ABC's gay rights miniseries When We Rise is too conservative.

When We Rise Reflects an Outdated Way of Thinking About TV

When We Rise Reflects an Outdated Way of Thinking About TV

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Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 1 2017 8:03 AM

When We Rise, ABC’s Gay Rights Miniseries, Reflects an Outdated Way of Thinking About TV

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Emily Skeggs and Austin P. McKenzie in When We Rise.

Phil Bray/ABC

Those who tuned into Sunday’s Academy Awards on ABC couldn’t miss the network’s aggressive advertising campaign for When We Rise, a four-part, eight-hour miniseries airing through the end of this week. Promising sweep and preaching importance, the commercials were almost assaultive, with Audra Day’s “Rise Up” cranked up against inspirational messages of unity, progress, and family. Further, in airing in the midst of a historically inclusive Oscars ceremony and showcasing a diverse cast—The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams and trans actress Ivory Aquino among the actors—the ads served as an implicit if wholesome rebuke to the policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration, admonishing any potential rollback of LGBTQ rights.

The series is constructed as a historical epic in the vein of Roots, spanning 40 years in the lives of four pivotal activists. The creator and primary writer, Dustin Lance Black, won an Oscar for writing the excellent Milk, and he has also written for risky cable series like HBO’s Big Love, but When We Rise isn’t designed to appeal to arthouse fans or relatively informed queer folks. Black’s aim, he says, was to keep things as mainstream and broad as possible, to appeal to audiences with knowingly old-fashioned, stylistically conservative storytelling. Black wanted to create something that touched hearts and minds from the coasts to the heartland. “I think Trump might like this show,” he even said in January. The critical response has gone along with Black’s framing: Sure, the show isn’t great, goes the consensus, but it is undeniably important. Virtually anyone can watch without risk of offense or confusion.

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For a major 2017 television event, When We Rise is strikingly straightforward. Black is admirably thorough in tracing different aspects of the movement and depicting intragroup conflict, but the methods by which he and his exemplary set of directors—Thomas Schlamme, Dee Rees, and Gus Van Sant—tell the story are very basic. It’s reminiscent of the meat-and-potatoes broadcast fare of 20 years ago. The timeworn score swells as the stakes increase. The camera captures the action dutifully and without imagination. The principal characters are unvarnished heroes, victims of discrimination who gradually empower marginalized communities. Within these established constraints, When We Rise is respectful and reasonably well-executed; for every few overwritten or expositional scenes, the show manages to provide an emotionally stirring sequence. (Part II’s searing recounting of the AIDS crisis, to take one example, is appropriately devastating.) But overall it seems content to retreat into artistic mediocrity, to function as a lengthy history lesson without much spice or surprise.

As familiar as much of it is, though, the miniseries’ very existence feels anachronistic. Not only is When We Rise an unusual reminder of how TV used to be made, but it feels blissfully removed from how event television plays out in the current media landscape. It imagines an era that doesn’t really exist anymore. It reflects an outdated way of thinking about TV.

This March alone, star-studded miniseries of an excitingly artistic bent abound. HBO’s beachside mystery Big Little Lies, FX’s latest Ryan Murphy campfest Feud: Bette and Joan, and Fox’s racially charged police thriller Shots Fired are all set to air this month—and that’s in addition to ABC’s own experimental anthology, John Ridley’s acclaimed American Crime, returning for a third installment on March 12. (Ridley has another miniseries coming to ABC on April 28: Let It Fall, about the Los Angeles riots.) American Crime and Shots Fired are issue-centric television “events” designed for a network audience. The former focuses on immigration rights and labor issues in North Carolina this season, a very conscious response to recent national conversations around those topics; the latter, more obviously, inserts itself into the debate about police brutality and systemic racism. Even Murphy’s Feud—not to mention his smash hit The People v. O.J. Simpson, from last year—reflects the current TV trend of looking toward the past through a more specific, less formulaic lens.

It’s not just a question of quality. It’s what audiences have come to expect and want from an era of rule-breaking television. As the medium’s cultural capital has increased, so too have expectations, and When We Rise simply doesn’t meet them. Its sheen of hard-fought victory after decades of struggle doesn’t look beyond the triumphs of the Obama administration, aside from a brief pessimistic footnote that precedes the final credits roll. Even for ABC, a broadcast network struggling to keep up with the shake-ups of cable and streaming, When We Rise feels too conservative—too safe—to belong. The network has regained the cultural spotlight with the fresh voices of Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Scandal, and even The Real O’Neals, a middling but timely coming-of-age sitcom built around a gay teen. But where those shows update traditional broadcast fare—the family sitcom, the ripped-from-the-headlines political drama—When We Rise embraces a tired format without modernizing its argument to make room for progressivism and collectivism. It’s a missed opportunity.

When We Rise landed with a pronounced splat with Part I pulling in less than 3 million viewers just a day after that massive Oscars ad blitz. It’s about a million less than what American Crime—hardly considered a commercial hit—averaged in live metrics last year. Importantly, that season of American Crime was centered on two queer characters. It interrogated questions of consent, tolerance, and sexual fluidity with both ambiguity and pointedness, not to mention a distinctly revealing cinematic language, in a way that felt nothing short of unprecedented for network TV.  It didn’t preach to the converted; it showed, often provocatively and beautifully, the nuances and struggles of gay life.

When We Rise does not live up to its artistic potential; any radical content is ultimately belied by its sanitized presentation. But more crucially, the show fails to realize its cultural potential as a project of a substantial budget, unwavering network support, and immense social value—and in an era that could really use it. In so carefully engineering When We Rise as a retro outreach tool, ABC and the show’s creators missed what audiences were actually looking for: history that reminds us of where we’ve been but that’s also steeped in the political complexities and artistic freedoms of our moment.