TELEVISION: It’s a Queer World After All

Originally published on bimagazine.org

For a generation that grew up on Three’s Company, a 1970s-80s ABC network show that played sexual orientation for cheap laughs, television as the most LGBT-friendly entertainment was unthinkable. The nomination of a transgender actress for an Emmy award (Laverne Cox for her outstanding work in Orange Is The New Black) was something few of us imagined we would live to see. Just this year alone, more than a dozen television shows feature LGBT storylines through their main cast or recurring characters. So many shows and so little time is a welcome conundrum keeping our Tivo® boxes and DVRs working overtime. Online debates among a growing fan base often reach the high pitch of religious fervor. So, dear television viewers, we are (finally) here, we are queer, get used to it!

The price for such visibility is we have to accept that television doesn’t always get it right. Still, the medium is far ahead of the movies. Outside of queer film festivals, finding a decent LGBT character in movies has become as impossible a struggle as finding the Ring in a J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy.

NBC seems to have paid a heavy price over its new show Constantine when the producers controversially denied the title character’s bisexuality. To say that in three decades of the DC comic on which the character is based “there might have been one or two times he was seen getting out of bed with a man” minimizes identity into simply matters of the bedroom. Still, the real controversy about Constantine ought to be over its explicit violence and gore. In just one season, the show has depicted graphic scenes of electrocution, scarification, faces getting chewed off, people being burned alive…you get the picture. Why, then, would the producers find bisexuality more scary and threatening than this kind of cringe-worthy violence? In one scene in the pilot, John Constantine shouts, “I’m a nasty piece of work. Ask anybody!” You don’t say.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Transparent on Amazon Prime Video. Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura Pfefferman, née Mort Pfefferman, who is preparing to come out as transgender to the three adult children—Sarah, Josh, and Ali—who have known her as a father their entire lives. Insightfully written by Jill Soloway (and a team of mostly women writers), Transparent contrasts the slow and painful unraveling the children go through against Maura’s own emotional and physical unraveling.

This show is truly groundbreaking on multiple counts: The transgender person is the main character, not a supporting role. The show is invested in exploring the highs and lows of a character’s journey. It is unafraid to depict the complexity of queer life, like the loving community of trans* persons and allies that Maura finds in a support group juxtaposed against a lesbian character cheating on her partner. Most importantly it is an unapologetic examination of what defines family in the 21st century.

Transparent can verge on the whiny sometimes but never shies away from the truth of its characters at the risk of making us, the viewers, terribly uncomfortable. Episode 7, in which the children grudgingly attend a talent show featuring Maura, is particularly remarkable for their cruel, yet authentic, actions that end up hurting Maura. The show has the good sense to end the episode wordlessly zooming in on the myriad of feelings on Maura’s face (exquisite work by Tambor). Another episode depicts Maura’s journey from simply cross-dressing to understanding her condition as one of identity (something the producers of Constantine could stand to learn from). And the scene where Maura stops her son-in-law from ruining a family dinner by asking him to “join me in my whirlpool of craziness or get out” is enough to soften the staunchest cynic. Amazon has decided to renew this gem of a show for a second season to air in 2015. Now is a good time to add it to your binge-watching list.

Another hot, new entry on ABC – How To Get Away With Murder – just wrapped up its fall premiere with nine titillating episodes. The show is mostly known for Viola Davis’ tentative foray into television. As if she has anything to be afraid of. Her raw, fierce, and incredibly nuanced performance dominates this legal drama about a law professor Annalise Keating (Davis) and her handpicked entourage of five over-achieving students—known as “the Keating five”—who become entwined in a murder plot. Not a single character in this show has one moral fiber in their bones, making it a delicious guilty pleasure to look forward to on Thursday nights.

Connor Walsh, played with gleeful relish by Jack Falahee, is the gay law student in this group of five. With a not-so-subtle online handle of “8isgr8” and a cocky grin, Connor is the type of guy who makes Annalise growl, “Are you good for anything or can you only do your job when you are screwing evidence out of clients?” He is the twin to bisexual character Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife: completely unknowable with no backstory, using sex as his main arsenal to get what he wants. Like Kalinda, he is terrible at building meaningful relationships and doesn’t seem to have a clue how his actions can sometimes have tragic consequences (season 1, ep. 5). But while Kalinda inhabits some kind of mysterious and impenetrable world of her own, Connor introduces us to a string of supporting gay characters on the show—principally Oliver, a sweet, relationship oriented IT nerd (nice work by Conrad Ricamora)—that prove to be a window into how diverse and interesting gay people can be.

As if to atone for Three’s Company, ABC became the first network in 1989 to show two men in bed together, ostensibly in post-coital bliss, in season 3 of then-popular drama thirtysomething. Advertisers fled and the network suffered a terrible backlash. But this is the same network that, decades later, gave us a complex, believable gay character—Kevin Walker—in another hit show Brothers & Sisters. Kevin was unlike any other gay character in that we saw him as integral to an American family and we became part of his struggle to form his own chosen family. Connor Walsh, in contrast, seems like a regression for the network but, at the same time, he is so good at sex that one of his conquests claims, “He did this thing to my ass that made my eyes water.” Now, when was the last time you heard that line on network TV?

Lisa Peyton