, say creators and critics, is not as simple as viewers saying they do not want to see gay people on TV. Rather, the debate has continued to evolve as the medium has become more inclusive and gay audiences have sought greater range and more nuance in their on-screen alter egos.
Mr. McKellen pointed to the venerable British sitcom “Are You Being Served?,” which originally ran in the 1970s and ’80s and can still be seen on PBS. It included an outrageously camp comic-relief figure, Mr. Humphries, played by John Inman, whose sexuality was never addressed — a reflection of an era when TV could not countenance openly gay characters.
“I didn’t find him funny,” Mr. McKellen said, “because he never said he was gay. It was all nudge-nudge, wink-wink. It was a character that was in the closet and, I thought, very sad.”
In more recent years, Matthew Breen, editor in chief of The Advocate and deputy editor at Out Magazine, said that TV viewers have also become accustomed to nontraditional gay characters like the strait-laced police captain played by Andre Braugher on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Fox) or the slovenly slacker portrayed by Adam Pally on the canceled series “Happy Endings” (ABC).
“It wasn’t like, ‘How can you portray all gay people as uncouth slobs?’ ” Mr. Breen said of Mr. Pally’s character. “He wasn’t representing a set of people.”
But when gay viewers see characters who still seem to exhibit outdated or clichéd behaviors, Mr. Breen said, “it harkens back to a time when it was really problematic to show openly gay characters.”
“It often triggers our — latent or otherwise — internal homophobia,” he said. “ ‘I don’t want to be viewed like that character. That’s not me. That’s not who I am.’ ”
Yet the shows perceived as exerting too much effort to avoid gay stereotypes have also come under fire, as happened this season to the HBO series “Looking,” a comedy-drama about gay men living in San Francisco.
Andrew Haigh, a writer, executive producer and director of the series, says he was acutely aware of criticism that its characters “weren’t queer enough.”
Mr. Haigh, whose films include “Weekend,” said he could understand this reaction from audience members whose “identity is very much based on being ‘other,’ and not being part of the mainstream.”
“That can be quite frustrating for some viewers,” he said, “that our characters are trying to find their place within the world, rather than to find a place separate from it.”
Billy Eichner, a comedian and host of the Fuse game show “Funny Or Die’s Billy on the Street,” said that certain stereotypically gay attributes were not necessarily harmful, and were irresistible to comedy writers.
“They’re loud,” Mr. Eichner said of these characters. “They tend to be outspoken and very clever, and have a very large sense of entitlement, which is always funny.”
For a series like “Will & Grace” to have lasted the eight seasons that it did, he said: “I don’t think people were laughing at it, like, ‘Oh, look how gay that guy is.’ That won’t carry you.”
What matters, Mr. Eichner added, is context. “There’s a way to make a flamboyant, bitchy character that’s also multidimensional,” he said. “If it’s handled like that, then it’s worth watching. If it’s not, then, like anything else that’s not as funny as it wants to be, it’s not.”
For all the controversy that has greeted “Vicious,” Mr. McKellen contended that it was doing something “rather radical.”
“It’s actually a sign that we’ve all matured, and now it’s perfectly respectable to have an exaggerated, farcical representation of two people who are gay,” Mr. McKellen said. “And for us to accept that they can be figures of fun, just in the same way as a farce about straight people would be.”
(Even so, Mr. McKellen and Mr. Jacobi asked that the title be shortened from the working one, “Vicious Old Queens,” which Mr. Jacobi said was “a bit too on the nail.”)
Mr. Janetti, the writer of “Vicious,” said he felt certain the characters were representative of “real people in the world, even though it’s a heightened world,” and that his own life gave him the authority to make this determination.
“Political correctness tells us that we can instantly dismiss something by saying, ‘Oh, it’s stereotypical,’ ” he said. “But I have many gay stereotypes that I fall into. I love musical theater. I love Barbra Streisand. What am I going to do?”
What makes for the most interesting television, Mr. Eichner said, is when creators make shows that reflect their authentic experiences.
“If someone wants to do an entertaining, compelling show about a bunch of gay guys who act like alpha males, no one’s stopping you from doing that,” he said. “Go do a web series and tweet me the link. I’ll gladly retweet it.”