We are living in a new Golden Age of television. Anyone with an internet connection can watch nearly anything he wants, when he wants to. Premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime led the way, Netflix and Amazon are offering increasingly provocative shows – in particular Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle which is about the most disturbing television I’ve ever watched. Facing stronger competition, network TV programming, which was painfully homogenized and bland even 15 years ago, is competing by becoming more daring and embracing higher production values. Compare even the most spectacular programming of the 1990s, such as the Star Trek franchise, with a typical program today. There’s no doubt that today’s shows give screenwriters greater freedom and put the money on the screen to bring their vision to life. It’s small wonder that film actors are increasingly moving to television.
Nowhere is this more evident than in television’s treatment of LGBT characters. Until the late 1990s, when LGBT people appeared at all, they were stereotypes of one stripe or another: the effeminate queen, the nobly suffering person with AIDS, the bull-dyke, the tragi-comic transgender. There was another seen from time to time: the young person – almost invariably male – discovering that he’s “different” and beginning to come out. For me, the most memorable example was ABC’s Consenting Adult, which stared Martin Sheen and Marlo Thomas as the parents of a young man, Jeff, played by Barry Tubb. Based on a 1975 novel, the film aired in February 1985, about a month before I turned 18. My mother and I watched together, and afterward I came out to her (I had already come out to my comparatively liberal grandmother a few months prior). Doubtless there were numerous young men and women who came out to their parents or friends as a result of this and similar films. Much of Consenting Adult was from the parents’ point of view, which was clever as it prepared many real-life parents for the emotional turmoil which could arise if a child came out – and let’s not kid ourselves, in those early terrifying years of AIDS, learning your son was gay was on the same level emotionally as learning your son had cancer – as Sheen’s character says in one scene. In its way, the film was groundbreaking – particularly one scene in which Jeff tells his mother what it’s like for him to desire another man. But, as was often the case, Consenting Adult was talky, slow moving, and obviously filmed on a shoestring budget – even by the standards of 80s TV.
Today, gay characters are everywhere on TV. One could limit oneself to shows with gay characters and still have a full viewing card. Modern Family, How to Get Away with Murder, Riverdale, The Real O’Neals, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Mr. Robot, Sense8, Transparent, and many more have LGBT primary or supporting characters.
Last week, ABC aired When We Rise, an eight hour miniseries nominally based on Cleve Jones’ book of the same title. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, a brilliant writer, has masterfully woven a complex tapestry together, keeping the narrative flowing across the span of 45 years. Each character has an individual arc, but not at the sacrifice of narrative flow or historical accuracy - as just about every character is based on a real person. The performances are uniformly excellent, but a few stand out: Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce, who portray Cleve Jones at different stages of his life. As much as an ensemble series can have a core character, it’s Cleve. We see him grow from teenager coming to terms with his sexuality, to liberated young gay man, to protégé activist, mentor, and elder statesman. Also noteworthy are Emily Skegs and Mary-Louis Parker as Roma Guy, Michael K. Williams as an older Ken Jones, who struggles against discrimination and his own addictions, and Rafael de la Fuente’s gentle, soft-spoken Ricardo. John Rubinstein only appears in one scene, but makes the most of his small role as Dr. Charles Socarides, a homophobic psychologist who learns his own son, Richard, is gay. (As a sidenote, Richard Socarides is played by his own younger brother, Charles.) The production is rich in symbolism, from the emergence of the rainbow flag as the banner of LGBT liberation, to Harvey Milk’s bullhorn. Neither the actors nor the producers try to sanitize gay history by presenting characters as nobly suffering victims or blandly heroic activists. Each of the primary characters is three dimensional and behaves in a manner consistent with the era. The lesbians are wary of the gay men. Many of the gay men are highly promiscuous. Several of the characters casually use drugs and one becomes an addict. The production shows it all (within the bounds of network television): love scenes, street cruising, bathhouses; these were the reality of gay male life in the 1970s. The closed minded and provincial will not respond positively to When We Rise. Nor, I suspect, will some of the more assimilationist in the gay community who are content to go to the Human Rights Campaign’s black tie parties. The ineffectual blandness of HRC comes under some welcome scrutiny here, as Cleve navigates the chasm between them and the more confrontational groups like ACT-UP – while keeping his own brand of activism intact.
This is also the first made for TV effort about LGBT people I've seen that has real production value - it's like watching a big budget film, with the exception of some brief attempts to shoehorn the cast with real historical figures using CGI which don’t quite come off. But for the most part, the viewer is transported into the characters’ lives and times.
ABC deserves credit for airing When We Rise, with a considerable and unapologetic publicity wind-up, and for granting the production the budget necessary to make it work. ABC seems to be a leader among the big-3 networks in featuring gay characters, a trend I hope continues regardless of the political direction the country takes. Despite today’s move toward streaming video, if When We Rise is issued on blu-ray I shall certainly support the production by buying a copy.