Arts & Culture » Television

Year's best (& some worst) on the Lavender Tube

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Billy Porter as Pray Tell in "Pose." Photo: FX
Billy Porter as Pray Tell in "Pose." Photo: FX  

Most of us will be happy to see the back of 2018, which has been a crap year by any metric. Watching Nancy Pelosi bitch-slap Trump on live TV was the best holiday gift we could receive — tidings of comfort and joy, indeed.

As awful as the year was in politics, it was pretty fabulous for TV, no matter what some critics will tell you. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime all added to the joys of cable, and even network had some good offerings.

The best of the best was, for LGBTQ people, "Pose," the standout series of the year. It belongs on everyone's Top 10 list. That it's not says how hard it is for self-declared allies to watch stories in which they are, often, villains. Turnabout is, apparently, not perceived as fair play.

With extraordinary performances by Billy Porter, Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Evan Peters and Dominique Jackson, the story of ball culture and the rise of the AIDS pandemic (and where they intersected) was an emotional gradient — it brought all the feels. Having gay and trans stories told by gay and trans writers and performed by gay and trans actors was groundbreaking. It was so real, we're verklempt just thinking about it. This series stayed with us more than any other in 2018.

For those of us who lived through the 1980s and how that time decimated our community, the AIDS storyline was gutting. We will never forget the trays of food left in the hall outside the hospital rooms of AIDS patients, nor those gauzy yellow gowns that were supposed to protect us from the virus killing our friends and lovers. Billy Porter gave a searing performance as Pray Tell, the emcee of the balls who was also seamstress to the queens and himself secretly HIV+.

The love story of Trump Tower exec Stan (Evan Peters) and the beautiful young trans woman sex worker Angel (Indya Moore) is heartbreaking in its realness. The confrontation between Stan's wife Patty (Kate Mara) and Angel is where worlds collide. That we feel equally for both women, and also for Stan, is a tribute to the story's power and complexity.

Indya Moore is just breathtakingly good. Her performance was one of the best of the year, and deserved a Golden Globe nod.

When Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) discovers her HIV+ status, she confides only in Pray Tell, and decides she needs to make her mark in the world by starting her own House and competing with her former Mother, Elektra (Dominique Jackson). Her collection of misfit gay boys and trans girls is the sweetest family. Her efforts to be a true mother to these motherless young things is believable, charming and deeply emotional.

Elektra is aging, yet still the dominant presence on the circuit. But when she decides it's time to have gender reassignment surgery, the man who keeps her, Mr. Ford (powerfully played by Christopher Meloni, wow), tells her it will destroy their relationship.

The layering of these stories keeps us engaged with all the characters, which also keeps us deep in their heartbreak, as well as in their achievements and joys. Christmas at Blanca's is the series' most schmaltzy moment, but also deeply endearing. This historic series gets a second season in 2019.

Spree killer

"The Assassination of Gianni Versace," the second season of Ryan Murphy's "American Crime Story" anthology series, provided one of the most impressive performances of the year: Darren Criss ("Glee") as serial spree killer Andrew Cunanan.

"Versace" is a complex series. As we watch the evolution of Cunanan from a young, self-loathing gay man into a full-fledged sexual sadist and murderer, Criss compels, fascinates and repels. We feel some measure of empathy for the young Cunanan, who was sexually abused by his father. But the way Cunanan uses, abuses and tortures other men is harrowing. The murder of aging Chicago magnate Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell in the performance of his career) is so grotesque, we almost leave the series after it. But Criss lures us back.

More gay men die, including the designer. Versace is presented as a charming, unpretentious genius, in love with his work and his handsome profligate partner Antonio D'Amico (Ricky Martin), and under the control of his domineering sister, Donatella (Penelope Cruz).

"Versace" is lush, immersive and haunting. In addition to Criss and Farrell, Judith Light's performance is outstanding. Light plays Marilyn Miglin, the wife who knows her husband is a closeted gay man, but loves him deeply anyway. She has carefully constructed the facade under which they both live. His sexual torture murder threatens to sunder the reputation they have built over decades, and her belief that he also loves her and their life together. "Versace" may be the most unsettling cautionary tale about the perils of the closet ever made.

Season two of the anthology series "The Sinner" was as mesmerizing as the opening season. Bill Pullman's Detective Harry Ambrose is complicated, broken and thoroughly relatable. His sexual issues, raised in season one and somewhat muted in season two, drive him even as they restrict him. They also make him more open to seeing similar problems in the lives of others.

Season two is driven by sexual tensions, secrets, myths and repression. As in season one, religion at its most brutal — flagellating (sometimes literally), conflicting, punishing — is a key element. (In season one, it was Catholicism; in season two, a New Age cult.)

"The Sinner" reveals who committed the crime — just not why — in its opening episode. The evolution of that answer is always deeply, provocatively engaging. In season two, the key figures in the story include a black lesbian detective, Heather Novack (Natalie Paul); a controversial spiritual leader, Vera Walker (the always pitch-perfect Carrie Coon, late of "The Leftovers"); and Julian, a boy (newcomer Elisha Henig) of questionable lineage. The great Tracie Letts (yes, the playwright) gives a powerful, muted and disturbing performance as Jack Novack, the ex-cop father of Heather. The unraveling of families of origin and the ways we build our own are foundational elements of this series. Deftly, darkly, beautifully crafted.

BBC America's "Killing Eve" brought Sandra Oh back onto the TV landscape as Eve Polastri, an MI5 agent on the trail of an assassin, Villanelle (Jodie Comer). All the details about this series come with a spoiler alert, so suffice it to say it's a queer, smart, fast-paced thriller that is also fun and feminist even as the body count ticks up. Everything you think about the spy/psychological thriller genre is upended by these two women who play a vicious cat-and-mouse game. Mesmerizing.

We loved "You," and so did Stephen King, who knows more about psychological horror than maybe anyone living. "You" was a show we shouldn't have loved, because the protagonist is a stalkery murderer who preys on women, yet the performance by Penn Badgley was so good, we found ourselves rooting for the monster. Plus, it brought the exquisite Shay Mitchell ("Pretty Little Liars") back as an obsessed lesbian named, wait for it, Peach.

Not everyone loved "Dietland," which got a ton of media hype and made people think about fat women for about five whole minutes, then got cancelled by the network, AMC, the land of testosterone series sprayed with Axe, where it didn't belong to begin with.

We loved the mixed-media thrill show that was "Dietland," with its breakout star, Joy Nash, who played Plum Kettle. We loved the rage, the cake-baking, the unabashed shift from all-black to crazy colors in Plum's clothes, we loved the wild tiger-sex episode, we loved the animated segments. It was all good.

"Dietland" had many impressive performances, notably Tamara Tunie ("Law & Order: SVU") as a lesbian esthetician turned radical feminist revolutionary; Robin Weigert ("Concussion") as a creepily soft-spoken, incredibly privileged cult leader with a secret; and Julianna Margulies ("The Good Wife") as Plum's spoiled, narcissistic boss and editor of the women's magazine for which Plum works.

This show goes off the rails frequently, but always in context. It delves deeply into the microaggressions and outright violence of daily life as a female — which may be why the execs at AMC thought it was just too much and maybe years too soon. We thought it was right on time. And if the midterms were any indicator, we were right. Women are angry, and they vote.

The most compelling limited series of 2018 for us was PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery," "The Woman in White." We're still thinking about this provocative look at women's lives in the mid-19th century, when women were entirely at men's legal and personal mercies. Sumptuously filmed, powerfully acted and decidedly unsettling. Men could maim and kill women without much fear of prosecution. The living death of incarceration in a madhouse always lurked as an option. Utterly chilling.

Comedies soothe us when times are as dark as these. "Will & Grace" had its best season ever. The show decided to tell some backstory on each of the fab four, and Grace (Debra Messing) had a #MeToo moment to share with her father. It was powerful, poignant and a story that resonated so strongly for female viewers that it set Twitter ablaze with women telling their own, similar stories.

As the poet Muriel Ruykeyser wrote in 1968 in her poem "Kathe Kollowitz," "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open." There has been a lot of that truth-telling this year on TV.

Other comedy series that kept us on an even keel and that are consistently good, with queer content, are "The Good Place," "Bojack Horseman," "Murphy Brown," "Insecure," "Younger," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Atlanta."

"The Bisexual," which debuted on Hulu in October, is one of the best shows of the year. It's funny, clever, arch, poignant, hyper-real and groundbreaking. Desiree Akhavan wrote, directed and stars as Leila, who's been in a lesbian relationship for a decade.

Akhavan is just delightful as the wannabe bisexual who isn't quite sure she's ready to get married to her long-time lesbian partner, Sadie (the always brilliant Maxine Peak), when half the world is still male.

Akhavan has pitch-perfect comedic timing, which makes the show work, as the story is very much hers. Akhavan is an out bisexual in real life, and very funny in how she talks about it. Her own experience gives verisimilitude to Leila's.

One of the best comedy/dramedy series is Netflix's "Dear White People," which just got renewed for a third season. "Dear White People" is thigh-slapping, piss-your-pants funny while also being a gut-check on white privilege. There's 20 episodes to binge-watch over the holidays. Do it.

"Orange Is the New Black" is still there and still good. We had to remind ourselves, so we're reminding you as well. It had a dark season in 2018, but didn't we all?

We got tired of "black-ish," because we got tired of the Beau and Dre break-up storyline, but fortunately that is finally over (phew) and the show is funny again. Wanda Sykes and Jennifer Lewis are still there, so everybody dance now. This series is reliably funny and sometimes one just needs that. It's why we still watch "Modern Family." Reliable in an unreliable time.

Sometimes reliable means reality TV. "Queer Eye" was the year's best reboot. We enjoyed the first round of the series, then-titled "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," way back in 2003, although admittedly we did not watch all 100 episodes. That early series changed the TV landscape by adding queers to it.

The new Netflix original is fun, but also has moments of real depth as issues of racism, internalized homophobia and classism (but not misogyny, tsk tsk) have been addressed. The Fab Five are distinct and compelling, and the makeovers are more like life classes with a little counseling tossed in. There's a lot of coming to terms with trauma and toxic masculinity, which isn't just good for the makeovers, it's good for the world. Two seasons dropped in 2018, and a third will premiere in 2019.

We watch some reality TV, but it's all cooking shows ("Chopped," "Master Chef"), house shows ("Love It or List It," "Fixer Upper") and talent shows ("The Voice," "America's Got Talent"). Those shows are therapeutic background entertainment when you're scrolling through your Twitter feed, and have lots of queer content.

Some of the best series ended in 2018. If, inexplicably, you missed watching the six seasons and 75 episodes of "The Americans," the series about Russian sleeper spy cells in Reagan's 1980s, all we can say is, Netflix is there for you. "The Americans" is iconic. The final season was stunning. You want to see it. Especially now.

We're among the folks still watching some drama series on network, and two we love are "This Is Us" and "How to Get Away with Murder." If you don't like these two shows, that's fine. But while the time-shifting narratives can be annoying, the overall content feels worthy. Plus, sometimes you need a "This Is Us" series that gives you a cathartic cry each week, like a high colonic.

In 2018, "This Is Us" gave us the gay storylines we've been waiting for. It's sad that we still ache for such things, but we do. "HTGAWM" had a big gay wedding, as well as a lesbian storyline and more arc of the HIV+ storyline. Both worth watching. "This Is Us" will catch you up in its deeply emotional plot. The fall season's flashbacks to Jack's service in the Vietnam War was a gut-check about how bad times have been in America's not-so-distant past.

There were a few shows we hated or just didn't see the point. The sitcom that didn't work for 2018 was a mess that needn't have happened if execs did their homework. The "Roseanne" reboot that then was rebooted to "The Conners" — this was an unnecessarily racist, homophobic and transphobic minute we didn't need to have that made a lot of people angry and tainted some otherwise good actors (Laurie Metcalf, John Goodman) with Roseanne Barr's alt-right politics. Ugh.

It's not up to Hollywood to make Nazi politics palatable. In fact they owe it to the Jews who built Hollywood to refute Nazism. It's not "edgy," and never will be. Period. No one needs to "both sides" horrible, brutalizing ideas. History tells us those will always find a platform. We watched the entire season of "The Conners," and one of our New Year's resolutions is to not watch again. "The Conners" is just criminally unfunny, and the little blasts of gayness are not worth that time we will never get back. There are too many characters for a sitcom, and unlike the original "Roseanne" back in the day, we really don't care about any of them, even a little bit, except maybe the gay child.

We also didn't like "Lodge 49," which felt forced and unfunny. We liked "One Mississippi," but wish the cloud of Louis CK's assaults on women didn't hang over it or over "Better Things," because of his involvement in both series. That involvement as producer altered our perception of both series, which is yet more damage wrought on women by the comedian. Tig Notaro and Pamela Aldon deserve better. That Louis CK has slithered back into the mainstream comedy world sans any punishment is appalling.

We fell out of more than a decade of love for "Grey's Anatomy" just as pretty new gay guys came on board because the show had a really bad season. We hope it will be better in 2019.

There were shows we didn't see, so we can't comment. "Succession" made a lot of people's 10 Best lists. Didn't watch it. Sorry. People we respect who did, loved it.

We've tried hard to love "The Deuce." Can't. Won't.

We expected to adore "The Romanoffs." What a waste of time that was. Ditto to "Homecoming." Julia Roberts was good. The series, not so much. "Maniac" — why, why, why?

We hate-watched season eight of "American Horror Story: Apocalypse," and as we did so we kept asking ourselves why we were still watching. The answers are Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett and Sarah Paulson. There were other standout performances, but those were the best.

The season was the most beautifully shot yet, but it was linked together by gossamer threads, and none of the storylines really kept us engaged. It was predictably grisly, which someone needs to tell Ryan Murphy is officially a bore. Mostly we watched because we've watched the other seasons, and the aforementioned actresses are superlative. Lange was astonishing and will likely win an Emmy. But we're really going to think about season nine.

We also won't be watching season two of "The Purge," for similar reasons. The smattering of queerness was not enough to justify 10 hours of unremitting, stomach-churning violence. A few good performances weren't enough.

Finally, the Top 3 anchors on cable news were all queer: Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon on CNN, and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. It's good to know in times like these, we can have a gay filter on the news that won't ever forget we exist. (There's also someone in an anchor seat on network who could come out.)

So for the best of a bad year, remember to stay tuned. Happy holidays!

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