R. Kelly's Weird Trapped in the Closet and Its Weirder Gay EmpathyS

"Did Chuck have AIDS?" someone off camera asks Rufus as he's storming out of frame. The setup is a candid interview, maybe for a reality show, maybe for a Maury-like talk show, and Rufus, a pastor, is refusing to answer questions about the man his wife caught him cheating with chapters and chapters ago in R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet saga.

The cultish Trapped began as a five-song suite at the end of Kelly's TP.3 Reloaded. It integrated modern salaciousness into an old-time radio show format, generally sung from the perspective of Kelly's Sylvester character whose affair with Mary (later to be revealed as Cathy) pushed him temporarily in the closet when her husband arrived home. He eventually came out, literally, as did Cathy's husband Rufus figuratively (with the reveal of Chuck as his lover) and from there the story ballooned with a seemingly unending capacity for ridiculousness. A series of videos was released for the first 12 chapters, and then in 2007, parts 13 through 22 were released. Over the series' course, over two dozen characters were introduced.

Trapped in the Closet is so soapy it starts to blur your vision of exactly what is happening after a while. A new, exhausting batch of chapters last night were unveiled to a reverent audience at New York's Landmark Sunshine. (They'll premiere Friday on IFC.) The crowed hooted and cackled along as one segment bled to the next (I paid close attention and I have no idea what chapter we left off on). The AIDS question, delivered to sound like a joke just before a segue to a new scene, elicited the quietest response because it was a cosmopolitan crowd who knew better. I was tempted to boo at the stereotypical association of queer men and AIDS.

But then I realized that this was an irreverent reference to the last chapter we saw five years ago, 22, which ended on a whisper-down-the-lane style dialogue amongst virtually all of the series' characters regarding a "package" that they heard Chuck had received, a seeming reference to HIV. The turn seemed to perpetuate the myth of downlow culture and its role in HIV-spreading, with Chuck being the assumed Patient Zero of this pool. It sounds distasteful, but, as the Sexist's Amanda Hess pointed out in 2009:

The series' continual "blame game" reveals a far more insightful truth: Everybody is responsible, and everyone is quick to blame everybody else. Those who blame their partners for infidelity, casual sex, and homosexual activity are all people in no position to pass judgment on infidelity, casual sex, or homosexual activity.

Trapped in the Closet is an equal-opportunity offender. There are "bitches," a little person referred to as a "midget," characters whose old age renders them buffoons, a reverend who's so intent on selling his book, he claims that it's second only to the Bible. Depravity abounds. If it's not exactly sensitive to gays ("Who would ever thought the bitch was dykin'?" wonders Sylvester character regarding Tina's relationship with her butch coworker Roxanne), it's because it's not exactly sensitive.

Trapped in the Closet, though, has a tone that resembles one of traditionally gay pop culture. Its lack of political correctness accompanies a presentation that amounts to a sort of lip-synced drag (R. Kelly sings the words of all of these characters, often in an agitated back-and-forth with himself, and as a result, all of the women in this world have a man's voice). The series is hilarious melodrama, and intentionally so. After the screening, R. Kelly participated in a brief Q&A in which he obliterated all questions of intent when it comes to Trapped's humor: "I don't have a job, so I just sit in the studio all day and think of stupid stuff to do," he told the crowd. "And this is just something stupid that I've done that's been successful for me and I've been having a lot of fun with it."

That is to say that he elected to be camp, a sensibility rooted and forever intertwined with gayness. Is it any wonder that he received an offer from Broadway?

It's weirdly appropriate that the character of Chuck is treated with an uncommon empathy. While his married object of desire wrestles with the demon of his same-sex attraction, attempting to work it out with his wife in front of a therapist (one of the seven characters played by R. Kelly in this new batch of chapters) who gently scolds Rufus for his homosexual affair "despite the fact that you know every word in the Bible," we see no such internal struggle from Chuck. Every other character has something underhanded, if not criminal, underpinning their dalliances but Chuck is just a dude in love that misses his man and cries about in the most emotionally straightforward section of the series (during Chapter 18). Perhaps Trapped is suggesting that Chuck's homosexuality makes his crime is inherent, but his emotions are the purest and most earnest in a universe that is perpetually giggling at itself. The love that Chuck has for Rufus is portrayed and accepted as actual love.

The humanity extended to Chuck may be the weirdest thing about this exercise in weirdness. Will he end up with Rufus? Will he reveal a rotten core like the rest of his counterparts? Does he have HIV and will he be demonized as a result? It's the cliffhanger I'm most excited and scared to see resolved.