Are we all waiting on gay television to mature? To sort of catch up to where we are as a community? It seems, too, that we as a group are still somewhat starved for representations of ourselves on the small screen. When I was a kid, we only had Billy Crystal on “Soap” or maybe Paul Lynde on “Bewitched” reruns. Things slowly began to improve, a gay made-for-TV movie here, a character’s gay brother makes a single-episode appearance there. Then suddenly we were treated to “Will & Grace,” and the troubled “Queer as Folk,” which seemed like “Will & Grace – After Hours.”
After all this, I had high hopes for Dustin Lance Black’s “When We Rise,” ABC’s four-part miniseries documenting the gay and lesbian rights movement. And why not, really? Gus Van Sant stepped in to direct. Mary-Louise Parker was there. So was Guy Pearce. And Black had shown his talents as a writer with “Milk.” But high hopes aside, “When We Rise” fell rather flat.
Though I very much appreciate what “When We Rise” was attempting, I couldn’t see past its problems. Its tone was preachy. Its messages about unity and strength in diversity landed like anvils. I stopped counting the clunky cliched lines like ‘we are stronger together,’ or ‘you don’t know how strong we are,’ or perhaps ‘strength. let’s get some and be strong with it together.’ All this gave way to some melodramatic moments. Beyond that, actors were switched out to play their role’s older counterparts, making the timeline rather confusing.
Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Friends complained about being bored a mere 30 minutes into the first episode. And viewership declined sharply nationwide after the first night. It could be, given what we’ve been given, that we simply expect less from gay television are are quick to change the channel to the myriad other options out there, gay or not gay. But it could also be that “When We Rise” wasn’t really gay television at all. That is, were we as gays and lesbians really the intended audience? Besides hearing from friends that the program was more or less yawn inducing, so too did I hear of them receiving loving text messages and teary voicemails from parents who had watched the entire series. Watched and learned. And before having done so they apparently had no idea that gay history was even really a thing to begin with, still too they had no real understanding as to just how fraught with peril the movement was up until very recently.
It did take some courage for ABC to show this history to a primetime audience. But are gays really a primetime viewing audience to begin with? What else ABC chooses to broadcast might be a clue there. Would gays be taken in by “Dancing with the Stars?” Even “The Real O’Neals” packages its gay themes into a it-can-happen-to-the-best-of-families box. I’m reminded of what I often heard of “The Cosby Show.” Recent disgusting revelations about Cosby himself aside, critics often called it “black television for white viewers.” Was “When We Rise” gay television for a straight audience? If that’s the case, then so be it. Maybe we need more gay representation on the small screen and not simply for our own sake.
If we were looking for the gay “Roots,” maybe we should keep looking. But if “When We Rise” was gay history for the uninformed, perhaps it did its job.
Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer who contributes regularly to the Blade.