go through a very specific cycle of emotions when a gay character is introduced on the TV show I’m watching. First I feel hope, then excitement, then, more often than not, crushing disappointment.
In Season 2, Episode 3 of Netflix’s The OA, Alfonso “French” Sosa, one of five characters whose lives have become entwined with that of Brit Marling’s enigmatic protagonist, is shown cropping a selfie in an app on his iPhone. When I saw the black and orange colors on his screen, it immediately sparked recognition. That’s Grindr! I thought. It was a short, subtle moment which probably would have gone unnoticed by many, but for me, it created a sense of anticipation: Was The OA about to add a gay storyline to its multiverse?
Soon enough, French uses Grindr to find a hook-up, followed by a somewhat ominous shot of him getting into a stranger’s car without telling anybody where he’s going. This was when my excitement turned to stomach-turning anxiety. As French follows his new companion into a dimly lit apartment, I screamed, “Get out of there!” at my screen. I’ve seen enough crime dramas and have been sufficiently exposed to the “bury your gays” trope to predict that this stranger was destined to turn violent.
So I wasn’t prepared when, instead, the encounter turned out to be tender and beautiful. (In hindsight, the inclusion of Weekend director David Haigh in the opening credits should have been a sign that I was about to see something different.) Far from the exploitative depiction of homophobic violence within hook-up culture that’s shown so often on-screen, what transpires in this episode is a positive, transformative moment for the character. I was so utterly, pleasantly surprised that I immediately watched the episode again instead of hitting ‘Play Next’ — quite the statement, considering cliff-hangers propel this particular show forward.
Sometimes frustrating to watch, other times deeply moving, The OA belongs to the same genre of television as era-defining shows Twin Peaks and Lost. Viewers are pulled in first by a cryptic mystery or mythology, but drawn back by an emotional investment in the characters. We’ve been conditioned to expect bad things to happen on The OA; the first season hinged on the abduction and abuse of a blind young woman, and introduced a supporting cast of characters who were all dealing with their own grief, anger and marginalization. But The OA is also rooted in earnestness, and provides a counterpoint to the cynicism and anti-heroics of “golden age” television.
“Irony’s so fashionable right now,” series co-creator Zal Batmanglij has said. “Existing outside of irony is so hard.”
Parsing the ultimate message of this cryptic series might be a herculean task, but one that seems coded into its DNA is that empathy and human connection are our greatest defenses against the many evils of the world. While family members continually mis-gender and dead-name the young trans character Buck, for instance, his newly forged group reaffirms him. When French later comes out to a character with whom he has repeatedly clashed, his vulnerability is met with warmth.
Only 8.8 percent of characters on TV in 2018 were LGBTQ, according to GLAAD’s annual report, which means the way each and every queer storyline on TV is handled still matters. That so few of these positive character moments exist in pop culture gives these ones so much more weight.
I was similarly delighted when watching Season 1 of Pose last summer. Trans women, women of color, and sex workers are so frequently used as plot fodder, pliant bodies to be murdered and avenged by straight white men, that from the season’s very first episode I feared for Angel, a character who lives at the intersection of all the aforementioned identities. That the show went in such a different, romantic direction can be attributed to who is telling Angel’s story — Pose was written and directed by a diverse team of queer people of color, including trans writer and activist Janet Mock. The series is not only wildly entertaining, it’s also a testament to the power of placing a community’s narrative in their own hands.
The OA and Pose, while polar opposites in terms of tone and genre, represent a new narrative possibility that doesn’t require minority characters to suffer in order to then “earn” their happiness. Yes, transphobia still exists on the fringes of these stories, but it is not the lens through which they are told.
Even comedies are getting in on it. Dan Levy, creator and star of Canadian series Schitt’s Creek, has designed a similarly utopian world with his small-town setting, where same-sex romance is depicted as having the same validity and inherent storytelling potential as any other relationship. The most recent season of the sitcom saw Patrick come out to his family, and just as in The OA and Pose, the viewer’s expectations (honed by decades of tragic coming out stories) were completely upended; the episode’s only tension came from Patrick’s adoring parents wondering why their son felt the need to hide something from them in the first place.
“It was really sort of a mandate from day one that we were never going to paint these characters with a brush that was different than what we were sort of painting our straight characters with,” Levy said in a recent interview with E!. “I think for a long time I was watching nothing but tragedy befall queer characters on television, and the idea of creating a world where, in this particular case, two men were falling in love with absolutely no push back, and to be able to depict how much joy that can bring, not just to the characters who are falling in love, but to the community itself who gets to watch it, was important.”
All three of these shows are a defiantly optimistic response to television fare which is considered grown-up by virtue of its grittiness, and which entertains its viewers by punishing its characters. High fantasy behemoth Game of Thrones might currently boast a strong slate of formidable female characters, but their ascendency was predicated on surviving several years’ worth of rape, violence and subjugation (all of which drew FCC complaints and put some viewers off the show for good).
The creators of Pose, The OA and Schitt’s Creek don’t have much in common when it comes to the specific stories they are telling, but it is clear that they have each made a conscious choice to find kinder ways to make their queer characters’ arcs compelling.
You need only look to the real world to see the importance of such representation. When our rights are still being debated in bad faith on the news, when LGBTQ kids are still being murdered or forced out of their homes, it feels radical for queer characters to not only make it out of a story alive, but make it out happy.
Feature photo by Nicola Goode/Netflix.