'Visible: Out on Television' sees TV's major role in the march toward gay rights

Posted February 13, 2020 10:01 a.m. EST

— Television has always been a teaching tool, as well as a contributor to changing society's values. The medium's role in an evolving view of gay rights -- slowly and arduously -- provides the fodder for a fine Apple TV+ documentary, "Visible: Out on Television," which explores various breakthroughs and signature moments over five distinct parts.

Featuring a rotating roster of narrators (Janet Mock, Margaret Cho, Asia Kate Dillon, Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Waithe), director Ryan White ("Ask Dr. Ruth") weaves together interviews with key figures and deftly curated clips.

The series gradually charts the ground broken by programs like "All in the Family" and PBS' documentary "An American Family." At the same time, it connects those standout projects to reflection by LGBTQ people -- many of them now working in TV -- and the importance of seeing versions of themselves on screen, for good and sometimes ill.

There are, not surprisingly, plenty of wince-inducing scenes in the early images of gays (especially) on vintage series. "Visible" makes clear how TV -- while generally a force for progress -- often took a step back for every one forward, inching toward an environment of greater inclusion and acceptance, but easily startled by pushback and criticism.

Those aspects include what came to be known as the "Bury your gays" trope, where LBGTQ characters kept dying in drama series as a means of advancing a straight character's development arc.

At every stage, introducing gay characters met with resistance, from the cancellation of "Ellen" after Ellen DeGeneres' coming out -- both on screen and off -- to the pressure PBS faced when it aired Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," the drama based on his serialized narrative about life in San Francisco.

What White achieves, quite effectively, is illustrating the interlocking timeline as one pioneering show gradually led to the next -- how "Ellen" helped pave the way for "Will & Grace," which in turn allowed for "Modern Family," and so on.

"Visible" also breaks down the subject by genre, in one of the more interesting passages contemplating the significance of reality TV, since the people featured -- even within carefully massaged and edited storylines -- weren't actors portraying characters, but real people representing themselves.

There was Richard Hatch, for example, winning the first "Survivor," participants in MTV's "The Real World," and Adam Lambert's success on "American Idol."

Some heartbreaking stories emerge along the way, but also uplifting ones. Actor Wilson Cruz (also one of the producers) recalls being kicked out of the house by his father for being gay while the same thing happened to his character on ABC's landmark 1990s drama "My So-Called Life," with his dad's exposure to that fictional plot helping facilitate a reunion.

Amid the chorus of voices discussing TV's ability to soften hearts and change minds, Oprah Winfrey -- one of the savviest personalities ever in doing just that -- says, "I just don't know of anything that has a more powerful influence."

"Visible: Out on Television" is a reminder how far both TV and society have come, but also the setbacks and sacrifice in the uneven road getting there. While we remember many of these big moments, what White has done is to meticulously connect the dots -- drawing in lines that history has a way of rendering, well, invisible.

"Visible: Out on Television" premieres Feb. 14 on Apple TV+.

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