'Visible: Out on Television': TV Review

An essential and inclusive history.
2/14/2020

The Apple TV+ docuseries explores the many milestones — and compromises — on the path toward authentic queer representation and storytelling over seven decades.

By most measures, the LGBTQ movement has achieved a staggering rate of progress in a relatively brief period of time. Though change is still too slow for some, it's worth taking stock of how we went from, say, psychiatric manuals decreeing homosexuality a mental illness to gay marriage becoming the law of the land within half a century. How did such rapid headway happen? One possible answer: television.

That's the premise of Visible: Out on Television, a five-part Apple TV+ documentary that serves as a companion piece to 1995's film-focused The Celluloid Closet. Directed by Ryan White (Ask Dr. Ruth, The Case Against 8, Netflix's The Keepers), Visible is exactly what it should be: a cultural history of queer representation on the small screen that contextualizes that progress within the larger fight for LGBTQ rights and developments within TV itself. Spanning seven decades, Visible is comprehensive and fast-paced without sacrificing analytical depth. Even those well-versed in the subject should encounter surprises — in the personal accounts of TV personalities like Tim Gunn and executive producer Wilson Cruz, the impressive range of television programming covered here or the careful attention to the intersectional differences between, say, gay men and lesbians, or cis queers and trans or nonbinary folks. It's what this richly variegated, sometimes painful, often stirring history deserves.

A cynical way of looking at Visible might be as a celebration of TV by TV —  a party thrown for a set of pictures while actual people are suffering and dying. But the documentary quickly dispels such skepticism by reminding viewers that a potential "weapon" like television — a nonstop stream of stories and spectacle (with their attendant points of view) with little to no barrier to access — can easily be repurposed into an empathy machine. Oprah Winfrey, one of the dozens of celebrities interviewed (along with writers and activists), says of the importance of representation, "When you see images that are reflective of your own life, it's a reminder to you that your life matters." And for queer people and possible allies who had few other LGBTQ reference points, especially before the Internet era, TV could be a lifeline.

It's probably not a coincidence that Visible is arguably most fascinating in its earliest installments, which cover an era when television had fewer competitors for eyeballs, and thus enjoyed a corresponding level of influence. Anti-queer tropes, like the homicidal lesbian or the "bury your gay" formula (in which LGBTQ characters ended up dead by suicide or murder by the end of the story), are traceable back to this era, when government policies prohibited any positive portrayals of homosexuality. White gives Norman Lear his due for the sympathetic queer characters on All in the Family and The Jeffersons while grappling with the compromises often necessary in pioneering instances of representation. (In the case of All in the Family, a drag performer charms Edith, and the hate crime that leads to her death a few days before Christmas leads to the end of Mrs. Bunker's religious faith. It was a genuine landmark of compassionate queer representation then, but in 2020, we'd probably call that storyline a form of queer fridging.)

Visible also painstakingly unearths long-forgotten TV movies like A Question of Love and An Early Frost — a lesbian romance and an AIDS drama, respectively, that prove queer programming existed long before Ellen and Will and Grace. (An actress on A Question of Love recalls that the network dictated no more than three instances of touching and absolutely no kissing — and so a search for a distinctly Sapphic tenderness led to the lovers brushing each other's hair.) 

But the documentary also argues persuasively that, perhaps even more than characters designed to pull on heartstrings, it was necessary to see real-life LGBTQ people — on the news, clamoring for more government action to fight AIDS, on reality shows like The Real World and Survivor and on reputable talk shows like Winfrey's. Meanwhile, sports stardom gave trans women Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards and Caitlyn Jenner the opportunity to introduce transgender people to their respective generations — and in Jenner's case, illustrated the breadth of privilege and politics that can exist within queer circles.

Visible is similarly attuned to the sheer variety of ways queer audiences have been betrayed by the shows they love. The road toward authentic representation is paved with accommodations and trade-offs, like gay male characters in the 1980s getting into romances with women and the overwhelming whiteness of LGBTQ characters on screen even today. White also covers the queer-baiting of the '90s, when same-sex kisses were dangled in front of audiences during sweeps.

But the worst of that decade had to be the tabloid-flavored, gawk-at-the-freaks talk shows like Jerry Springer's, where trans women would be paraded out alongside a cis one so the studio audience could "guess which one is the real girl." And if you, like me, had only the haziest memory of the homophobic murder that arose from a segment on The Jenny Jones Show, well, prepare yourself.

Television has always been the product of a marriage between art and commerce, and so Visible might have been stronger if it gave more consideration to the money side of the boundary-pushing equation. The 1985 AIDS-themed TV movie An Early Frost, starring Aidan Quinn and Gena Rowlands, for example, was a groundbreaking work nominated for 14 Emmys, awarded three and viewed by 34 million people, but it could only scrounge up one advertiser — for the Bible. Did CBS execs falter? How did the giant audience affect their decision-making before and after? Visible leaves us in the dark.

Likewise, one of the many deeply affecting personal interviews in the doc is with Ellen DeGeneres, who recalls "begging" ABC suits to let her come out of the closet. It would've been illuminating to hear how a network president juggled ratings pressure with social advancement, or how long it might have taken him or her to view that debate in those terms.

Inevitably, Visible's final chapter, titled "The New Guard," is its weakest, as it's chronicling an era we're still living in. The usual suspects, like Glee and Pose and RuPaul's Drag Race, are name-checked, but the episode is also honest about the ways queer representation continues to disappoint many LGBTQ viewers and prompt backlash in the world at large. And as exhaustive as the documentary is, there's a good chance that your favorite queer show or character doesn't make it on screen. Mine — Euphoria, Work in Progress and The Other Two — sure didn't. But that absence is probably the best unseen epilogue that can be affixed to Visible — there's too much to cover in even five hours. White has created a fantastic and fair-minded account of the first several decades of LGBTQ representation. But in another half-century, I hope it's ancient history.

Cast: Wanda Sykes, Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, Wilson Cruz, Ellen DeGeneres, Jill Soloway, Mj Rodriguez, Janet Mock, Lena Waithe

Director: Ryan White

Premieres Friday, Feb. 14