Where we’re at with queer TV

Beware: This blog does contain spoilers.

The representation of gay, lesbian and queer stories on television has evolved quite a bit in the last few years – thank goodness. It still has a fair way to go, according to many, but I thought I’d take a look at some of the queer shows and characters we’re watching these days. And they’re not all about pretty young people; the stories are much more diverse.

Thanks to the wonders of streaming TV, we’re getting to see some pretty good – and diverse – queer content. Netflix has the following:

Grace and Frankie: Jane Fonda (Grace) and Lily Tomlin (Frankie)play sixty-ish women whose husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterson) have divorced them to marry each other after 20 years of an undercover affair. It’s a sitcom, of course, with Fonda playing an uptight ex-businesswoman and Tomlin playing a flaky hippy, but it deals with the issues that coming out later in life raise, for the wives, the husbands, and their children. It’s easy to watch, and like, but tells a story not often seen on TV.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Another sitcom, one that centres around Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), a girl rescued from an underground shelter where she’d been imprisoned by a doomsday cult leader for 15 years, and her efforts to come to terms with a very different world. She ends up sharing a New York flat with the ambitious but out-of-work actor Titus (Tituss Burgess), who is gay and black. It’s camp and silly and can be a little forced, but there’s enough sly humour to make it work. And Titus, while being an exaggerated stereotype, pokes fun and holes in the stereotype.

Orange is the New Black: This series, set, if you didn’t know, in a female prison, is four seasons in, and is not only full of strong performances and storylines, but, perhaps not surprisingly, features a whole range of queer characters, from trans-women to femme lesbians, butch lesbians, sometime-lesbians and every number on the Kinsey scale in between. And they’re all flawed, real characters who you love sometimes, and other times just want to slap.

London Spy: This British five-part series stars Ben Wishaw as Danny, a London gay man, who after a night out, has a chance encounter with a handsome man Joe (Edward Holcroft) jogging alongside the Thames – as you do. A whirlwind romance ensues, but Joe isn’t exactly who he says he is, and when he goes missing, Danny discovers he’s actually a spy. Also starring Jim Broadbent as Danny’s older gay friend Scottie, and Charlotte Rampling as Joe’s frosty mother, it’s a thriller where the characters’ sexuality is certainly part of the tale, but not the focus – thankfully.

Meanwhile, over on Stan:

Transparent: With three seasons now available, this show covers a lot of ground – in a very honest, uncensored and unfiltered way. It’s the story of Mort/Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), and older man who is transitioning from male to female, and how that affects his family. It’s an incredibly intelligent and complex exploration of sexuality and gender on a very personal level, and it does so with a remarkably neutral tone. It’s not preaching and not Queer Politics 101, but it offers a number of different opinions, experiences and responses from the very human characters. But it does treat transgender issues with respect, and that’s not something we’ve seen a lot of on television before.

UnREAL: Also on Stan, but SBS2 has broadcast the first season, this is a dark, dark mockumentary satire on reality TV, especially shows like The Bachelor. It’s not queer as such, but it does feature a gay producer, and one of the contestants in the first series comes out as a lesbian – quite prescient, given this year’s Australian series of The Bachelor saw two contestants fall in love with each other.

Elsewhere, via HBO, there’s Looking, with Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed the wonder UK film, Weekend, as executive producer. It revolves around three close friends – all gay men – and their lives in San Francisco. Understated, and like Transparent, non-judgemental, it stars Jonathan Groff, Frankie J Alvarez and Murray Bartlett as the three friends, and features Russell Tovey and Scott Bakula, amongst others, as satellite characters and/or love interests. It ran for only two seasons, and a feature film in 2016 ties up all the loose ends, but it’s a shame that such an honest representation of gay lives on screen wasn’t given more room to breathe.

Closer to home, there’s not been much in the way of queer stories on commercial TV, biopics of peter Allen and Molly Meldrum aside. Even gay supporting characters have become thin on the ground in local drama, but SBS and the ABC have been more active.

Earlier this year, SBS broadcast the series Deep Water, a murder mystery set in Bondi about a series of murders of gay men that unearth unsolved murders from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Starring Noah Taylor and Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black) as police detectives Nick Manning and Tori Lustigman, the story is mostly told through Lustigman’s eyes, whose gay brother was murdered many years ago. An important story based on actual events, but there was some criticism that it was a ‘straight’ telling of a dark chapter in Sydney’s gay history.

The ABC has come to the party better dressed with a number of shows from Matchbox Pictures, headed by Michael McMahon and his partner Tony Ayres. Along with Glitch, an intriguing story of long-dead people climbing out of their graves in a country Victorian town – one of whom *Spoiler* is a young WWI soldier who’s gay, they also gave us Barracuda, based on the novel by Christos Tsiolkas.

It’s about Danny (Elias Anton), a working class teenager who wins a scholarship at an elite Melbourne private school because of his swimming prowess. Along with the difficulties involved in fitting in to such a smug and privileged social class, he’s also dealing with his emerging sexuality. So it’s a gay story told by a gay man and gay executive producers, and it aired in a primetime slot on ABC1. Being gay isn’t even a big part of the miniseries; it’s just one element, dealt with in an understated but effective way. And that’s a great step forward for Australian television.

Barracuda is not alone on the ABC. Josh Thomas and his series Please Like Me has just finished screening its fourth season on ABC1 – after previous seasons were broadcast on ABC2. In this latest season, Josh and his friends have had to grow up and become ‘adults’, and in doing so, the series itself has too.

While this continuing development and sophistication shows Thomas has grown as a writer and performer, one of the things that makes this series unique and refreshing is that it’s unapologetic and not issue-driven about Josh’s sexuality. His gay life, including family dynamics, friendships, relationships and sex life are presented frankly, but not milked for its sexuality. If anything, it’s more about mental health, and this is also expressed in a very matter-of-fact way. Even the surprising – and very moving – penultimate episode, where *Spoiler* Josh discovers his mother has taken her own life, is beautifully and sensitively understated.

Please Like Me celebrates gay life, but it also pokes fun at it, exposes its ugly aspects and recognises its sad times too, just like many other straight ensemble series have done. Being gay is not seen as something out of the ordinary, and really shows that Australian television has indeed come a long way. It, and the other shows included in this blog, just need to keep that momentum going.

Catching up on comedy, nudity, big-budget superheroes and no-budget Classic Who

Yes, yes, I know; it’s been well over a month since I last posted, but unfortunately, other things have been getting in the way: work commitments, a sick husband, family functions… you know how it is. It doesn’t mean I’ve been idle, though.

It’s been a mixed bag of cultural experiences, from three very funny but very different Melbourne Comedy Festival shows to a blockbuster movie, a naked stage show, and a dodgy DVD. Let’s go on a quick cultural tour of my last month.

April in Melbourne of course means the Comedy Festival, and while I didn’t bust a gut to get to too much, I did see three shows: Dixie’s Tupperware Party, Nath Valvo’s Walk of Shame and Joel Creasey’s Naked. All gay shows, but all very different. Dixie Longate – essentially a drag show from a Deep South trailer trash mother and her newfound love of Tupperware. Yes, it was fun, and Dixie was quick-witted and well-rehearsed, but while there was plenty of laughs and sharp off-the-cuff material, there was no real payoff at the end, and it felt like a camp, dressed-up Tupperware party – which is all it was, really. Great fun, but not groundbreaking.

Nath Valvo contemplates how far he can push the envelope in 'Walk of Shame'.

Nath Valvo was pushing more boundaries though. In his show about being on the dole and his achievement of passing two kidney stones – with very clever and funny stops along the way – he doesn’t apologise for being gay, or for a fairly confronting (well, for the straight audience members anyway) tale about a foursome. And while he may seem scattered and random, you can tell he knows exactly what direction he’s going – even if it almost derails when he involves the audience at the end.

Joel Creasey's promotional material exposed more flesh than he showed on stage...

Joel Creasey, surprisingly with a show called Naked, was a little more ‘family-friendly’, but just as funny as he spoke about his fear of being naked in front of other people – and his country gig where he was chased by anti-gay protesters. It wasn’t his flesh he was exposing – but there was some of that as well. As there should have been.

Both Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans had their work cut out for them when faced with their gay admirers.

 

 

 

 

No naked flesh however in The Avengers, Marvel’s blockbuster movie featuring six – count them – superheroes. And that’s despite Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth reprising their roles as Captain America and Thor respectively. At least we got some great views of Evans’ arse and Hemsworth’s arms, some fun banter between the Avengers (yes, Robert Downey Jr came out on top there), and the decimation of Manhattan by Loki and his alen allies that makes Independence Day look like a senior citizens’ sightseeing tour. While not as earth-shattering as the CGI would suggest, The Avengers was an enjoyable, overblown piece of superhero cinema.

Thor wonders how many bicep curls he'll end up doing tonight...

Captain America finds sprints achieve the perfect bubble butt...

 

 

 

 

 

 

One show that needed some extra fluffing – at least, the night I attended – was Naked Boys Singing, and it wasn’t their tackle that needed tending to. Unfortunately, two of the cast were unable to perform, which left five naked boys, and the dance captain stepping up to help out.

Two of these Naked Boys were missing - can you pick which ones?

The problem was, while the boys did an admirable job singing and dancing in the buff, it was obvious that they were covering the missing boys’ arses, and some numbers seemed lacklustre and the performances uncertain. Which was a great shame, because some of the other numbers were very good. But good-looking naked boys and in-your-face tackle wasn’t enough to carry the show.

Check out the flares on those Mandrels!

Not all my cultural pursuits have been in theatres and cinemas. There’s been plenty to keep me entertained at home. Released recently on DVD was the 1979 Doctor Who story, Nightmare of Eden. Starring Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as Romana, from the oft-ridiculed Season 17, Nightmare of Eden is one of the most reviled, and that’s essentially because of the very cheap studio-bound sets (a staircase shifts as Baker races down it), equally cheap, but camp costumes (the designers had clearly just discovered Spandex and sparkly fabric), and the flare-legged Muppet monsters, the Mandrels, who managed not to be menacing at all, and whose flares were already out of fashion.

Even the Doctor has trouble coming to grips with these - erm - monsters...

I first saw this story in 1980, when it first screened on Australian TV, at the very start of my love affair with Doctor Who. I was 13, so still able and willing to be impressed, and there is much to admire in this story: the drug addiction backstory, the hyperspace collision, and of course Baker and Ward relishing their witty asides and double act. Watching it now, it alternates between being inspired, dreadful, camp, boring, sobering, and a lot of fun. Even when Doctor Who is really bad, there’s always something worth watching it for.

So that’s me caught up, in time for the end of autumn. Now I’m immersing myself in trashy television of many kinds – but more of that later…