Why you should watch Visible: Out on Television on Apple TV+
James R | On 16, Feb 2020
“I think TV profoundly affects the way people feel about themselves,” says someone in Visible: Out on Television, a documentary that examines the relationship of the LGBTQ+ movement and the small screen.
The five-part series takes us through the history of both the movement and TV, from the early days when LGBTQ+ people where portrayed as maniacs or deviants to the 1970s when positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ people began to emerge – and through to the current wave of LGBTQ+ creators who have made it within the industry open the door for greater inclusion of talent and voices off screen to wider representation on it.
The show carefully divides that journey through key milestones along the way, charting how activists began to see and use TV as a tool in the aftermath of the Stonewall Uprising to 1997’s coming out of Ellen DeGeneres both on her TV and in real life.
That enables the series to examine each of these landmark steps towards modern culture and society in detail; while the early years of TV could be skimmed over or dismissed, the show recognises the work by Norman Lear in introducing sympathetic queer characters in both The Jeffersons and All in the Family. At the same time, it also acknowledges the prejudice, ignorance and compromises that came with it, and the frustrations of how slow progress was. “I watched it and I laughed,” says Billy Porter, the Emmy-winning star of Ryan Murphy’s groundbreaking series Pose, “but it was sh*t.”
There’s equal due paid to Walter Cronkite, who proved an early ally to the LGBTQ+ movement after his show was disrupted by an activist and he responded by listening and learning from what they had to say. And there’s time to reflect on how small, incidental characters – such as Billy Crystal in ABC sitcom Soap – made gradual steps in representation by coming out, or being openly gay, on screen.
The rise of voices such as Ryan Murphy brings about 2014’s landmark drama The Normal Heart, which helped to raise awareness of the HIV and AIDS crisis, a crisis that Porter recalls being overlooked by the media with a heart-breaking anger. The coming out of Ellen, meanwhile, helped to usher in changes in front of the camera – although the swift cancellation of her show afterwards makes it clear that the progress was still, even decades on from TV’s beginnings, hard-fought and slow-made.
Each of these chapters are narrated with experience and expertise by key players within the movement, including Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Waithe. They’re complemented by some well chosen archive clips, which are stitched together stylishly to both moving and funny effect. The result is a welcome rebalancing of the showbiz industry’s long-standing bias towards white men, charting history from a perspective that’s been sorely lacking on screens.
The programme’s strength, though, isn’t its impressive roster of talking heads – including Michael Douglas on playing Liberace and Asia Kate Dillon on being cast in Billions – but in the intimate honesty that each one brings. Director Ryan White, who made the similarly heartfelt The Case Against 8, again displays that same ability to draw out each individual’s story behind every incident and event – it’s a show that understands the intimacy that exists between TV and its audience, how its presence in living rooms made it a medium more personal than any other.
That personal touch makes this reflection on how far the movement has come, and the hopeful progress yet to come, equally intimate, capturing how much every step has meant for all those we hear from – people who have been on both sides of the screen. “If I see someone like me on television, it’s a major validation,” says one interviewee. The result is a profound reflection on the power TV has to help change the world – and a profound piece of television in its own right. Eye-opening and educating, this five-hour box set is beautifully observed, lovingly compiled, movingly thoughtful and hugely entertaining.
Visible: Out of Business is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.