'When We Rise' Review: A brutal story of the past feels painfully familiar in the present

Reviews of When We Rise have been harsh. "Too dense," said Deadline about Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black's new ABC miniseries about the gay rights movement. "Square," said Entertainment Weekly. "A tedious history lesson," TV Line wrote in a particularly strong pan.

Quite frankly, I can't disagree with much of that. The seven-part miniseries, which will air over four nights, is packed to the gills with story, attempting to tell the tale of LGBTQ rights in the United States from the days of Harvey Milk up and through the Supreme Court decisions that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8. It often drags, alternating between focusing on its real-life protagonists (Cleve Jones, Roma Guy and Ken Jones) and the minutiae of history.

And indeed, there will be many who find the series to be not queer enough, likely a byproduct of Black's stated goal of writing the series for conservative viewers. "I think there's a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump who will love this show. I don't see this show as only trying to speak to half a country," the writer said at the Television Critics Association winter tour. "I think if Donald Trump watches the show, he might like the show."

Like I said, all of those criticisms are fair. I would add that the series is often hard to watch, both because of its tonal shifts (from light and easy to brutal, often within a single scene) and its indulgence in preachiness (a problem that also plagued Black's Prop 8 play, 8).

But I also think it's the most important TV of the year so far: A program that educates about the past while resonating deeply in the present. It's far from perfect, but despite its flaws, it's near-necessary viewing.

When We Rise splits its four two-hour installments between two time periods. The past, which takes place in and after the age of Harvey Milk, follows the younger versions of our protagonists — played by Austin McKenzie, Emily Skeggs and Jonathan Majors — in the early days of their activism. Each has a defined arc: McKenzie's Cleve is a fun-loving twink who quickly becomes political. Skeggs' Roma is a feminist activist struggling with how her lesbian identity intersects with that. Majors' Ken is a navy man hiding his sexuality and making his way in a racist military.

After the second night, time zooms forward to the '90s, where our leads are played by Guy Pearce, Mary-Louise Parker and Michael Kenneth Williams. Some of these transitions work better than others: Pearce and McKenzie's performances feel more aligned, while Williams and Majors' Kens feel worlds apart from each other.

It's in these back episodes that the miniseries' problems really come to the fore. Much time is spent on Roma and her partner Diane's struggles raising their daughter, and on Cleve attempting to adopt a foster child. Most compellingly, we see Ken struggle with losing his partner — the second lover of his to die — and fall into addiction. Black attempts to string these personal stories into the greater political arc with mixed results. Ken's pain feels like a direct result of federal injustice, as he lost the home he shared with his partner because he wasn't legally married to the deceased. Roma and Diane's story can't help but feel smaller in comparison, while Cleve's ultimately feels like a distraction.

The first two installments are much stronger, with character arcs that directly relate to the activism of the moment. There are still moments of personal drama — Roma and Diane's courtship, for one; Cleve's friendships with three men who will soon die of AIDS, for another — but they feel ingrained into the overall story Black wants to tell. Frankly, a stronger miniseries would have cut down the story in the '90s and 2000s to just one episode.

Austin McKenzie and Adam DiMarco in 'When We Rise'ABC

But when When We Rise is focused on its overarching story, it's quite powerful. Though Cleve is unmistakably the main lead of the series, Black has nicely woven in stories of non-white, non-male and non-cis characters. Ken's plot is particularly engrossing, and Majors' nuanced performance deserves much of the credit. He plays Ken's hard edges and longing for acceptance with equal aplomb, making him the standout actor among the three young leads. Of the supporting crowd, Ivory Aquino is great as trans activist Cecilia Chung, while bigger stars like Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell, Phylicia Rashad and David Hyde Pierce make the most of their limited screen time.

More than anything, what makes When We Rise such potent viewing is the way it approaches activism. Characters grapple with how much to work within existing systems versus disrupting peace. It's striking to see Cleve argue for working with Washington insiders in the fourth installment after seeing him so passionately oppose such kowtowing in previous episodes. 

On the eve of President Bill Clinton's speech at a Human Rights Campaign fundraiser, Democratic strategist Richard Socarides urges Cleve to keep other activists from acting out in protest of Clinton. His answer — that a movement cannot be controlled in that way — echoes strongly in 2017, as activists argue over the difference between riots and protests and how much a movement is responsible for its members.

T.R. Knight and Guy Pearce in 'When We Rise'ABC

When We Rise serves as a call-to-action, a reminder that for as much progress still needs to be made for LGBTQ people, the movement only got as far as it did thanks to politically engaged people of all stripes. Inaction isn't an option. A moment like our current one, or like Cleve, Roma and Ken repeatedly face in this series, can't be allowed to pass unseized.

Eight hours of flawed TV over four nights is a commitment, I realize. And there will be plenty turned off by one scene, or one character treatment, or one line of dialogue. I can't blame anyone for that. But those who stick through it will find that, although too often frustrating, When We Rise is the show we need right now. It's educational, empowering and, occasionally, entertaining. Consider it the cultural equivalent of eating your vegetables: It may not always be enjoyable, but you'll be better off having watched it.

When We Rise will premiere on ABC Monday, Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. Eastern. Part II will air on Wednesday, March 1, followed by Part III on Thursday, March 2 and Part IV on Friday, March 3.