Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Which TV series has the best LGBTQ representation?
Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall)
LGBTQ representation still has a long way to go on TV, but it’s better than at any other point in my lifetime, whether in shows specifically about those issues (“Transparent”) or simply featuring well-rounded characters who happen to be queer (Captain Holt on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”).
I could pick plenty of shows here as the one with the best representation, but the obvious choice to me (and not just because of when this question was timed to) is the one with the most representation: “Orange Is the New Black.”
One of the big problems with representation of any minority on TV is that most shows at best have room for one token black, or Latino, or gay character, and that character as a result has to shoulder an unfairly heavy burden to be all things to all audience members, whether viewers are part of that minority group or not. When you start having more members of a particular group, they get to exist as characters first, symbols second. (Holt is the only gay regular character on “Brooklyn,” but he’s one of two black male leads, which allowed the show to tell a story like its recent racial profiling episode as thoughtfully as it did.)
When it debuted, “Orange’s” main character was a bisexual woman. She happened to be an incredibly spoiled, selfish, irritating bisexual woman, but Piper was surrounded by many other women who identified as bi, or gay, or gender fluid, or, in the case of Laverne Cox’s Sophia, trans. With its huge and inclusive cast, the series has been able to deal with so many different kinds of issues of sexuality and gender, just as having a lot of actresses of color has allowed it go both deep and wide on different matters of race and ethnicity. (Sophia is still the only trans character, though.) They are complicated, difficult, sympathetic people, and their stories can be all over the place in terms of tone and theme. LGBTQ representation isn’t the only thing that makes “Orange” such a great show, but it’s one of the things it’s best at.
June Thomas (@junethomas), Slate
The recent cancellation of “Sense8” and “The Real O’Neals” is a depressing reminder of how temporary innovative, sexy LGBTQ television can be. The (righteous) hullaballoo over “The 100“ last season — when a fabulous provider of positive queer role models used the oldest, saddest, lesbian-hatingest cliché in the big book of TV tropes and killed off its main lesbian character literally minutes after she had sex with a woman — was another one. (That said, this season, Clarke, the show’s bisexual lead, has not miraculously gone straight, which I guarantee would have happened a few years ago.) There’s no doubt that TV has gotten a lot better at showing a range of queer experiences, but there are still more butch straight women than butch lesbians on television, too few bisexuals, and not enough queer men of color. On Fox, “Star” is expanding TV’s experience of transgender and gender-nonconforming characters (though don’t get me started on Cotton’s storyline at the end of Season 1); Freeform’s “The Fosters” is still the queerest, most inspiring family in TV history; “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” Titus Andromendron is Tina Fey’s greatest creation; and “Orange Is the New Black” puts all kinds of lesbian and bi women front and center. Still, I crave subversive, imperfect LGBTQ characters, and Hulu’s “Difficult People” is edgier — and real-er — than anything else.
April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics
I am going with “The Fosters.” Nice to see a normalized and successful lesbian relationship on broadcast TV. Stef and Lena are loving and real sans stereotypes.
It is so well written, and the ensemble is brilliant. I love this family headed by lesbian couple Stef and Lena Adams Foster, and their adopted son Jude whose challenges highlight the issue of teen homelessness.
Nearly half of all homeless teens and teens in the foster system in the U.S. are gay or transgender and I have seen it firsthand volunteering for a homeless shelter in Boise, Idaho.
Of the near 3 million homeless teens, almost HALF million identify as homosexual. This show brings a spotlight to this shameful statistic.
Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine
I lovedloveloved “Star’s” ability to incorporate LGBTQ characters into the narrative without it being ALL about their gender or sexuality. Amiyah Scott’s Cotton, a trans woman played by a trans woman, was as funny, flawed and fleshed out as anyone else on the show. Maybe at times, even more. That her character planned to have surgery (and was willing to steal for it) was secondary to this hustler’s dreams, her heartbreakingly strained relationship with disapproving mother Carlotta (Queen Latifah) and connection to the girls in the group. She even had a romantic interest and a backbone. These are still not things we see that much of on TV. And then there was Miss Lawrence, a gender non-conforming hair salon employee who was unabashedly comfortable in his own skin and skirts, who got all the great lines and didn’t apologize for being fabulous. Honestly, the idea that these portrayals are out there and are mostly positive (minus the criminal behavior exhibited by almost everyone on the show) makes me really happy for young people looking for someone on TV who might be like them.
Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire
“Orange is the New Black” might lack for subtlety at times, but one area it’s tackled with gusto, if not complete success, is the complex spectrum of human sexuality and gender. Alex might be decidedly gay, but Piper’s preferences have shown her to be less defined. Sophia’s attraction to her former wife isn’t affected by her being transgender. Characters both take pride in labels and reject them as they see fit. It’s all about doing what’s necessary to survive with your soul intact.
Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com
I’ve always appreciated shows that represent the LGBTQ community like it’s no big whoop instead of focusing on the fact that they’re gay. Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is a great example of this. He’s gay! It’s not a big deal! Being gay is just a part of him, it’s not who he is. Ditto for the underappreciated gay couple from “The Sarah Silverman Program,” Steve (Steve Agee) and Brian (Brian Posehn). They went against stereotypes by loving heavy metal and playing video games, and remained an adorable couple simply because they were two people who seemed to have a normal relationship. But more recently, “Black Mirror’s” “San Junipero” did a fantastic job of crafting a beautiful love story about two characters who just so happened to be women. Again, the fact that they were both women didn’t diminish or enhance the story necessarily, because it was just a story about love between two people that covered all the bases of love that everyone feels — fear, exuberance, and one hell of a great payoff. Love is love. It never mattered that they were lesbians, it only mattered that they were people who dug each other.
Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter
“Sense8” was probably a good answer, but it’s now officially deceased. “Orange Is The New Black” is probably the answer when it comes to most representational questions, though clearly not so much when it comes to the male side of the equation. But leaving dudes out of things — which means that dude who sued over the female-only “Wonder Woman” screenings is likely to sue me, too — there’s no part of the gender or sexual spectrum/rainbow that isn’t featured in “Orange,” which has broken boundaries in trans representation and and covered all manner of lesbian and bisexual relationship. “Transparent” would probably be a fine second choice, but my real answer is “Orange Is The New Black.”
Inkoo Kang (@inkookang), MTV News
Though far from faultless, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has probably done more than any other show in television history in showcasing queer creativity, diversity, and history. Additional shout-outs to “Transparent,” “Please Like Me,” and “Orange is the New Black” for exploring the nuances within queerness with such sensitivity and for being excellent shows in general.
Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com
In terms of sheer volume, “Orange Is the New Black.” No show has a bigger, more diverse cast and no show offers as complex a representation of queer women beyond their sexuality as “Orange.” I’d also be remiss not to mention “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word,” two groundbreakers of a dormant genre that needs to be resuscitated: the gay ensemble drama (“Looking,” we hardly knew ye).
Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox
I sort of hesitate to answer this question with “Transparent,” which captures such an upper-class, white experience of LGBT issues (which is to say that everybody has enough money to weather any emotional storms without having to worry about where they’ll sleep that night) that it feels inherently limited. And yet of all the shows on television, “Transparent” most seems to suggest the full spectrum of human sexuality and identity, as it relates to issues of desire and gender. Maura Pfefferman’s journey doesn’t just reflect a growing understanding of trans issues in the US. It opens in all of her kids a recognition that they have their own need to express their fluidity of identity, and by Season 3, it’s all but impossible to pin down the sexuality of anybody other than Pfefferman son Josh (who seems to skew toward straight all of the time). But even that could be revealed as something new come Season 4. “Transparent” isn’t a show about how sexuality is fluid, not exactly; instead, it’s a show about how you continue to get to know yourself as you come of age (and you’re always coming of age). And that inevitably means better getting to know your own sexuality.
Gail Pennington (@gailpennington), St. Louis Post-Dispatch
There are lots of shows with more LGBTQ characters, but none that made it seem more normal for a long-lost father to turn out to be gay than “This Is Us.” His sexual orientation wasn’t even close to the most important thing about William (the great Ron Cephas Jones). He had a lot to answer for, having abandoned infant Randall (Sterling K. Brown) at a fire station. Then, 35 years later, dying of cancer, he had only a short time to get to know his son. Oh, and it turned out that William also had a partner, a man he had recently left to save him the pain of watching William die. The disclosure was surprising but not dramatic; William remained ordinary and very human, a man who had made mistakes but was determined to make amends before it was too late. William was so relatable, he was the gay father (and grandfather) who could change even the most prejudiced relatives’ minds in just one family dinner.
Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire
Considering the recent cancellation of “Sense8” and “The Get Down” as well as the cultural dominance of Netflix, I feel it’s important to note the streaming giant has a number of original series with excellent LGBTQ representation. It’s not that I feel the need to defend the network — I’m as mad as anyone about losing Baz Luhrmann’s epic musical — but I hope these shows and characters are being seen, and all I can do to aid that endeavor is give voice to them here. Netflix doesn’t release numbers, but their subscriber totals — over 100 million worldwide – are evidence alone that people are watching.
I just hope they’re seeing Titus Andromendron on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” in all his sharp, judgmental glory; Sol and Robert on “Grace and Frankie,” who speak to a demographic most often labeled as close-minded toward LGBTQ issues; Lionel Huggins on “Dear White People,” a quiet and sweet college freshman searching for identity without losing his voice; Denise on “Master of None,” the second episode of “Easy,” and oh so many wonderful ladies on “Orange is the New Black.” You know you’re going to watch something on Netflix. Make sure these shows are in the queue.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
A: “The Leftovers” (five votes)
Other contenders: “The Handmaid’s Tale” (three votes), “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (two votes), “Better Call Saul” and “Veep” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.