As with just about any phrase that gets repeated over and over throughout the years, “representation matters” has threatened to become a benign catchall for Hollywood’s ills. But the saying is nonetheless rooted in a simple, powerful sentiment: that seeing a piece of yourself meaningfully represented in media can enable deeper understanding for you and the broader audience alike. Beyond mere entertainment, representation has the capacity to change minds — for better and for worse.
This conflict forms the spine of “Visible: Out on Television,” a new docu-series from Apple TV Plus that conveys the breadth of LGBTQ+ representation on American television from the medium’s beginnings through today. It’s a hugely ambitious project, and it takes its mission seriously, featuring a genuinely astonishing breadth of research and dozens of interviews with LGBTQ+ actors (including executive producers Wilson Cruz and Wanda Sykes), writers, allies and activists. It’s fascinating and educational to see archival footage from across decades of TV genres — and even moreso to understand just how much TV has been used both as a weapon and a balm to long-suffering wounds.
“Visible” unfolds chronologically over five episodes, each relatively framed around a specific theme: “The Dark Ages,” “Television as a Tool,” “The Epidemic,” “Breakthroughs,” “The New Guard.” The first three chapters are particularly strong, especially as they examine areas of media coverage like news reports, reality shows, soap operas and talk shows, all of which have heretofore been underserved in the larger conversation about LGBTQ+ representation on TV.
“The Dark Ages,” for example, doesn’t just mention that the first iteration of the word “homosexual” on television occurred during the McCarthy hearings, but details the ripple effects in media and beyond. (Former “Project Runway” mentor Tim Gunn speaks movingly in interviews about how they spurred his father, a “macho FBI agent,” to lash out even harder at his seemingly gayer tendencies as Gunn was growing up.) It also convincingly argues that invisibility is a curse, meant to keep marginalized people down by insisting that they’re not there, and by proxy, don’t matter.
“Television as a Tool” movingly speaks to the ways in which gay activist groups recognized the potential power of television as a platform with which to spread awareness of their presence and goals, with activist Mark Segal discussing his frequent attempts to interrupt live news broadcasts with their message. “The Epidemic” focuses more specifically on how the rise of AIDS was covered — or more commonly, not covered — in the news and scripted programs alike, though its driving story is that of Pedro Zamora, the “Real World: San Francisco” cast member whose sympathetic portrayal and shocking death shook the country like few other queer people on TV ever had (or could).
As could be reasonably expected, the last two episodes that creep closer to the present aren’t nearly as focused as the first three, without the advantage of greater distance from its subjects to reflect. And while “Breakthroughs” at least has Ellen DeGeneres’ game-changing coming-out episode on her sitcom to loosely hold it together, “The New Guards” jumps from milestone to milestone without much of the critical insight that makes the earlier chapters so resonant. Take, for instance, its quick dissection how important Chris Colfer and Max Adler’s gay characters were on “Glee,” without mentioning Naya Rivera’s crucial teen lesbian one, or the often messy show’s weaker spots on LGBTQ+ representation, despite its best intentions. Or the relatively brief dives into trans and bisexual characterization on TV, both seemingly limited by the interview subjects that “Visible” landed to discuss it.
And yet, to its credit, the series strives far more often to provide the kind of nuance and counter-narratives that few others would. A discussion of “Will & Grace” as a groundbreaking sitcom includes people of color like “Pose” star Billy Porter making sure to add that its view was, and is, almost exclusively limited to white experiences. Activist interviews with figures like Segal and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy bring in necessary, grounding historical perspective. “Visible” even manages to have some fun in segments like the one in which DeGeneres and Sykes look back on all the iconic characters they interpreted as being lesbians over the years — Lucy Lawless’ Xena chief among them, of course — thanks to their demeanors and narrative coding.
What makes “Visible” remarkable is this kind of attention to detail and broader context, not to mention its obvious commitment to including queer voices as expert witnesses. Its in-depth study of a seemingly impossible subject to sum up is very impressive — and, I daresay, necessary. As LGBTQ+ representation multiples and improves, it’s become an easy line for bad faith bigots to declare that enough might just be enough, the culture war’s been won, they get it, queer people exist. But as “Visible” makes clear within just a few searing minutes, the current proliferation of queer content was hard-won over decades of invisibility, hostility and hardship. Now, as more and more people might understand what it means to be queer in America thanks to more and more representation thereof on television, it’s even more important to remember the obstacles and battles it took to get here, so as not to go backwards.
“Visible: Out on Television” premieres Friday, Feb. 14 on Apple TV Plus.