Critics' Conversation: The Vibrant, Varied, Ever-Evolving Landscape of LGBTQ TV Today

Vida (Starz), Everything's Gonna Be OK (Freeform) and Work in Progress (Showtime) - Split -H 2020
Courtesy of Starz; Freeform; Showtime

Inkoo Kang: Last year, GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are on TV” report was positively glowing: LGBTQ characters made up a tenth of the regular characters on primetime scripted series on broadcast television, traditionally the medium’s stodgiest sector. It was the highest percentage of queer characters that the organization had found in the fifteen years they’ve been counting broadcast series regulars. (The numbers on streaming were up, too, while those on cable held steady.)

Even more encouragingly, the many activists who want to see LGBTQ representation distributed across the gender, racial and disability spectrums got their wish. Gay men remain the most represented group, but GLAAD found upticks in lesbian, bisexual, trans, POC and disability visibility across television. Visible, Apple TV+’s excellent five-part documentary on queer progress on television, also ends on a convincingly rosy note. 

So this Pride month, The Hollywood Reporter’s TV critics will discuss how we got to this celebratory point so fast and so satisfyingly. (Full disclosure: We're both straight, but we hope that this broad overview of the TV landscape and the politics of representation, edited and assigned by a gay editor, still provides a helpful if incomplete understanding of LGBTQ advancements on television today.)

Part of the story of queer TV's, surely, is the extraordinary gains that LGBTQ communities have made in the past several decades, even relative to other social movements. Another part of the story is media fragmentation, which has meant catering to different, traditionally neglected audiences. And part of the story is flexing by TV powerhouses like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Lena Waithe and Greg Berlanti, who have done much to "normalize" and/or center queer characters in settings both ordinary (like hospitals on Grey’s Anatomy) and exceptional (like the "murder house" and haunted summer camp on American Horror Story). 

I’d love to know what you consider most notable about LGBTQ representation on TV today, Dan, and I’d love for you to start with an admitted blind spot for me: all those CW superhero shows, where queer progress seems to be happening on TV most dramatically. 

Daniel Fienberg: I think you can tell a lot about a network’s audience, or more particularly how a network sees its audience, by how the network handles representation — and, for the purposes of this conversation, how the network handles LGBTQ representation.

I’d point, for example, to CBS and the swiftly departed Tommy, in which Edie Falco played the first female head of the LAPD, a character who also happened to be gay. I probably shouldn’t have been astonished, but I still was astonished at the weeks of out-of-the-woodwork outrage my Tommy review received. And not because it was a tepid review but because of the alleged temerity of CBS in making a main character in one of its sacred procedurals not be straight. The number of retrograde “Why do they have to ram this down our throats?” comments I got for a show that, in its first few episodes, had a character who pronounced herself gay, but beyond that, engaged in behavior less intimate than you’d get on Sesame Street! 

What that anecdote illustrates is how networks steer their target audiences toward certain expectations — and the Blue Bloods/Criminal Minds/NCIS audience was not expecting this. Whether Tommy was good enough or lasted long enough to impact future expectations is unclear.

The contrast, then, would be The CW, where the core demo is appreciably younger and (presumably) appreciably more progressive in outlook, and where LGBTQ representation has been a matter-of-fact piece of the network’s DNA from the beginning. You mentioned Greg Berlanti in your list of TV’s super-auteurs and he deserves much of the credit for mapping that DNA. The few CW shows with no Berlanti involvement — see the departed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin — are also representational paragons when it comes to queerness, but funneling a queer sensibility into a musical or telenovela seems like less of a tectonic shift than what the superhero shows have done.

Shows like Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow had matter-of-fact same-sex couples that quickly became by far the most intimate and interesting relationships on those respective shows. With Nafessa Williams’ character, Black Lightning put a lesbian of color in a key superhero capacity. And then with Batwoman, a lesbian superhero was right there in the title role. Sometimes these shows have included a coming-out narrative, as with Chyler Leigh’s Alex on Supergirl. And sometimes, as with trans actress Nicole Maines’ Dreamer on Supergirl, there has been a sense that the show was actively trying to raise audience awareness. But the reason you know that what The CW is doing is effective is that there’s no single template that they’re working with. It’s a literal diversity of depictions.

That’s how you can tell when a medium is becoming genuinely representative — when it isn’t just the same trope over and over. TV still relies a little heavily on introducing characters whose homosexuality is the end-of-episode twist, but across 500+ shows, it’s thankfully become hard to say, “LGBTQ representation is THIS,” because it’s more than one or two or 15 things. You know. Like in life?

IK: One of my favorite yardsticks of representation — and this applies to any marginalized group — is whether a character can occupy an ethical gray zone. The first step in greater representation generally has to be overwhelmingly positive, like My So-Called Life’s Rickie, to fight against societal stigma. I’m not surprised that Wilson Cruz, the actor who played Rickie, still gets stopped on the street to this day and thanked for being one of the first actors to provide a role model to young queer viewers at the time.

But because my personal preferences lie toward less-than-upstanding (though not totally villainous) characters — antiheroes if they’re in the protagonist role — I’m always thrilled when a show offers believably flawed LGBTQ characters. I think that’s what I find so exciting about the current point of queer representation on TV — that they can be superheroes, but also just “regular” characters with no (overt) responsibility toward LGBTQ representation.

I adore Rickie, but I’m able to identify so much more with characters like petty retail worker Mateo (Nico Santos) on Superstore, anxious narcissist Abby (Abby McEnany) on Work in Progress, tender but occasionally shortcut-seeking Sophia (Laverne Cox) on Orange Is the New Black and can’t-believe-he’s-still-wrestling-with-internalized-homophobia-at-age-30 Carey (Drew Tarver) on The Other Two. And I’m especially encouraged that such representation is able to take place on younger-skewing shows like Euphoria, The Bold Type and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay (a Freeform series that practically begins with a gay kiss!). 

DF: Look at Pose, an FX series that utterly blows the representation doors off the barn, because when it premiered we were still at a point where it was forward-looking for shows to have a trans character or two trans characters. Back then, we were still being forced to confront the speed with which a show like Transparent went from being at the vanguard to being problematic (with plenty of activists already having reservations about Jeffrey Tambor playing a trans lead character long before Tambor’s alleged on-set behavior made it easy for him to be written out of the closing musical finale). But Pose premiered and it had trans heroes and trans villains and trans characters with the complexity to be both of those things at once. 

Abby on Showtime's Work in Progress doesn’t need to carry the responsibility of being the only LGBTQ character on TV or on her own network or on her own show, and that lets her be the wonderfully imperfect character she is. So much of what makes that character funny — and I can’t emphasize enough how utterly hilarious Work in Progress is when that’s what it wants to be doing — is in her myriad flaws. But even in that case, the flaws aren’t of the comic relief variety, because Abby isn’t the “wacky gay best friend” or “wacky gay neighbor.” Plenty of shows still have those characters, but Abby’s flaws are grounded in actual psychological complexity so they can be wacky or they can be sad and relatable. I can’t emphasize enough that Work in Progress is a show more people need to have watched.

The same is true with Josh Thomas’ character on Everything’s Gonna Be Okay (and with the show itself). Nicholas, an Australian entomologist becoming guardian to two half-sisters he barely knows, is straight-up obnoxious at times. He’s a mess as a brother, a mess as a boyfriend, a mess as a father figure — and the show shows him trying to be better in each of those capacities without sacrificing his defining narcissism.

Nicholas is also a fairly new paradigm because he’s a gay protagonist on a show for a young audience, but he fucks, and does so in terms that TV has rarely, if ever, depicted before; the series fills in a middle space between utter chasteness — a series like Hulu's new Love, Victor still treats its gay protagonist in G-rated terms — and the adults-only territory occupied previously by The L-Word or Looking. It’s not a space that straight sex has ever really had to concern itself with, because it’s been a while since anybody accused straight people of ramming their sexuality down viewers’ throats for kissing or casual under-the-sheets canoodling.

IK: I’ll cop to a pet peeve of mine when it goes to LGBTQ entertainment: I tend to find shows (but especially movies) about queer desire frustrating when they demur — for any number of probably justifiable behind-the-scenes reasons — in showcasing actual queer affection. As a viewer, I’m usually less enthusiastic than probably many audience members when it comes to sex scenes. And yet even I can’t help appreciating the normalizing hotness of the sex on Orange Is the New Black and Starz's Vida, which take any number of queer permutations; HBO's Gentleman Jack, which rewrites period romances to show the hidden spaces lesbian eroticism could fill; and Netflix's Special, which doesn’t take able-bodied queer sex as a given. 

There’s no sex on RuPaul’s Drag Race, but — surprise, surprise — drag queens are behind some of the most delightfully dirty, least respectable jokes on TV. For me, there’s no better barometer for queer representation on television — and its shifting standards — than the cultural institution that has become Drag Race, which just wrapped up its 12th season. In little more than a decade, the reality competition has gone from LogoTV to the broader-audience VH1, and from a no-budget niche curio to an Emmy-collecting launcher of new, unique talent (some of whom have landed on the likes of TLC’s Draglicious and HBO’s We’re Here).

Along the way, the producers have stayed attuned to changes within queer discourse. For example, they got rid of transphobic gimmicks (like the “she-mail” that hinted at challenges, a la Tyra Mail on America’s Next Top Model) while shifting to openly embrace trans competitors and even confronting racism within the Drag Race fandom. If the mainstream pro-gay rights argument a decade ago revolved around LGBTQ persons being “born this way” — rhetoric that could suggest a kind of helplessness — a show like Drag Race, with its celebration of caricature and winking transgression, implies that gender rules were made to be broken. Its defiance is contagious — and now utterly establishment. 

DF: I’m so glad you mentioned Vida, a show that is sexy, audacious and never would have been made in an era with fewer avenues for quality television. It’s a specific story, but thanks to its intersectionality, it’s a story that brings together audiences. BET’s Lena Waithe-created Twenties and Justin Simien’s Netflix series adaptation of Dear White People are doing very different, but similarly exceptional things. And that isn’t true only of micro-batch premium cable programming like Vida, a show that wrapped its run at only three seasons and 22 episodes. Look at the love stories crafted in the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror or the “Parallel” episode of Tales from the Loop

And it’s definitely important to mention the impact of reality TV, whether it’s just about everything on Bravo or the astonishing way that Drag Race and its offshoots have had of shaping the language and providing fuel for meme culture. It’s not just "normalizing"; it's also "vernacularizing."

Think back less than 20 years ago to the cheap laughs that Friends got from Chandler’s dad and Viva Las Gaygas and the rest. Or think back on the very first season of Survivor and the process that the late Rudy Boesch went through with eventual winner Richard Hatch and how that initially grouchy former Navy SEAL became the embodiment of a certain kind of, “I was homophobic until I met one gay guy!” reform narrative. It all calls to mind one of my favorite lines from The Simpsons, when the guest character voiced by John Waters tells Homer, “I won your respect and all I had to do was save your life. Now if every gay guy could just do the same, you’d be all set.” 

Twenty years after Rudy met Richard on CBS, the reactions from some CBS viewers to Tommy show that there’s still a whole group of such viewers who don't know Richard Hatch; who never warmed to Ellen as a talk show host or sitcom star; who didn't catch Soap; who thought the main characters on Golden Girls were just randy older women and missed that they also became gay icons; who thought Omar on The Wire just enjoyed hanging out with pretty young men. Now, it’s harder to point to one or two or even a dozen shows moving this conversation forward, because the variations and variety — we haven’t even gotten to Netflix’s avalanche of international stuff — are woven throughout Peak TV. That is something to be proud of.