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Arts & Culture » Television

Best (& some Worsts) of the Year on TV

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Pete Buttigieg kissing his husband Chasten was groundbreaking gay TV. Photo: AP
Pete Buttigieg kissing his husband Chasten was groundbreaking gay TV. Photo: AP  

The year and decade are drawing to a close, which is good as we are so very done with 2019, and are more than ready for a new decade. There was some truly great LGBTQ TV, scripted and unscripted, with more queer and trans characters and actors than ever. There was a whole lot of political pyrotechnic TV, including an historic LGBTQ Town Hall and only the fourth impeachment in U.S. history.

The most groundbreaking gay TV was Pete Buttigieg kissing his husband Chasten over and over again, introducing America to a real, live, married gay male couple. If "Modern Family" increased awareness of gay families throughout the decade, then the Buttigiegs were the coda. Whether Mayor Pete is your candidate or not, seeing a gay man with his spouse on national TV on a weekly basis as he campaigns for president has not gotten old for us yet. Verklempt? You betcha.

Meanwhile, there was a deer-in-the-headlights look to reporters covering the U.K. general election. The disastrous vote was like a preview from the ghost of Christmas future. Some will claim the cautionary tale is: steer clear of progressives. We lived in the U.K. briefly, and we think the message is much more succinct: Steer clear of weak, old, white male candidates who don't stand up against racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.

Of course, we could be wrong. Joe Biden gave this unique word salad warning, reported by Sahil Kapur. "Boris Johnson is winning in a walk. Look what happens when the Labour Party moves so, so far to the left," said Biden. "It comes up with ideas that are not able to be contained within a rational basis quickly." Whut? Now imagine that being said by Woody Harrelson's brilliant "SNL" parody Biden. Yikes.

"SNL" political satire was the best of the year. Harrelson's Biden, Larry David's Bernie Sanders, and our fave lesbian comedian, Kate McKinnon's Elizabeth Warren are all pitch-perfect. Cecily Strong's villainous Tulsi Gabbard is genius. Aidy Bryant was very good as Sarah Huckabee Sanders (remember her?) and as Attorney General Bill Barr. Beck Bennett is a fantastic Mike Pence, but his shirtless Vladimir Putin is Emmy-worthy. We are weary of Alec Baldwin's one-note Trump, though. The Emmy-winning McKinnon was also tremendous this year as Rudy Giuliani, Jeff Sessions, Angela Merkel, Lindsey Graham and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her Kellyanne Conway is scary good.

The new gay "SNL" cast member, only the third gay man in the show's history, Bowen Yang, is also the first Asian cast member in the show's 45-season history. He's hilarious as Andrew Yang and Kim Jong Un.

But as good as "SNL" was this year, it is still way too white and way too cis-het. Surely there's a trans comedian out there who would be a good fit for the show? And how about a second Latinx cast member and another black woman? That's our wish list for "SNL" 2020.

LGBTQ roll call

A record number of out lesbian, gay and trans actors, as well as several out non-binary actors, made 2019 the best year for LGBTQ representation.

Billy Porter, who plays the gay ballroom emcee Pray Tell in "Pose," made Emmy history by becoming the first openly gay black man to win the lead actor in a drama category.

Ellen DeGeneres, who made history as the first out gay actor on TV, coming out on her sitcom "Ellen" in 1997, made history in non-scripted TV in 2019. "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" has now been on TV since 2003, with a record 16 seasons of the Emmy-winning daytime talk show. The show was renewed in 2019 for three more seasons, into 2022. Ellen has now won 31 Emmys for her work.

The best-scripted series of the year for LGBTQ were mostly on cable and streaming services, though there were network series among the year's best. These series featured LGBTQ storylines and characters who were front-burner and also highlighted racially diverse LGBTQ characters: "The Conners," "Black Lightning," "Batwoman," "Supergirl,""This Is Us," "Stumptown," "Grey's Anatomy" and "How to Get Away with Murder."

"This Is Us" had a particularly compelling storyline that was one of the best of the year. Tess, teenage daughter of Randall and Beth, comes out in junior high. The Emmy-winning series dug deep into what it is to navigate that territory as a young, black lesbian finding her voice. Tess doesn't know how to tell her new friends that she likes girls, not boys. Her trepidation and her decision to finally post on a viral thread on social media that her friends are chatting on were beautifully done. We should all have had bold, realistic representations like this as queer kids.

The 2019-20 season is the final one for both "Will & Grace" and "Modern Family." These sitcoms are always on our best list. Reliably funny for more than a decade, both series have been credited with bringing gay characters to straight America. This year "Will & Grace" was highly political, with a focus on Trump. But the series also delved into the dicey territory of middle-age angst, which translated into Will, Grace and Jack talking about settling down and having babies.

There hasn't been enough queer TV before these two series to feature characters heading into middle age, and we need more. Most series with queer characters target the under-35 demographic. But we're not sure about Grace being pregnant. We hate to burst the bubble on this, but in real life, menopause usually hits between 45-50. The likelihood of Grace getting pregnant in Greece like she was 25 is slim. Nevertheless, it will make for an intriguing series finale next year.

"Steven Universe" is another best. The children's TV series on Cartoon Network has a lot of LGBTQ content, and is the first animated series created solely by a woman, Rebecca Sugar. "Steven Universe" is charming, and delivers that feeling of inclusion and calm that all of us could use in the current chaos. You don't have to have a kid to love this series.

Ryan O'Connell created, wrote and stars in "Special," a Netflix original sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy that is one of the year's best series.

"The Good Place" is not gay enough, but wow, this series is so much cheaper than Xanax and arguably the best sitcom of the year.

"Better Things" straddles that line between sitcom and drama and is undoubtedly one of the year's best series. Writer, director and star Pamela Adlon is a single mother of two girls and a middle child who is redefining their gender. Adlon is always taking risks with this smart, unusual and provocative series.

Two other dramedy series with strong queer storylines among the year's best are "Sex Education" and "Atypical."

Although not as good as the first season and often uneven, the best LGBTQ drama for 2019 is "Pose." While there are a few straight characters in the show, those are peripheral to the main storylines, which are solely about the lives of gay, lesbian and trans people. This makes watching "Pose" a remarkable experience: we don't wait, poised for the queer scenes, because all the scenes are queer. That makes this series transformative for us. It's a queer world after all, much like the one many of us inhabit.

The second season focused less on ball culture and more on the AIDS pandemic of the early 1990s. Performances by Porter, as well as trans actresses Mj Rodriquez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson and Anjelica Ross, were superb. Charlene Woodward and Sandra Bernhard also co-starred.

"Pose" has been renewed for a third season, coming in 2020. The first two seasons are available on Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime. Expect to cry through the entire first season and much of season two because this is drama that goes to the heart of who we are.

More 'L Word'

The most vaunted new LGBTQ series of 2019 debuted Dec. 8 on Showtime just in time to make it to our best list. We did not know how much we needed "The L Word: Generation Q" until now. Much more than a reboot of the iconic series that ran for six seasons from 2004-09, "Gen Q" brings back three of the most pivotal original series stars, Bette, Alice and Shane, and introduces a dozen new ones. The new cast is expansive and the most diverse on TV right now, racially, ethnically and gender-wise. In addition to a plethora of lesbians, queer and bi women, there are trans men in the cast. And the show also features Jillian Mercado, a disabled Latinx model and actress who uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy.

Set 10 years after the events of "The L Word," "Gen Q" follows an ensemble cast of friends, the majority of whom are lesbian women. The series relocates from its original setting of West Hollywood to the lesbian gayborhood of Silver Lake, LA. The original series is available on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.

"Killing Eve" was one of the year's best crime series while also having the best bisexual/lesbian coupling in TV history, although one (if not both) of those characters is a sociopathic international assassin. The Emmy-winning series is set in and around the U.K. and Europe, and features an MI6 operative, the eponymous Eve, chasing down Villanelle, the sexy assassin. Together they burn up the screen. The series creator and writer is Emmy winner Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator and star of the fabulous "Fleabag." The dialogue is sharp, incisive and witty, the performances pitch-perfect, the sexual tension between the two main characters absolutely electric. Both seasons are available on Hulu and Amazon. Season 3 debuts in 2020.

"Gentleman Jack," "The Miniaturist" and "Dickinson" were among the year's best queer TV. These period pieces each highlighted, through their lesbian and gay storylines, the perils of being queer in centuries past. Each series had vivid characters, both fictional and historical, strong performances and phenomenal sets and costuming. The final episode of "The Miniaturist" is something we doubt we shall ever forget. These series presented a stunning overview of periods past and what it meant to navigate societies that considered lesbians and gay men anathema.

"Euphoria" was possibly the most original LGBTQ series of the year, as well as one of the year's best. The HBO series follows a group of high school students through their experiences of sex, drugs, friendships, love and trauma. The central relationship between a black girl who is a recovering addict and a trans girl who is new to their high school is breathtakingly real and deeply moving. "Euphoria" delves deep into the fractured world of 2019 adolescence, with cyber-bullying a core destructive force. Vivid, believable characterizations and storylines made this one of the year's most memorable series.

The Netflix original series "Trinkets" charts the lives of three teenage girls who meet in a court-mandated Shoplifters Anonymous group and form a bond. One is trying to come out, another is in an abusive relationship, the third is hiding a series of deep secrets from her friends.

This series is so strong and the lesbian and queer characters very true and real. The premise is quirky yet works seamlessly, and the characters stay with you long after the last episode. Season 2 debuts in 2020.

"The Bisexual" is funny, poignant, beautifully crafted and deeply provocative as it details the life of a bisexual woman who exits her decade-long lesbian relationship to traverse what she believes to be her own bisexual heart.

And for maximum queer and cathartic crying, last but not least of the year's best LGBTQ offerings is the reality series "Queer Eye," where the Fab 5 do more than makeovers. The Fab 5 remind us that we can all be re-made in our own image, not society's version of us, and being authentic may feel scary as anything, but it is the only way to live our lives freely and fully. All four seasons are available on Netflix.

Other series that were among the best of the year but were not queer, yet which you definitely need to see, were Ava DuVernay's luminous "When They See Us," the stunning "Unbelievable," "Succession," "Evil," "Watchmen," "Chernobyl," "Dead to Me," "Shrill" and "Fosse/Verdon."

We tend to ignore the "worsts" and just move on, but Dr. Wendy Carr in "Mindhunter" and FBI Agent Roy Petty in "Ozark" demand comment. These are two stellar Netflix original series, worthy of any Top 10 list. But these are the most vile queer characters we can recall on any series. In "Mindhunter," Wendy is a cold, calculating, manipulative, classist closet case who is outright cruel to her bartender lover.

In one scene in "Ozark," Petty's ex calls him a sociopath, and he's not wrong. The relationship Petty embarks on with Russ, a closeted rural Missourian, to snare the criminal he is hunting seems blissful and real. The two fish together and make complex and beautiful flies. When Petty entraps Russ, we are as shocked as he is. It's brutal. We realize there are bad queer people out there, but these particular characters stand out as unnecessarily horrible humans. Why did they have to be gay?

For the best of the best, plus that horror show in D.C., you know you really must stay tuned.

Pete Buttigieg kissing his husband Chasten was groundbreaking gay TV. Photo: AP