The winter of our heart's content: As we all froze, women and queers just took TV to the next level
From Sex Education to Shrill to Schitt's Creek, it was a very special season for storytelling
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
I have little doubt there has never been a season in my life where I have consumed as much television as this past winter. (And yes, we can finally say "past" now — spring equinox has arrived!) Various factors contributed to this unconfirmed record, from the frozen hellscape that has been Toronto since December keeping me indoors to the riding out of a long stretch of distance in a very long distance relationship, sending me in search of distraction. But however I found my way to what episodic storytelling had to offer over the past three months, I will leave this winter in true awe of it — because we may very well have just witnessed the moment where women and queers finally and deservedly took over.
I know this is a very substantial declaration, and I assure you it's one I haven't come to lightly. But think about it: how often do we get a truly extraordinary new narrative series that feels like the uncompromised vision of women and/or queer folks? A couple times of year, if we're lucky? Well, in the 89 days that comprised this past winter, we arguably were blessed with six: Sex Education, Russian Doll, PEN15, The Other Two, Now Apocalypse and Shrill.
It all started on January 11th, when Netflix's British import Sex Education became the first new series of 2019 to find its way to the cultural zeitgeist (it's been suggested 40 million households found their way to the show in its first month). Created by Laurie Nunn and written almost exclusively by women (one man shares a writing credit on the sixth episode), the high school-set comedic drama marked a rare and truly necessary exploration of teenage sexuality through a feminist lens, and managed to be addictively entertaining on top of that. I'm not sure I've ever had as strong a desire to magically be able to send my teenage self a series from the future, though I am very glad the teenagers of 2019 have access to Sex Education.
The teenagers of 2019 were also given a middle school-set gift in February, though it's likely to speak most to folks who have already survived those years. Set in the year 2000, PEN15 comes out of the wonderful minds of 30-something writer-actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, who play 13-year-old versions of themselves in the series, while all the other actors are legitimately teenaged. It's a high concept that could have gone horribly wrong, but Erskine and Konkle (who co-created the series with Sam Zvibleman) pull it off, and over 10 episodes PEN15 evolves into one of the most raw and observant explorations of teenage friendship I've honestly ever seen. (And it's now available for streaming in Canada right here on CBC Gem).
A different kind of friendship — the one between siblings — is portrayed just as admirably in The Other Two, the brainchild of former Saturday Night Live head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider. Following 30-something siblings Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Vancouver's own Heléne Yorke) as they try to function in spite of both themselves and their 13-year-old brother's meteoric rise to pop superstardom, The Other Two is both bracingly hilarious and somewhat tragically insightful. Few series (Search Party and some seasons of Girls) have offered such an on-point take on a very specific demographic (read: white, entitled, urban "old millennial" gay men and straight women), and we have the brilliant minds of Kelly, Schneider and their fabulous writing staff — which also includes two queer comedians that are deservedly having a moment: Cole Escola and Joel Kim Booster — to thank for that.
Saturday Night Live alumni were also the primary voices behind two arguably perfect first seasons of series that came out this winter: Netflix's Russian Doll (created by Natasha Lyonne, Lesyle Headland and Amy Poehler) and Hulu's Shrill (starring and co-written by Aidy Bryant and created by Lindy West and Ali Rushfeld). The two series sound quite different on paper: Russian Doll follows a software engineer (Lyonne) who finds herself in an ongoing time loop wherein she repeatedly dies on her 36th birthday, while Shrill depicts an overweight journalist (Bryant) battling the way society treats her. But both shows are truly unflinching portraits of complex women trying to work through their trauma and find a new way to live their lives, and it's hard to walk out of either without a little renewed hope for your own.
Hope isn't exactly omnipresent in the final offering of the sextet, which is hands down the sexiest of the six. Queer cinema icon Gregg Araki's wild (and currently ongoing — two episodes have aired, though I was lucky enough to preview five) Now Apocalypse is maybe the horniest series to ever grace the small screen, and one that is really not getting the attention it deserves. The Starz series appears to give Araki (along with his co-creator and co-writer Karley Sciortino, the founder of the website Slutever) a full canvas to explore the singular style of his film work (if you haven't, find your way to all of it), and he does not hold back. Following an almost unbearably hot cast — including leads Avan Jogia and Beau Mirchoff, who I am willing to declare among Canada's all-time sexiest exports — as they try to navigate identity, sexuality and maybe alien lizard people and the end of the world, Now Apocalypse is the best kind of bonkers.
Collectively, these six series were created by ten women, two queer men and one assumed straight man — which is certainly something to celebrate, though to some degree it does makes it questionable to try to make this column about a victory in queer storytelling when it's more about how women took over TV this winter. But even in the cases where straight women were the ones solely responsible for creating these shows, they offered us some of television's most interesting new queer characters, like Shrill's Fran (Lolly Adefope) and Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) or Sex Education's Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and Adam (Connor Swindells). All together, these six shows gave us over a dozen new LGBTQ characters on television, and I love every single one of them. Because honestly if I'm going to trust non-queer folks to create queer characters, I'm not sure it gets any better than the likes of Aidy Bryant, Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne.
Now, I would be remiss not to mention another show with multiple LGBTQ characters I love, and not simply because it happens to air on the television network associated with the very website you're reading this on. Because as Schitt's Creek's popularity skyrocketed internationally, our homegrown glory did not disappoint in its fifth season — exclusively directed by women and gay men, just saying. In fact, it continued to just get better. And while that absolutely has much to do with the astounding comedic talents of its actresses (and not just Catherine O'Hara — Emily Hampshire, Jennifer Robertson and Annie Murphy deserve them some awards too), the heart of Schitt's Creek belongs to the Daniel Levy's David and Noah Reid's Patrick. Their romance surely kept many warm the last few months (especially with this week's tremendous episode, appropriately airing on the last night of the season) and — like every series noted here — hopefully it continues on for many winters to come.