New Apple TV+ series explores LGBTQ representation on television

Clockwise from top left: Neil Patrick Harris, Margaret Cho, Lena Waithe, Janet Mock, Asia Kate Dillon - Photos courtesy of Apple

The Apple TV+ series “Visible: Out on Television” traces the power and representation — good, bad and life-changing — of LGBTQ folks broadcast into American homes through television. The five-part, five-hour series, which is available Feb. 14, mixes both real newscasts, scripted programming, TV movies, mini-series, talk shows and soap operas to tell its story. The focus is predominantly on network channels, with a few cable programs.

The documentary shows that while great strides have been made over time, they have not been without growing pains. Watching “Visible,” which features a who’s who of out gay television personalities, including Wanda Sykes and Wilson Cruz — two of the series’ executive producers — talking about the value (and dearth) of images reflected at them on screen, it is impossible not to feel goosebumps.

The interviewees discuss being “too gay” for TV and growing up without seeing (m)any LGBTQ characters on screen, much less characters with whom to identify. “Gay,” when it was portrayed, generally had a negative punchline or was used to generate a cheap laugh. It was, the documentary insists, a long, hard fight to get fair representation.

The first episode addresses “The Dark Ages” and the first use of the word “homosexual” on television, which took place during the Army-McCarthy hearings. Any portrayals of gay characters were negative — with characters being murderers or dying by suicide.  

Sheila Kuehl’s lovable tomboy, Zelda, on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (back in 1959), lost her chance at a spinoff series because of Kuehl’s off-screen sexuality. In contrast, gay actor Raymond Burr starred in “Perry Mason,” but he wasn’t out at the time, so it was OK. 

It wasn’t until the 1970s, with the groundbreaking sitcom, “All in the Family,” when gay characters were slightly more three-dimensional. Alas, trans characters, were mostly villains on TV. The news reports of transwomen Christine Jorgensen and Renée Richards were the only semi-positive representations. Meanwhile, viewers were laughing at comedians like Milton Berle and Flip Wilson wearing dresses. As the decade progressed, the landmark documentary series, “An American Family” had an impact as the gay Lance Loud provided some inspiration (and generated many haters).

Episode 2 reflects on “Television as a Tool,” and opens with PGN Publisher Mark Segal talking about radical actions he took disrupting the “Today” show and “CBS News.” The impact was immeasurable as these actions helped create awareness and visibility for LGBTQ people and stories — bringing the community out of the shadows. It also helped satisfy curiosity about queer lives as well as combat homophobia. 

The TV movie “That Certain Summer” about a gay father (Hal Holbrook) also provided a step in the right direction. However, the sitcom “Three’s Company” was irresponsible, making gay jokes with a character (John Ritter) who wasn’t actually gay. Ritter’s portrayal may be cringe-inducing, but, as “Visible” indicates, it was also progress. Both the sitcom “Soap” and the nighttime soap “Dynasty” were equally problematic with their gay characters having more romantic scenes with women than with men. 

Even when an actor like Paul Lynde was gay, but operated under the radar, it was often hard to tell if audiences were laughing with him or at him. And when lesbians were finally depicted on screen, as in the TV movie “A Question of Love” — about a real-life custody case — there were limited scenes of touching and a downbeat ending. 

“Visible” dedicates almost all of episode 3 to the AIDS crisis, with discussions of the groundbreaking TV Movie “An Early Frost” about a man (Aidan Quinn) coming home to tell his parents that he is not only gay but that he has AIDS. And much attention is paid to the strides ACT UP made in news reports, many of which featured same-sex kissing on TV.

Meanwhile, sitcoms like “The Golden Girls” and “Designing Women” were able to sneak in gay, lesbian, trans and even HIV-positive characters in their shows and spout liberal lessons. Soap operas like “One Life to Live” brought a gay teenager (Ryan Phillippe) into households, and daytime talk shows like “Donahue” and “Oprah” made laudable efforts to promote awareness and understanding of the LGBT community. 

Alas, a famous, never-aired episode of the chat show “Jenny Jones,” resulted in the murder of a gay man. When the victim revealed his crush on his male neighbor, the man killed him for being embarrassed on TV.

In contrast, Pedro Zamora, the HIV-positive member of MTV’s “The Real World” (San Francisco) made tremendous strides in terms of breaking down barriers, as did the PBS mini-series “Tales of the City” (1993), which prominently featured queer and transgender characters as well as a notable gay kiss. And Wilson Cruz was the first out actor to play a gay character when he starred in “My So-Called Life” during its one, significant season on ABC in 1994. 

Episode 4, “Breakthrough,” shows how LGBTQ characters moved from supporting roles to center stage, focusing at length on Ellen DeGeneres and the bonanza and the backlash that occurred when she came out on her prime time sitcom. “Will & Grace” soon followed, as did unscripted shows like “Survivor,” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” along with cable series “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word” which depicted gay and lesbian lives without shame. Likewise, “Noah’s Arc” on Logo, offered unapologetic and much-needed representations of gay Black characters.

Bisexuals also receive some exposure in this episode as characters from “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Roseanne” and “L.A. Law” are discussed, along with bisexual tropes.

“The New Guard,” the last episode in “Visible,” promotes out journalists Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow, as well as child star Raven-Symoné and “American Idol” contestant Adam Lambert. Social issues, such as the bullying of queer youth on “Glee,” the relationship between two pre-teen boys on “The Fosters,” and the gay wedding in “Modern Family” are also featured. 

Much of the last episode is dedicated to the rise of RuPaul and includes extended interviews with gender nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon, (“Billions”) as well as trans actresses Candis Cayne (“Dirty Sexy Money”), Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Mj Rodriguez (“Pose”), as well as reality TV star, Caitlin Jenner. 

What emerges from these five-plus hours of television about television is a growing acceptance of, compassion towards and understanding about queer life and representation. “Visible” is a binge-worthy and entertaining series that shows the trajectory of LGBTQ lives both on and off screen and why queer stories need — and need to continue — to be told.