Arts & Culture » Television

Queer eye for gay TV representation

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Billy Porter as the gay HIV+ emcee Pray Tell in "Pose." Photo: FX Networks
Billy Porter as the gay HIV+ emcee Pray Tell in "Pose." Photo: FX Networks  

We wouldn't normally tout another LGBTQ publication here, but the "Out 100" were named Nov. 14, and that's more about our community than it is about a single publication, much like the Glamour Woman of the Year Awards, named the same day. If you have not seen pics of Hillary Clinton and Janelle Monae at the WOTY, Google immediately. Spectacular. We don't know who dressed the two of them, but wow. Hillary is like a feminist Obi Wan Kenobi, and Monae is a pansexual goddess.

Having had the honor of being included on the Out list twice, once for our award-winning book "Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic," and again for our AIDS journalism, we know it's big. Out named the cast from "Queer Eye" as entertainers of the year, and Tony winner Billy Porter for performance of the year for his role as the gay HIV+ emcee Pray Tell in "Pose."

We couldn't agree more with the "Queer Eye" re-boot. We didn't think it was possible to re-imagine a show that seemed perfect the first time, but Netflix created a new Fab Five a decade after the initial show in both a delight and a revelation, taking the show to a place more substantive than the original.

People magazine highlighted a story about the queer quintet on Nov. 15. Pivoting off the Out nod, People detailed how the series' Bobby Berk, who grew up gay in a religious community and has talked about it poignantly on "Queer Eye," was able to preach his own gospel.

People quoted Berk, "I received a message from a pastor who told me he'd been preaching against homosexuality his entire life and changed his ways after watching our show. He said he will never preach that way again." Amen to that.

But while we love "Queer Eye" and the Fab Five and are so glad they are reaching Middle Trumpmerica, it was Billy Porter who resonated most for us. Porter filled one of the most searing roles of 2018. Those of us on the front lines of the AIDS crisis always knew a Pray Tell, a gay man who shepherded the dying through their final days, and who did his best to protect the living from meeting the same fate.

Porter told Out that Ryan Murphy wrote the role of Pray Tell specifically for him. Porter had read for the dance instructor, a role that went to Charlayne Woodard, who was extraordinary in it, but Murphy and Porter both thought there was a better role for him. There was: Porter became one with Pray Tell, opening each episode and emceeing the balls.

As magnificent as those scenes were, it was the scenes in the hospital that blew us away and sent us into The Ugly Cry. Pray Tell with his dying lover, the dreaded yellow gowns and the aides leaving food trays in the hall because they didn't want to enter the room: all of that took us back in time and resonated deeply. If you are among those who somehow missed watching "Pose," one of the best drama series of the year, be sure to watch it on demand on FX. It's mesmerizingly good. Porter is sublime, but there are other performances by trans women actresses, notably Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore and Dominique Jackson, that will catch your heart as well.

Porter also co-starred in "American Horror Story: Apocalypse." The eighth season of the FX anthology from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk ended this week with a surprising finale. Surprising that it was able to believably wrap a complex season with many unanswered questions, and surprising in that we were satisfied with it.

The question for Season 9 has to be: Where do we go after the end of the world? The finale of "Apocalypse" gave us a glimmer: back to witches. But we shall see. Murphy and Falchuk may have an entirely new plan for viewers.

While there were many intriguing elements to "Apocalypse," we mostly hate-watched this season, which never lived up to the promise of the first two episodes. There were some spectacular performances. Jessica Lange is a queen. Kathy Bates hasn't been this good since "Misery," and who knew she could reinvent herself at 70 as a leather-clad butch hipster goddess? Both gave Emmy-worthy performances. Frances Conroy was at her bitingly acid best, while Billie Lourd came into her own this season. Joan Collins (how does she still look her best at 85?) was mad fun and a real Ode to Camp.

Angela Bassett had naught but a walk-on in the finale, where was she the rest of the season? Evan Peters was everywhere yet underutilized. But Cody Fern was one sexy anti-Christ. There was just too much going on. The melding of elements of previous seasons ("Asylum," "Coven") was lost on first-time viewers, while the effort to mold those elements into an end-of-the-world scenario often felt forced. The most cohesive elements came from the "Coven" links. But too much of the season was a big crowd scene where all the characters from those two seasons plus new ones were brought in. It was just not very watchable except as a visual feast, which it often was.

There was a lot of Sarah Paulson (she played three characters) but we didn't love her this season. Her directing debut in episode six with Lange was nuanced. We expect to see more directing from her next season. But there's suspension of disbelief, and then there's throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-it-sticks. Too much of the latter. We need season nine to be trimmed down with a tighter storyline, fewer cast members, and a better focused plot. But the season was worth watching for the performances of Lange and Bates alone.

Get away

Nov. 15 was the season finale of "How to Get Away with Murder," and well, wow. Be warned: there are spoilers ahead. The good news is Oliver is not dead. We were dreading the discovery of Who Died at the Wedding in the finale, as the flashback element of the show told us it was someone from the wedding. Oliver was missing, Connor was searching for him, and we were scared. So: phew. As for the wedding itself: oh yes, we cried. How could we not cry?

We've seen other gay and lesbian weddings on the tube, notably Cam & Mitchell on "Modern Family" and Callie & Arizona on "Grey's Anatomy," and the iconic wedding on "Friends" a bazillion years ago, officiated by Newt Gingrich's lesbian sister Candace. We loved all those weddings in their time and place.

But Connor (Jack Falahee) & Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) are 20somethings, not 30somethings, marrying in our very uncertain times. Oliver is HIV+. Connor was known for 24/7 Grindr hookups. The week before the wedding they were involved in a gay bashing when a Trumper called them faggots and Connor fought back. We weren't sure they would make it as a couple or to the altar. They did.

It was a beautiful, sweet, totally gay wedding, in a church with a woman priest and their parents in attendance. Oliver talked about how he'd planned his wedding from childhood, which was the queeniest thing ever. Emotionally unavailable and shut-down Connor talked about how Oliver was indeed the love of his life. It was deeply moving and very believable.

Someone was killed at the wedding, but neither Oliver nor Connor died and neither were the perpetrators, so it was good. Now we also know who did die, who was the killer and who Gabriel Maddox (drop-dead gorgeous Rome Flynn) really is. Bring on season six!

One of the things we've always liked about "HTGAWM" is that because the show was created by a gay man, the gay characters are really gay, the gay sex is really gay, and we don't feel cheated by fake-gay teasers. Such is not the case with the popular teen-driven drama "Riverdale," based on the Archie comics. We are so over it.

We like the concept and characters in "Riverdale." What we don't like is the queer-baiting. The promo for last week's show had Joaquin kissing Archie. Wait, Archie is bi? No, Archie is still totally straight, the kiss was non-consensual, part of a larger set-up, and ugh. Just no.

Stop queerbaiting to draw in gay viewers. We're already watching because you have five gay and lesbian characters on the show. Actual queer characters. So you don't have to use a gay sexual assault as a come-on. "Riverdale" has done this before, in the first season with Betty and Veronica, who also aren't gay. Yes, everyone likes to see girls kissing. No, we don't need to play to the straight male audience by having the straight girls play-kissing. Katy Perry, sit down.

Where are the lesbian storylines on "Riverdale" for Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz? They are an actual couple, interracial, both in the main cast. Why not focus on their lesbian lives?

But why did "Riverdale" have Joaquin (he was lovers with Kevin in season one: remember those hot kisses up against the chain-link fence?) forcing Archie into a kiss? Do we need this gay MeToo moment? No we do not. Three gay male characters: Kevin, Moose and Joaquin. Find a storyline. Two lesbian/bi characters who are girlfriends. Find a storyline.

As we explained in our deconstruction of the latest GLAAD report, there's not as much LGBTQ characterization on the tube as simple numbers of characters would suggest. There may be five LGB characters on "Riverdale," but are there five LGB storylines? Most definitely not.

This tease was also a problem in "You," which just ended a spectacular first season with yet another murder. We loved this show in a perverse way, since the protagonist is a disturbed serial killer who we root for throughout, mostly because Penn Badgley, who plays said serial killer Joe Goldberg, is so engaging. But "You" ran a tease that Beck (Elizabeth Lail) was going to have an affair with her bestie, Peach (Shay Mitchell).

There wasn't a question that Peach had a thing for Beck. Joe found dozens of photos on Peach's computer of Beck nearly naked and asleep, among other stalkery moments. But trailers kept giving us flashes of Peach and Beck kissing, and that never really happened except in people's imagination. Despite being the creation of Greg Berlanti, who practically owns gay TV at this point, there was nothing gay in "You." A missed opportunity, because the intensity of the relationship between Beck and Peach was there and, pun intended, ripe for it.

Peach was a cloying and possessive dominatrix, so not a lesbian character we wanted to root for. But still, there should have been something. Instead, Peach ended up being yet another dead lesbian of color in a long line of such lesbian TV deaths, one of the few sour notes for us in an otherwise truly genius first season of this taut yet arch psychological thriller.

There were a couple dozen new series this season, and as the season finales roll out and the holiday specials roll in, some shows likely won't be returning. We think we can say for certain that "The Alec Baldwin Show" won't be back and no one will miss it, except whoever cashes the checks at Baldwin's house. We're not sure who thought this was a good idea. Someone who reads Baldwin on Twitter and thought expanding those 280-character bites into an hour would work? All we know is Baldwin is the most tedious talk show host in history. The show has the worst ratings of the season.

The shows most likely to be on the chopping block are sitcoms, and among those will be the much-hyped re-boot of "Roseanne," "The Conners," as well as the re-boot of "Murphy Brown" and the much-hyped but badly placed "I Feel Bad" from Amy Poehler.

We like the new "Murphy Brown," but it's not a show we feel dedicated to watching. Much as we like the young gay character on "The Connors," he just isn't reason for us to watch an otherwise unexciting series. "I Feel Bad" was supposed to be a feminist sitcom. It isn't, because the series let the men take over what is a woman's story. If we wanted to watch that, we'd be watching CSPAN and the attacks on Nancy Pelosi.

In the Schadenfreude moment of the week, on Nov.16 a judge Trump appointed ordered the White House to restore the press credentials of CNN's Jim Acosta. Nearly every major news outlet including Fox News had signed onto an amicus brief requesting Acosta be restored to his position. The ruling by Judge Timothy J. Kelly stated that the White House had violated Acosta and CNN's Fifth Amendment rights by offering no due process. Yes.

Finally, on the Nov. 15 Thanksgiving preview episode of "Beat Bobby Flay," judge Martha Stewart divulged that she both raises her own turkeys and kills them for Thanksgiving. She told the mesmerized group that she gives them each a tumbler of vodka beforehand as it relaxes the neck muscles. So now you know how to get through Thanksgiving with the fam.

So for surprising breaking news, Thanksgiving tidbits, season finales and the holiday madness to come, you know you really must stay tuned.

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