There Will Never Be a Perfect LGBTQ TV Show — and That's Okay
In the wake of Looking, HBO's short-lived series about three gay men living and loving in San Francisco, it's increasingly difficult to believe there will ever be a perfect LGBTQ TV show.
And not "perfect" in a quality sense — flawless long-form art is near-impossible. Even masters of the medium, like The Wire creator David Simon, get criticized. "Perfect" in TV refers to the kind of show we talk about in the way we talk of classic literature: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men. They're vaunted to the pantheon of capital-G greats — most anchored by troubled male protagonists, though some critics have done valiant work to get women-focused shows like Sex and the City recognized as well.
But despite shows like Looking, Queer as Folk, Will and Grace and The L-Word, we're still lacking a show with LGBTQ protagonists. There likely never will be one ideal show. That's okay, though; what we really need is more options.
Ahead of last Saturday's Looking finale movie premiere, I talked to star Raúl Castillo, who played Richie. We talked about the intense scrutiny and criticism of Looking from gay writers, and he said something I haven't stopped thinking about since.
"Any time you're representing a marginalized community, there's going to be a lot of expectations," he said. "To represent a community that's diverse, no one show's ever gonna do that." He went on to compare it to the way shows about Latinos don't represent all Latinos. In truth, the argument could be made for the way any show about a particular group represents that group. Think of the criticism surrounding how Girls presents millennial women living in New York City.
This is the key to understanding why there will never be a classic LGBTQ TV show. Queer and trans communities are diverse bodies, each person with their own thoughts on what proper representation is. No one could possibly represent all of them.
Look at Transparent as an example. The Amazon show about a woman transitioning late in life has been nothing short of a critical darling since its release. Advocacy organizations like GLAAD have championed the show as a model of representation.
"Objectification, fetishization, and obsession with genitals that all feed transphobia are still present in Transparent — but they are directed away from trans women and toward trans men," Keegan wrote. "Certainly, this is not the kind of representation that most trans men are hoping for."
This isn't a new problem, either. Even before the age of thinkpiece saturation and outrage culture, LGBTQ viewers rejected representations of themselves they didn't like.
In June 2015, I talked to the creators and cast of Queer as Folk at an anniversary event for the show during Austin's ATX Television Festival. I raised a question very similar to the one at hand right now: Why does Queer as Folk, a prestige drama that aired on Showtime as a contemporary to The Sopranos and Sex and the City, not have a similar reputation?
"Part of it was the network, part of it was we didn't have as many eyeballs," former star Peter Paige said in response. "Part of it was that we were a soap."
But series creator Daniel Lipman held gay viewers responsible. "We were very naïve at the beginning, because we thought the community would embrace us," he said. "They were so shocked by this, by seeing their lives put up there so graphically and honestly, and I think they couldn't deal with that."
The diversity of LGBTQ communities is a positive, not a negative. Even when the intense scrutiny of each and every LGBTQ-themed show proves frustrating, that discord is much more preferable to the alternative: monotony. What we need is not one show that represents everyone, but more shows to represent everyone.
Will and Grace represents a very specific type of gay man. It was revolutionary at the time, with even Vice President Joe Biden heralding its cultural significance. "I think Will and Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody's ever done so far," he said in a Meet the Press interview in 2012.
If Will and Grace aired in 2016, it would be thinkpiece'd off the screen. It would be called too white, too gay-male-centric, too unrepresentative of the diversity of New York City and too misrepresentative of what being gay is for so many people. It was vital for its place in time, but can't be held to a modern standard. That wasn't the goal.
But if Will and Grace aired in an alternate 2016 — one where multiple networks have multiple LGBTQ-themed shows on their schedules — Will and Grace would likely be a popular but critically disliked show a la The Big Bang Theory. Meanwhile, more inclusive and progressive shows would earn critical plaudits. They'd become the Mad Mens, the Breaking Bads. When there are more than just a handful of examples, it's easier for the best of the best to stand out.
Looking was divisive throughout its run. Perhaps that was unavoidable; perhaps, no matter how many queer- and trans-representative shows there were on TV, it would have divided critics. As a community, even with years of being underrepresented behind us, we may never stop holding actual representations to the highest possible standard.
But imperfection is okay. We need more imperfect shows — shows driven by ambitious people that want to take a chance on telling the stories of marginalized groups. We need more Lookings, not fewer. We need RuPaul's Drag Race, and we need Transparent. We need shows like web series The Outs and Sidetrack, which include parts of the LGBTQ spectrum other shows don't.
And when we get those shows, we can be critical. Criticism is part of appreciating and digesting art, but we should also appreciate every bit of representation. It wasn't that long ago that a young LGBTQ person looking for themselves on TV couldn't find anyone at all.