Apple TV+’s new five-part documentary series, Visible: Out on Television, is, well, everything. It’s a comprehensive look at the totality of LGBTQ+ representation on TV; an examination of modern gay and trans history; a love letter to the art and power of storytelling; and a showcase of all-star narrators — Rachel Maddow, Janet Mock, Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillon, Lena Waithe, Billy Porter, Wanda Sykes, Wilson Cruz, and even Miss Major Griffin-Gracy — who are as passionate about queer TV as the fans who take to Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr on a daily basis to talk about the shows and characters that resonate in their bones. It’s gripping and touching and funny and heartwarming, but most impressively, it’s unrelenting.
You know that’s going to be the case when the first episode kicks off with the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, which marked the first time the word “homosexual” was said aloud on television, and which kicked off the Lavender Scare that ripped through Hollywood as quickly as it did through the United States government. And the investigation into the political and cultural symbiosis that exists as a result of what’s on our screens doesn’t stop there. To get to the place where Janet Mock can say that shows like Pose gave many Black trans women the ability to see that they could be the centers of their own universe for the first time, it’s essential to understand how TV’s refusal to grapple with the Stonewall Riots or the AIDS epidemic with any sense of integrity fueled backlash to the LGBTQ rights movements and contributed to the deaths of countless gay and trans people. Miss Major says, matter-of-factly, “We were fighting for our lives.”
The scrutiny around harm doesn’t rest on previous decades. Transparent creator Jill Soloway is as quick to take pride in the positive legacy of the series as they are to call casting Jeffrey Tambor “a mistake” and draw their own line from cis men playing trans women on-screen to real-life anti-trans legislation at the state and national level.
The analysis is sharp, but it’s not often rooted in judgment. Visible‘s creators, Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave (alongside executive producers Sykes and Cruz), don’t sidestep their critique of even lesser known stumbles in LGBTQ storytelling, but they seem committed to contextualizing every flashpoint. In fact, the flashpoints are kind of the point. Visible is endlessly curious about how various moments of queer representation become catalysts for huge shifts in societal attitudes, for better or for worse. The series is also quick to point out that being invisible is not an option, and that blunders are an essential part of moving the conversation forward.
The mediums of representation in Visible are as varied as the narrators. There’s primetime broadcast TV, of course, but there’s also daytime TV, reality TV, news, talkshows, made-for-TV movies, and even beloved subtextually gay series like Golden Girls and Xena: Warrior Princess.
The highlight of the series, for me, was the fact that the last two episodes couldn’t keep up with the landslide of LGBTQ TV we’ve experienced since the late 2000s. While the first three episodes (“The Dark Ages,” “Television as a Tool” and “The Epidemic”) are focused, deliberate, and admirably exhaustive, the last two (“Breakthroughs” and “The New Guard”) can’t contain the multitude of characters that have spun out over the last decade. A little Ellen here, a little Will & Grace there, a dash of Glee, a spoonful of Pose, and then a cacophony of Sense 8 and My So Called Life and Queer as Folk and Arthur and Oprah and The L Word and Billions and on and on and on. Streaming TV and traditional TV. Procedurals and comedies. Dramas and animated series. Sci-fi and soaps. Visible can’t keep up, and there’s something fitting and beautiful about that. Though Billy Porter, especially, is quick to point out that most of the huge changes we’ve seen in TV over the years have benefited cis white gay men, both on-screen and IRL.
When people tell me what my own TV writing has meant to them over the last many years, they don’t usually talk about specific pieces or topics; they talk about how my writing made them feel less alone in their soul-deep need for and love of stories. If you’re one of those people, this documentary is for you. “Television helps us make sense of who we are,” Margaret Cho explains. “Television shows us we’re part of the larger culture,” Rachel Maddow echos. It’s the same thing Jonathan Gottschall wrote in The Storytelling Animal, his seminal book on the power of narrative: “When you sell a man a book, you don’t just sell him 12 ounces of paper and glue and ink — you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships by the sea at night — there’s all heaven and earth in a story.”