This summer, we officially entered the era of peak queer TV — and we're here for it
From Queer Eye to Pose, nuanced and diverse LGBTQ representation feels like it's at an all-time high
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Not long ago, LGBTQ representation on summer television shows seemed revelatory, essentially because of just one series: Netflix's Orange is the New Black.
When Orange premiered in July 2013, it immediately became something of a cultural phenomenon — its inclusion of not one or two but upwards of 10 queer characters was legitimately pioneering. This felt particularly so because of how diverse the characters were, and how their sexuality and gender identity received considerable attention in storylines. From Piper to Big Boo to Poussey to Sophia (the latter of whom, through actress Laverne Cox, represented one of the first times a trans woman played a trans woman on television), Orange is the New Black certainly helped change the status quo.
So much so that just five summers later, its latest season wouldn't even make a list of the five most notable queer TV events of summer 2018.
LGBTQ-themed television has been having a moment for a few years now. Just last month this column delved into the Emmy nominations for the last television season, which were impressively queer in the shows, performers and behind-the-scenes talent represented. But, if this summer has anything to say about it, just wait until next year's Emmys (the eligibility for which began on June 1st — the awards still revolve around rules from way back when summers were just a sea of reruns).
One particular category I'd have your eye on is Outstanding Variety Special, which for two years running has been won by specials relating to James Corden's carpool karaoke segments. It's also the category where standup specials can get their due, and I cannot imagine — with all due respect to Mr. Corden — how anything he and whoever else do in that car in the next year will deserve to win over queer comedian Hannah Gadsby's special Nanette. The power and influence of that special is immeasurable, which was also discussed at length in this column through the words of various queer comedians (pioneering out comedian Elvira Kurt, for example, said the special "will be life-affirming and life-changing to more people than Hannah can imagine or will ever know").
But even if you put Nanette aside as its own thing and only consider episodic television, this summer has been decidedly incredible queer-wise. Take another Netflix offering: the second season of the revamped Queer Eye, which they released just a few months after the first. While a bit predictable and formulaic, and obviously not remotely revolutionary in the way Nanette and a few shows I'll soon mention are, I dare you to try and find something on television as reliably heartwarming — and happy tear-inducing — as what the Fab Five offer up.
There were no happy tears on my end (and hopefully not yours either) from watching the BBC miniseries A Very English Scandal, but it sure makes up for it in how it drips prestige. Adapted from the book by John Preston by British queer TV icon Russell T. Davies (who created the original Queer as Folk) and directed by Oscar-nominated Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena), the series didn't quite get the attention it deserved — so make it your end-of-summer binge if you didn't see it (it's only three episodes so it'll barely be a binge!). Starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw — both of whom have perhaps never been better — the show dramatizes a truly insane 1970s political scandal where a British MP (Grant) was tried and acquitted for conspiring to murder his former lover (Whishaw), and it does so with the kind of sharp pacing that TV shows everywhere should aspire to.
That said, it hopefully says a lot about where television is headed that a miniseries about gay white men starring movie stars and directed by the guy who made The Queen struggled to get buzz while two series focused largely on queer and trans women of colour racked up attention. F/X's Pose and Starz's Vida — both of which have already been renewed for second seasons — have set new bars for diversity in LGBTQ representation, and both were a complete joy to watch in the process.
Mexican-born playwright Tanya Saracho (whose few TV credits before this included writing four of the best episodes on HBO's dearly departed Looking, itself a pioneering queer show), assembled an all-Latinx writers room to create Vida. The show tells the story of estranged Mexican-American sisters Emma (Michel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) who return home to East Los Angeles after their mother's sudden death, only to discover they've both inherited her bar and a stepmother in what they thought was her roommate. Both sisters, one of whom is queer herself, unravel as the six-episode season tackles complicated intersections of humanity — and a lot of queer sex — like nothing else that's come before it.
Pose, meanwhile, comes to us like many things have before: in partial thanks to Ryan Murphy, who, at this point, has collectively done more for LGBTQ representation on television than anyone else save maybe a certain Ms. DeGeneres. He'd probably be the first to admit he's been aided by his privilege as a white gay cis male who has been working in the industry since the 1990s. But with Pose, he smartly surrounded himself with a diverse staff of talented writers and directors (including the likes of Janet Mock, Our Lady J, Tina Mabry and Steven Canals) to tell a story that's hardly his own: the New York ball culture scene of the late 1980s.
With the largest cast of trans actors ever assembled for a narrative television series — many of whom had never acted before — Pose had a lot riding on its shoulders when it premiered. But thanks to the thoughtful writing and multiple star-making performances (Indya Moore and Mj Rodriguez in particular), the show found an undeniably engaging and heartfelt groove within a few episodes, deservedly becoming the summer's most-talked about TV series (okay, save maybe Sharp Objects).
The fact that we can already count on second seasons of Pose and Vida (and hopefully a series created by Hannah Gadsby if Netflix knows what's good for it) by next summer suggests this era of peak queer TV is just getting started. And while it's hard not to see Orange is the New Black, which will also be back next summer, as an afterthought in all of this, let's give credit where credit's due: Orange helped open doors for shows like Pose and Vida — and hopefully we're about to see those shows open a few more doors themselves.