In My Top 10 Favorite Television Shows, various members of Autostraddle’s TV Team will be telling you about the TV shows nearest and dearest to our hearts, EVEN the ones that don’t have lesbian / bisexual / queer woman characters.
Today, Deputy Editor Carmen Phillips shares feelings about her favorite shows of all time.
I love television — a lot. By which I mean, a lot.
If we’re being honest, and I think we should because we’re only human after all, I wanted to impress you with my choices. I wanted to pick the definitive BEST television I’ve ever seen (especially because we’ve had so few chances to write about straight and/or cis gay men’s television on Autostraddle, you know? So, I wanted to flex a bit). I gave that up and decided I wanted to tell you my guilty pleasures, the stories that I know are awful but I gobble like sugar sweet candy and never complain — because what’s television, if not fun? Ultimately, I did neither of these things.
In the “shows that almost made the list” section at the bottom of this Top 10, you will find a mix of the shows I consider objectively to be The BestTM and the shows that are my most saccharine pleasures (some are a bit of both!). But for the actual Top 10 you’re about to read below, I simply picked the TV shows that I’ve watched most often. These are the ones I’ve repeated over the years, worn out my streaming queue, and can recite entire scenes from memory without looking up from my keyboard.
It’s an abstract measure of what’s truly my “favorite” — but, oh well, life’s random. At least this gets us to good cross section. OK! Thanks for reading the disclaimer and here we go!
This show makes my Top 10 for one reason and one reason only: Naya Rivera’s performance as Santana Lopez.
A few years ago, here’s what I had to say:
“The only straight I am is STRAIGHT-UP BITCH” is one of the most empowering lines uttered by a queer woman on television. Santana bristled, but she loved. She really loved. She loved without being forced to be soft. That’s something that we don’t often see in “bitchy” television characters, especially in those written by men.
Santana was allowed to rage. When she was in the closet, she took all the hate she was feeling about herself and she spewed it out. Maybe that sounds off-putting in retrospect, but let me tell you — back then it was cathartic. Kurt, Glee’s other resident gay, was a sympathetic queer character. He had a bit of a snarky sense of humor, but when he got bullied, he cried, and the audience cried with him. When he came out, his father loved him and hugged him and then we got to cry some more. His storyline was hopeful and optimistic. I don’t want to take anything away from Kurt or his importance in television history. But here’s the thing about Santana — she was the bully. She wasn’t a saintly gay. She found it hard to love herself, so in turn she made it hard to love her. She told her abuela that she had to come out because every day felt like a war. She was tired of fighting with herself. I wept. So many of us know what it feels like to tear yourself in two from the inside out, to put up armor and hope that no one will notice. My armor was a smile, Santana’s was an insult. And bless her for it.
Thank you Naya.
When I talk about Grey’s Anatomy, here’s usually the first thing I say: There’s no version of my coming out story that doesn’t also involve Sara Ramirez as Callie Torres. That’s still true — but also there’s no way to talk about my humor, or the ways I’ve learned to cope through the worst of my depression, or the entire decade of my 20s, without also talking about Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve watched it so many times on a loop that it’s actually embedded itself into my DNA. I wouldn’t still be here if I hadn’t had Grey’s — with it’s drawn out monologues and needlessly complicated sexcapades — glowing that soft, quiet hummm into my darkest corners.
Maybe you’ve heard of this thing? It’s called “Texas Forever.”
I’ve never been to Texas, and I’ve only ever sat through about three complete football games in my life, but also I’ve got to tell you, Friday Night Lights is some of the finest television ever written. It’s about football, but only as much it’s also about learning strength of character and how to love or what it even means to grow up. It’s about finding and building community. To be honest, when I think of Friday Night Lights, I barely even consider it a television show. Its scripts are so meticulously plotted, with characters who leave as their high school years wane and graduate, but core themes that hold steady throughout — it feels more like a long-form novel about a small Texas town. Ironically, that’s something a lot of pretentious critics say about The Wire, a show that couldn’t be further away from Friday Night Lights in terms of subject or tone if it tried. Still, I think the same adage applies here.
(Many write ups of FNL point to its earlier seasons as a highlight, but I’ve always been partial to a baby-faced Michael B. Jordan’s years in Seasons Four and Five. Those seasons also co-star a young Jurnee Smollet-Bell, whom you’ll see a repeat performance from on this list in exactly one second… )
Yes, I realize that I did an explainer defining the rules of this Top 10 list — namely that no matter how great or masterful, no show that I’ve ever only seen once could make the cut — but rules are made to broken and if there’s ever been a need for an exception, this is it.
Underground only lasted for two short and criminally undervalued seasons on WGN (you can currently find them streaming on Hulu). Its legacy got cut short because period dramas are expensive and WGN wanted out of the original programming business, but if you’ve ever trusted my opinion any piece of television criticism, you’ll make it your business to seek it out.
It’s true that I’ve only seen Underground once, but that’s for a very good reason. The highest praise I can give is this: I hate, and I mean genuinely loathe, fictional stories about slavery. It’s my steadfast belief that there are so many better ways to spend my one beautiful precious Black life than being re-traumatized by watching my people be abused, raped, and in chains. And yet — Underground is triumphant. It’s determined, and considered, and hopeful without ever once losing track of the violence, torture, or purposeful cruelty that enslaved Black Americans were subjected to. In Season Two, Aisha Hind’s Harriet Tubman has the honor of what I still consider to be the single greatest hour of performance put forth by a Black woman on television. Jurnee Smollet-Bell’s protagonist is a heroine of epic portions — fierce, loyal to her family, relentlessly brave. If you loved Amirah Vann’s Tegan Price in How To Get Away with Murder, you are wholly unprepared for her breakout role in this series. Autostraddle favorite Jasika Nicole is also prominently featured.
Like so many others, I’ve spent a lot of time this summer thinking about Black stories and media consumption. Underground is what happens when you purposefully decenter whiteness in our history and the stories we tell ourselves about it. You should watch it.
6. Noah’s Arc
Patrik Ian Polk’s Noah’s Arc is only rivaled by The L Word (hold one second on that!) when it comes to television shows that fundamentally shaped by baby gayhood as a queer Black woman. Those who know know, but Noah’s Arc was truly FOR US, BY US television — it didn’t have fancy Showtime backing, the sets and costumes were sometimes a little budget tight, but the love behind and in front of the camera was always sincere and overflowing.
When similarly placed (and much more mainstream) shows, like Queer as Folk and The L Word, were busy associating gayness with whiteness in our media, Noah’s Arc was the 1st place I saw ball culture, or learned about Black prides, or literally saw ANY gay Black couple love each other EVER. I was wrecked when Noah was beaten horribly in a hate crime. When Ricky briefly gave up his fuckboi ways and fell in love with Wilson Cruz’s Junito? I swooned hard. Alex’s everything is a Forever Mood. The first gay wedding that made me cry? 100% that was Wade and Noah in the spin-off movie Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom (and yes, I went out of my way to see the film opening night, thank you very much). Noah’s Arc was a window. More than that — a mirror. A mirror that I could be fully black, fully queer, at the same time.
If you’ve never seen Noah’s Arc, the first nine episodes are currently available online. The feature film Jumping the Broom is available as well. Earlier this summer, the cast and creator filmed a special Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter themed reunion episode that’s since been released on YouTube — and no less than four people I love sent me the original press announcement within an hour of its release. I’m just here to give Darryl Stephens and Patrik Ian Polk all of their flowers.
Ah yes, who realized that we’d arrive here eventually? The L Word portion of the list! The thing is, looking back over my television watching life, I’m genuinely surprised how many times I have re-watched The L Word!!
I mean, OK, I’m a queer TV/Film critic and also a senior editor on a lesbian website, so this probably doesn’t surprise many of you — but it surprised me. Even more than that, I’m genuinely surprised at how much I enjoy watching it? The L Word has very rightly been held to tough criticism over the last ten years. The original is famously bathed in whiteness and never did right by Tasha or for that matter, a single trans character. The reboot still has yet to cast a dark skinned Black woman or literally any woman who’s not a sample size. But even with all of that, I still genuinely fucking love both of these shows.
The L Word has often caused hurt, but damn does it get back up and try again. It always seems to find a way — a conversation between friends who use nothing but their eyes, the way that queer women pile on top of each other to say hello and drink wine out of mugs, working up the courage to ask that hot neighbor next door out on a first date, all of it — to remind me that it’s still home.
Plus, every time Bette Porter says “Fuck.” My heart.
Speaking of shows that have caused hurt, may I welcome you to Orange is the New Black?
Listen I don’t know what to tell you, I once loved this show with passion and absolute fire, and then I was left betrayed and brokenhearted by a writers’ room and showrunner who had no interest in telling stories that respected Black and Brown women as opposed to actively traumatizing them. Somehow along the way, I found myself back to… well, I can’t say I’ve ever forgiven this show, Jenji Kohan burned that bridge long ago, but I did come back around to appreciating it.
Here’s the kindest, truest thing I can say about Orange is the New Black: Almost everything about how we tell women’s stories in the last decade, queer women’s stories, stories about trans women and women of color, all of it — it all changed because of this one single show. Perhaps Orange is the New Black’s greatest gift and curse will be that it lived long enough to watch its metaphorical TV children outgrow it.
I’ll never watch another Jenji Kohan show for as long as I live, but this cast was magic. I’ll always be grateful for the women of Litchfield and the summers they stayed my life.
It is sincerely dumbfounding how good one television show can be. At this point I feel as if I’ve written so much about Pose that I might as well be blue in the face. But you know what? Here goes one more:
With skill and artistry, Steven Canals and Janet Mock have tapped into a purity and resiliency and love that beats raw at the center of so many queer chosen families for Black and Brown trans and queer folks. Then, they splashed it in our full splendor across our screens, immortalizing us the same way white cis people have been able to see themselves for years.
I can go on. I could talk about how I’d never seen a Black Puerto Rican femme who’s the mother of her queer chosen family who reminded me so much of myself until I saw Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca Evangelista (down to her arroz con gandules served straight from the caldero). Or how I’ve held Angelica Ross’ performance as Candy in my heart for two years. I could talk about how Billy Porter is shattering glass ceilings on the awards circuit, and how rampant transphobia simultaneously keeps Pose from collecting all the little gold statues it rightly deserves.
In the opening of Pose, Elektra wonders what category to walk. Blanca responds: ROYALTY. Pose is so much more than luxurious ballroom runways; it knows we’re fucking rich. It knows that small family dinners surrounded by the people who really see you are worth more than gold. It knows even in the specter of death, queer folks don’t falter. We hold on to each other harder and stronger — and that fortitude is worth an entire crown of jewels. We’ve earned our diamonds because we withstood the pressure.
When Autostraddle first designed this Top 10 series, there were two shows that I never doubted for a second would be the last two standing. And honestly, the two are so closely tied in my mind that I couldn’t figure out how to rank them separately. In the spirit of democracy (ha!) I did a impartial straw poll of my three oldest friends and my mom — another show won (barely), but more on that in a bit.
It may be a sitcom, but I take Living Single very seriously. I take it seriously that this Black television show, on what was once the last place ranked FOX broadcast network, centered on the friendships of four Black women, became the entire blueprint for a better known white juggernaut that many would later say defined the decade. I’d argue those critics who flaunt Friends as being definitive are plainly and factually wrong; there isn’t a thing Friends did that Living Single didn’t do first and with essentially 1/8th the budget. Tattoo it on my skin. I stand by it.
I’ve watched Living Single front-to-back every year, every single year, since 1993 when I was in 2nd grade. That summer I basically had a Queen Latifah themed birthday party. As a present, of my mom’s friends got me Queen’s Black Reign album on cassette tape! The unedited “adult” version, so you just knew I was big time!
Living Single is on Hulu, if you’ve never seen it or want to catch up. It’s always funny in the way you want “classic” sitcoms to be, and it leads with its heart. After watching for 30 minutes, you can’t help but feel a little more settled about the world. (Also there’s a lesbian themed special episode in Season Three — 3×22 “Woman to Woman” — that, just like the rest of the show, pokes fun without laughing at you and ultimately lands exactly where you want to be.) The most important thing to know, that I will take no debate over, is that Max and Kyle are second greatest Black love story on television.
Want to know the first?
1. A Different World
Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert forever.
Debbie Allen’s magnum opus was so ahead of its time 30 years ago, and it gets better with age. Do you want to know who was frank, honest conversations about consent and the responsibility of men not to rape all the way back in 1989? That would be A Different World. Who was talking about growing HIV/AIDS rates in Black communities when the President of the United States could barely choke out the virus’ name? Oh that would also be A Different World, back in 1991. What about racist hate crimes on college campuses? 1992 — and you already know the deal. Debbie found time to dedicate entire episodes to Black history icons like Lena Horne or Alvin Alley, not to mention creating graciously realistic goals for Black hair care while living in a college dorm.
But what makes A Different World absolutely iconic is not its myriad of “Very Special Episodes” in that late 80s way — it’s that it is legitimately funny and feels “lived in” in the way you feel once you’ve settled in on a college campus. As a viewer, it’s so easy to genuinely believe these characters are best friends trying to figure out young adulthood and life. It’s a true work of large ensemble and in that light, there are very few other sitcoms like it. Most focus on a central cast of four or five — A Different World tapped out somewhere around nine!! With so many characters to keep track of, the show becomes an ideal masterclass in the tight 22 minute, three-act script. It’s also a surprisingly gripping slow burn romantic comedy (and here I am in 2020, still looking for a nerdy lil’ butch Dwayne Wayne with flip-up glasses to call my own).
There’s a reason that you can still buy Hillman college sweatshirts online 33 years after the show’s debut, a reason why Lena Waithe named her company “Hillman Grad Productions” — it’s because Debbie Allen took us to school. May we continue to be her legacy.
(A Different World is available on Amazon Prime, but if you’ve never seen the show you should start at Season Two and just thank me later.)
Shows that almost made the list: Vida, One Day at a Time, The Wire, The Sopranos, The Crown, Jane the Virgin, The West Wing, How to Get Away with Murder, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Big Little Lies, Sex and the City, This Is Us, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gilmore Girls, Oz