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.