Roush Review: Making LGBTQ Characters ‘Visible’ on TV
Once upon a time on TV, gay characters existed only in the margins: as cheap-joke punchlines, wisecracking and sexually ambiguous sidekicks, tragic suicides or homicidal lesbians. Now they’re just as likely to take center stage: in comedies like Will & Grace, dramas like the groundbreaking Pose, and in the world of TV news with openly out anchors including CNN’s Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
In the wonderfully thorough, powerfully outspoken and genuinely compelling five-part docuseries Visible: Out on Television, Maddow notes: “Something about being on television makes people see you as part of the country, as part of our culture, as part of who we are as a nation.” Through personal anecdotes and a wealth of footage, Visible reveals that this most intimate and ubiquitous of media has come a long way in inclusion and representation.
Needless to say, these strides don’t come without backlash. Just ask Ellen DeGeneres, which this series does at length, because her emotionally triumphant comeback story is among the most relevant: a high-profile coming out on her ABC sitcom, with initially high ratings (for the Emmy-winning “The Puppy Episode”), followed by backlash and cancellation, depression and a career resurgence once she was allowed to be her delightful self on daytime TV—and eventually one of the more successful recent Oscar hosts.
As no less an oracle than Oprah Winfrey (who played Ellen’s therapist in her coming-out episode) explains: “When you see images that are reflective of your own life, it’s a reminder to you that your life matters.” It wasn’t always easy.
Visible is often at its best when remembering those who lived in the shadows, like Hollywood Squares cut-up Paul Lynde, who died at 55. “I have so much compassion for people who, like Paul Lynde, had to live an open secret and had to hide who they were,” says Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson. “And I am also very grateful for them for living as loud as they possibly could.” Laverne Cox and fashion maven Tim Gunn are among those who can’t help themselves from squealing, “Raymond Burr (TV’s iconic Perry Mason) was gay?” Gunn, who always admired the way Burr wore Perry’s suits, adds, “That is fantastic! Oh, I feel even prouder! I love that man.”
Many of Visible‘s most affecting moments involve LGBTQ actors, writers and journalists describing what it means to see their world captured on TV: in breakthrough TV movies (1972’s That Certain Summer, 1985’s AIDS drama An Early Frost); with landmark characters in sitcoms (Ellen, Will & Grace, Modern Family), prime-time dramas (My So-Called Life, Six Feet Under, up to Ryan Murphy’s remarkable Pose); daytime soaps (Ryan Phillippe as gay teen Billy in One Life to Life circa 1992); and in pioneering reality TV (PBS’s An American Family, The Real World’s Pedro Zamora, Queer Eye).
Throughout, the message resonates that visibility matters. “The power of TV” is almost a mantra in this ennobling history of humanization.
Visible: Out on Television, Series Premiere, Friday, February 14, Apple TV+