Ichabod Crane, suspended in limbo for his own safety by his Manic Wicca Dream Girl’s coven, returns to life in the twenty-first century and fights crime — plus large abstractions like War and Death! And if that sounds insane, get this: Jeremy Owen’s bitchily terrifying Headless Horseman manages to roll his eyes despite not having any. Sleepy Hollow loses its way at times (yes, it is possible to misuse John Noble), but the bestie chemistry between partners Abbie Mills and Crane never fizzles, and the show expertly balances twisted history (nudist Ben Franklin) and fish-out-of-water humor (Crane’s ire at “levies” on donuts). The departure of Nicole Beharie as Mills may bode ill for the fourth season’s prospects, but what a (Paul Revere’s midnight) ride you’re in for with the first three. Sleepy Hollow is anything but either.
Returned January 6 on Fox, seasons 1 to 3 streaming on Hulu
Showtime’s CIA thriller should come with a whiplash warning: It’s a sad tale of doomed soul mates! Wait, it’s a biting comment on U.S. foreign policy! Hold on, now it’s a parody of its own award-winning strengths (Claire Danes’s melty cry-faces as analyst-savant Carrie Mathison)! But the show’s a classic Pringle-watch — you’ll just keep poppin’ eps — and powering straight through Homeland gets its crappier elements (i.e., the Brody kids, TV’s all-time most worthless teens) in the rearview faster, the better to enjoy Tracy Letts’s spluttery WTF faces as the CIA director, or Miranda Otto as a jumpy double agent. Like its protagonist, it’s frequently maddening but, thanks to expert casting of its villains, never dull.
Returned January 15 on Showtime, seasons 1 to 5 streaming on Showtime and Hulu
How to Get Away With Murder
As with the other territories within the great state of Shondaland, marathoning ABC’s legal thriller/mystery/whatever isn’t about “catching up” on the story so much as getting swept away by its baroque flashbacks, soapy showdowns, and emotional stakes that go to eleven in every episode. It’s over-the-top narrative candy, best enjoyed with a couchful of like-minded skeptics, but national treasure Viola Davis gives Murder a core of emotional truth.
Returns January 26 on ABC, seasons 1 to 2 streaming on Netflix, season 1 streaming on Hulu and Yahoo
“If Broadchurch and the original European The Vanishing had a kid” is not the cheeriest sell for a TV show, but that’s solid cold-case-story DNA. The Missing is dark, but not for its own sake, and it’s skillful, too. The disappearance of an English five-year-old on holiday in France takes his (now estranged) parents to some dark places in search of answers, but The Missing doesn’t fall into traps common to the child-in-peril genre; its characters aren’t one-note, and its flashbacks are flawlessly paced and don’t cheat their own clues. And because it’s a European production, the cops (particularly Tchéky Karyo, very good as the retired but easily re-obsessed Julien Baptiste) look like cops, not models with gun holsters.
Returns February 12 on Starz, season 1 streaming on Starz and Amazon
Set in a chilly near future in which “synths” — realistic artificial intelligences designed to do everything from factory work to sex work to nannying — have begun to challenge the society they were designed to help. Mostly, it isn’t on purpose, but because their very existence raises tangly existential questions: Is it “cheating” if it’s with a synth acquired to tidy up the house? What becomes of human workers when synths can do their jobs for free? How much of parenting is rote drudgery, driving or folding or cutting off crusts…and could a well-programmed synth do the other parts, too? But a handful of synths have become sentient, and their radical-cell approach to throwing off their oppressors is hard not to admire. Thoroughly thought-out, Humans and its relatable characters — human and synth — stay with you.
Returns February 13 on AMC, season 1 streaming on Amazon
The Mindy Project
If you were put off by the near-crushing hype Mindy Kaling’s sit-rom-com arrived under, give her eponymous show another look — literally, if you like fashion, as even subpar episodes can be enjoyed on mute thanks to the production’s impeccable styling. But Mindy’s strength is the just-wacky-enough supporting characters, played with perfect timing by the likes of Ike Barinholtz, Adam Pally, and Fortune Feimster. If the Mindy-Danny “love” story’s a bust in any given episode, hit “next”; you won’t miss much.
Returns February 14 on Hulu, seasons 1 to 5 streaming on Hulu
The Good Wife
Spin-off The Good Fight is set to drop mid-February on CBS’s VOD “All Access” channel — and since carryover leads Christine Baranski and Cush Jumbo are among the best things the parent program had to offer, it’s worth powering through the original legal drama’s seven seasons. That, and The Good Wife is the rare network drama that could hold its own against prestige cable fare. It’s well-built and entertaining but not bleak, with chewy ripped-from-the-headlines cases, guest stars having a ball, and myriad drinking-game possibilities involving Julianna Margulies’s hairpieces and collarless-jacket collection.
The Good Fight premieres February 19 on CBS All Access, seasons 1 to 7 of The Good Wife streaming on Amazon and Hulu
Been avoiding FX’s anthology series out of worry it won’t live up to the 1996 film? Fear not, for the series is 1) only loosely based on the movie, and 2) a credit to its name. Because each season is self-contained (though related), you can start with the outstanding Season 2 and the ineptly handled hit-and-run that introduces you to Jean Smart’s frumpily fearsome crime boss. Double back later to Season 1’s alliance between Billy Bob Thornton’s snarky hitman and Martin Freeman’s beleaguered insurance agent. Either way, don’t start a season at 10 p.m.; Fargo is hard to pause.
Returns in spring on FX, season 1 streaming on Hulu, season 2 available for purchase on multiple sites
Legends Of Tomorrow is, technically, a better showcase for Prison Break leads Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell, because there’s more wit with the glowering — but Prison Break is a solid watch in its own right. The premise is fun: To get his brother out of prison, Miller’s character sends himself in, with a rococo escape plan tattooed on himself from neck to knees, and when other inmates (including…D.B. Cooper?) want in on the breakout, hijinks ensue. Its initial run from 2005 through 2009 didn’t quite reach its potential, and for every acting performance that’s good (Robert Knepper as the gleefully villainous T-Bag) there’s one that’s just loud (William Fichtner’s twitchy FBI agent), but scenery-chewing and soapy twists are fun too. And you have to admire a show that has its (file baked in a) cake and eats it too by bringing back a simpy love interest from the dead…when she’d been beheaded.
Returns in spring on Fox, seasons 1 to 4 streaming on Netflix
What happens when 2 percent of the world’s population just disappears, with no warning and no explanation? One of the charms of The Leftovers is that the show itself doesn’t seem entirely sure. Some characters join cults, others un-quit smoking, and most of the world is suffering from a semi-apocalyptic variant of PTSD; The Leftovers explores the aftermath for both individuals (Justin Theroux’s small-town police chief; Christopher Eccleston’s estranged pastor) and the world at large (some of the show’s best work is in the process-y details of the Sudden Departure, like the ancillary businesses and cabinet posts that spring up in its wake, and which celebrities vanished…or didn’t). Liv Tyler’s startling heel turn in Season 2 is worth the price of admission.
Returns in April on HBO, seasons 1 and 2 streaming on HBO NOW
Taboo Tuesdays, 10 p.m., FX
Mr. Robot: An unpredictable mumbler with daddy issues fights corporate powers for social justice. (Just swap in indigenous mysticism for cyber espionage.) Haunted by images of chained black bodies and specters of screaming native women, and called “nigger” so many times you will lose count, Delaney seeks to avenge his mother’s tragic life. For a show critical of the slave trade and colonialism, Taboo recapitulates too many stereotypes itself, from its whitewashed casting to its barrage of clichés of racialized magic, savagery, and victimization. — Robyn Bahr
James Delaney (Tom Hardy) is your typical half-breed savior: Just pale enough to be played by a popular white star, while conveniently provided with a dead Native American mother for street cred. (This apparently also gives him license to chant in African tongues. Seriously.) In TV’s latest blood-soaked historical grime drama, Delaney returns from Africa to his native England in 1814 to claim his recently deceased father’s merchant business — as well as a strategic slice of North America that the East India Company would literally kill for. Think of it as a period version of
Emerald City Fridays, 9 p.m., NBC
For all of Emerald City’s production value — gorgeous costume design, expansive sets and locations, a cast peppered with talent — NBC’s take on L. Frank Baum feels like a shined-up bauble. This is Oz by way of Westeros, where the Witch of the East meets the wrong end of a gun, her sister from the West is an addict and brothel owner, flying monkeys are drone spies, and the scarecrow is crucified all Christlike. Kansas-based nurse Dorothy (Adria Arjona doing the best with what she’s given) gets sucked into Oz via police cruiser after trying to visit her birth mom during a tornado. Upon her arrival, she provokes the ire of the free folk (not-quite Munchkins) before embarking on her quest via a Yellow Brick Road paved with poppy pollen. The inherent challenge with a beloved story is that it’s hard to make an old tale feel fresh in yet another adaptation, and really, who’s looking to NBC for their next dark TV fix? The network appears to be piggybacking off the success of Grimm (now in its final season) and other semi-sinister, contemporaries like Once Upon a Time and Sleepy Hollow. While it’s hard not to commend the showrunners for populating Oz with a diverse cast, ultimately Emerald City feels like it’s teetering on the edge of the haunted forest, unable to step too far off that sunshine-hued path. — Tatiana Craine
Masterpiece: Victoria Sundays, 9 p.m., PBS
Balancing a British royalty drama with the daily trials of the servants, relatives, and government aides who helped keep the country running throughout the mid-1800s, Victoria begins with its eponymous queen (Doctor Who starlet Jenna Coleman) assuming the throne at age eighteen after the death of her uncle King William IV. The eight-episode first season follows her initial years as England’s monarch, as she learns to be a good boss to her skeptical staff and fends off challenges from ambitious schemers who expect her to be their pawn in the larger game of forging European alliances. Rufus Sewell has the scene-stealing role of Lord Melbourne, the scandal-plagued prime minister who offers earnest, useful advice while dealing with his own palace intrigue. Creator Daisy Goodwin aims for some of the period soap opera feel of Downton Abbey, with characters struggling with their roles in a changing society. But there are also echoes here of the movie Marie Antoinette, as Coleman’s queen discovers the need to answer to her subjects for her youthful whims and inexperience, whether she’s spending too much, flirting with the wrong man, or failing to show proper respect to the military. Victoria starts out her reign worrying about how best to wear her hair, but soon enough realizes that her new job comes with real responsibilities. — Noel Murray
Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am Streaming, Seeso
The first two minutes of “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am” introduce us to “Amazon, Feline, and Scarlet Assassin,” tasked with foiling an Aryan supervillain’s plot to destroy the Earth. Unfortunately, these superheroes are too glam for their own good: Catwoman’s doppelgänger breaks her stiletto heel running, the Xena-styled avenger’s leather suit is so impractical that she can hardly swing her sword, and the Wonder Woman wannabe takes off shrieking when her bustier falls off. Then the world explodes. Welcome to Skit Box, an all-woman comedy team from Sydney with smart ideas, a clear voice, and a strong point of view… even if that point of view is, “We’re Australian, we’re a tad cliché, and our videos are waaaay too long.” It’s ironic that a show named for a quickie suffers from the SNL-esque problem of never quite knowing when to end a bit. “I’ve Got That Flow,” a fun feminist music video/middle finger to menstrual squeamishness, showcases a solid core joke and a bathtub’s worth of fake blood — but, like many of Sarah Bishop, Greta Lee Jackson, and Adele Vuko’s sketches, could’ve benefited from an editor. Shorter sketches pack more punch, like a recurring bit about a woman who uses smoke bombs to flee awkward workplace moments, or a mock ad titled “Show Her It’s a Man’s World” where the subservient wife turns out not to be so compliant after all. — Jennifer L. Pozner
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events Streaming, Netflix
Despite the narrator’s repeated claims of an inevitable unhappy ending, this faithful adaptation of Daniel Handler’s bestselling absurdist children’s novels proves that a neo-gothic noir can still be cloying and candy-coated enough to rot a tooth. Netflix spared no expense in cultivating the books’ retro, baroque overtones with Sonnenfeldian expressionism worthy of the Addams family — if only its convoluted capers matched its art direction. (Not helping: the dialogue’s screwball rhythms rely heavily on plot rehashing, eccentric personal tics, and repetitive verbal gymnastics that leave the hour-long episodes feeling bloated.) Yet its droll charm, musical flare, and self-aware storytelling devices keep up the fun, and Neil Patrick Harris, clearly delighted to be there, is joyous as the nefarious Count Olaf, a rubber-faced chameleon hell-bent on stealing the fortune of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, three one-dimensionally precocious orphans. Perhaps the show would have been better served by a snappier half-hour structure, as the blithering stupidity of the adult characters will make you itchy after about twenty minutes of lightning-fast wordplay. Come for the visuals, stay for the performances, especially Patrick Warburton’s deadpan narration. — Robyn Bahr
Tattoo Girls Premieres Tuesday, January 24, 10 p.m., TLC
Set in all-female shop Ink Ink in Springfield, MO, Tattoo Girls is light on ink and heavy-handed in its thirst for girl fights. “We value being friends and being a team more than anything,” bubbly 26-year-old owner Kelsey says in the pilot— but since women crying, yelling, and competing for male attention are the primary storytelling elements many reality producers understand, they immediately undermine the team’s camaraderie, framing one 22-year-old artist as The Slut, and deploying ominous background music to introduce another staffer as The Bitch. This is Reality TV 101, full of fake drama and casual misogyny. The shop’s normal clientele is “moms, families, and college girls” seeking hearts, stars, and infinity signs, Kelsey explains, “but because this is a male dominated industry we have to be prepared to handle anything that comes through that door.” That’s TLC’s cue to send in a smirking dude to drop trou and demand a penis tattoo, so producers can then frame a young single mom’s objections to having to manhandle random dick at her job (“I didn’t sign up to touch wieners today!”) as unprofessional “squeamishness” because she’s “scared of boys,” belittling the reality of sexual harassment and cementing the character’s role as naive and lovelorn. The only saving grace, if you must tune in, is the schadenfreude in watching Midwestern white men make irrevocable fools of themselves — like the bald dude who wants his entire face and skull done up like a Day of the Dead tableau, or the old guy who asks for a permanent homage to Lionel Richie dressed as Where’s Waldo — then trying to guess which ones voted for Trump. — Jennifer L. Pozner
Frontier Premieres Friday, January 20, Netflix
There have been plenty of comparisons between Game of Thrones and Frontier, Netflix’s new historical drama: Both feature Jason Momoa, lots of blood, and ultra-gritty olden times. In Frontier, Momoa stars as Declan Harp, a half-Irish, half-Native American trapper who used to work for the fur trading behemoth Hudson’s Bay Company. Now the company wants revenge for his betrayal, and they’re willing to shed as much blood as Harp during a hunt, enlisting Michael (Landon Liboiron), an Irish stowaway, to infiltrate the trappers’ ranks as a double agent. There’s less gore in the initial episodes than you’d expect, but Harp proves himself a gruesome, take-no-prisoners type early on. But for all that GOT talk, Frontier more closely resembles a different HBO show: Deadwood. There are plenty of dynamic women (a scrappy thief, a resourceful bar owner who wears breeches, and a henchwoman for Harp) who command more screen time than the usual breast-baring cable hotties. Christian McKay, as the least God-fearing priest this side of the Atlantic, and Zoe Boyle’s no-nonsense barkeep stand out among the sea of redcoats and fur coats that fill the screen. This is the perfect show for binge-watchers missing Deadwood or waiting for this season’s bloodbath-to-come in Westeros. — Tatiana Craine
Z: The Beginning of Everything Premieres Friday, January 27, streaming, Amazon
Capturing the reality behind the myth of Zelda Fitzgerald is about as elusive as Daisy Buchanan, but Z: The Beginning of Everything sure does try. Don’t get turned off by the show’s wordy title (cribbed from an F. Scott Fitzgerald letter): This bio-show is as delicious as it gets for lit lovers, following the title character as she flees the South for illicit, booze-soaked nights in New York City and beyond. Christina Ricci shines as Zelda both charming and plucky, an Alabaman accent rolling off her tongue. At home, she squares off with her doting, traditional family and spends her free time reading and honing her writing chops. She’s also headstrong and luminous, the belle of every ball in town, with a taste for gin and cigarettes and a habit of calling the local boys bland “three-minute eggs.” At one fateful party, she catches the eye of the man with whom she’ll be inextricably tied: F. Scott Fitzgerald. He’s immediately smitten with her, a sugarplum vision on the dance floor, and asks another partygoer who she is. The answer: “That’s Zelda Sayre, and she’s no saint.” The show wants to be as gutsy as its subject, but Z errs toward the hagiographic, painting Zelda’s short life as both beautiful and damned — but all you can think of is the beauty. — Tatiana Craine
Legion Premieres Wednesday, February 8, 10 p.m., FX
Writer Noah Hawley already aced a seemingly impossible test by turning the Coen brothers’ beloved Fargo into an acclaimed original TV series. Now he’s set himself another lofty challenge: doing something fresh with a Marvel character. The relatively obscure X-Man David “Legion” Haller (Dan Stevens) begins Hawley’s new show in a mental institution, tormented by telekinetic powers that make him feel like he’s hearing voices. (In the comic, Legion earns his name from an accident that bestows him with multiple personalities; the episode previews provided by FX don’t indicate whether this will be incorporated into the show as well.) As the mutant gets back out into the world—taken under the wing of one shadowy organization while fleeing another—Legion tells his story kaleidoscopically, with memories, hallucinations, psychic communications, and real life all blending together in a way that makes it tough to tell what’s actually happening and what’s all in the hero’s head. Don’t expect much in the way of superhero thrills: In the early going, at least, this show is more an exercise in eye-catching style, in service of a heavy character study about a man imprisoned by his own remarkable mind. Like Fargo, Legion sports a ridiculously accomplished supporting cast, including Aubrey Plaza as David’s best friend and fellow mental patient, Hamish Linklater as a mysterious government agent, Jean Smart and Bill Irwin as unorthodox doctors who try to help our hero, and Rachel Keller as a troubled mutant named Syd Barrett. The Pink Floyd homage is apropos: The way it plunges viewers inside the hero’s madness is like listening to The Dark Side of the Moon on repeat. — Noel Murray
David Brent: Life on the Road Airs Friday, February 10, streaming, Netflix
For his long-awaited return to his most famous character, Ricky Gervais has created a movie that’s about revisiting past glories. David Brent: Life on the Road (which received a limited release last year before being snapped up by Netflix) catches up with the abrasive boss from the original U.K. version of The Office, fifteen years after he earned minor celebrity thanks to the documentary about his life as a paper company manager. Now working as a salesman for a public lavatory supplier, Brent steps back in front of the (mock) cameras to share his last-ditch attempt to make it as a rock star, via a comically pathetic self-funded tour with a hired backing band. Gervais knows this is essentially a greatest hits special — and one without his Office collaborator Stephen Merchant or any of his former cast, no less — and steers into the curve a bit, painting his Brent as more desperate and clueless than ever, while ultimately defending his good heart. This movie mostly rehashes old jokes and themes, but fans of The Office and Extras will still find a lot to like, especially if they enjoy wincing at David’s painfully awkward social-protest songs. (It’s hard to say which is more cringeworthy, the condescending anti-racism reggae number “Equality Street” or the tender ballad “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds.”) — Noel Murray
Dustin Lance Black didn’t think it was going to be like this. A few years back, when he was pitching his latest project — a seven-part ABC miniseries on the decades-long struggle for LGBT rights in America — the screenwriter, director, and producer had every reason to expect that it would be airing in a climate of continuing progressive change. Instead, When We Rise will premiere next month in the teeth of a backlash, not just against LGBT rights, but those of African Americans, immigrants, women, and Muslims, that promises to make the series unexpectedly compelling. If Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, this sometimes glossy network take on a wrenching historical struggle might have seemed much less urgent, a look back at a fight that has been mostly won. As it is, When We Rise seems more like a brave and necessary act of witness to a battle that is far from over.Black admits he wasn’t completely taken by surprise by the election results. “I saw the warning signs,” he says, noting that he grew up Mormon in Texas, part of a military family. “Most of the family I love are still very religious and live in parts of the country where equality isn’t welcomed — and wasn’t welcomed historically.”
Those are exactly the people Black hopes will tune in starting February 3 to watch the seven-part series, which tells the story of the fight for LGBT equality in the United States starting in 1972, when many in the nation learned about the gay-rights movement for the first time via a Life magazine story called “Homosexuals in Revolt.” The true life struggles of a few San Francisco–based advocates are cast as an epic tale of all-American heroism: The characters encounter systemic injustice, individual acts of hate and violence, and profound self-doubt, but the overall theme is one of transcendence and empowerment. Black says he wanted the series to be relatable for everyone, regardless of their position on LGBT rights.
“When I was growing up, ABC was the station we trusted,” says Black from his home in London, where he lives with his fiancé, Olympic diver Tom Daley. “I thought, wow, this might be an opportunity to talk about LGBT stories in a way that reaches the people I grew up with. And wouldn’t be just preaching to the choir.”
As the miniseries follows activists from the 1970s to the present day, we meet Roma Guy (played by Emily Skeggs as a young woman and Mary Louise Parker as an older one), who founds the Women’s Building community center in the Mission and becomes increasingly radicalized as she discovers her own sexuality; Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie and Guy Pearce), who comes to San Francisco seeking a gay haven and goes on to found the Names Project and create the AIDS Memorial Quilt; Ken Jones (remarkable newcomer Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams), who served in the Navy in Vietnam and became a community organizer; and Guy’s partner, Diane Jones (Fiona Dourif and Rachel Griffiths), a women’s rights activist and nurse who was on the front lines taking care of early AIDS patients . Rosie O’Donnell shows up as legendary early lesbian activist Del Martin, who fought to decriminalize homosexuality in California in the ’70s and lived long enough to be legally married to her partner of 56 years in 2008; Whoopi Goldberg plays Pat Norman, the first openly gay employee at the San Francisco health department, who struggled with how open to be about the crisis engulfing the gay community; David Hyde Pierce plays Cleve Jones’s tormented father, who wants his son “cured” of homosexuality; and Ivory Aquino plays transgender activist Cecilia Chung, who fought to gain recognition for trans people at a time when they faced rejection from many lesbians and gay men. The ensemble’s paths converge as they live through the assassination of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the AIDS crisis, changes in the ability to have and adopt children, the fight for marriage equality and other historic milestones (only the first four episodes were available for screening at press time).
The miniseries is in many ways a conventional major-network product: straightforward, slickly produced, and not afraid to pull on viewers’ heartstrings. There are star-crossed lovers, earnest speeches (“If straight people were dropping dead, the world would be redirecting its resources straight to us”), and moments of unexpected triumph. There are moments of sheer corniness, too, like when the rainbow flag is hoisted for the first time outside San Francisco City Hall and one character looks up at it and muses aloud, “If we ever want to be free, then we have to stop hiding.”
Black knows that this approach might alienate some of those “in the choir.” And he’s OK with that. Not everyone knows that U.S. military officers once faced dishonorable discharge for even entering bars that were suspected of catering to a gay clientele, or that even the National Organization for Women shunned openly lesbian members. Not everyone recalls the pain suffered by faithful partners left with nothing when loved ones died of AIDS.
“When I was writing it, I was thinking about a handful of aunts and uncles and cousins, and what it is they don’t know yet, and the stories they haven’t heard yet,” Black says. “To my family who aren’t exposed to LGBT issues on a weekly or even annual basis, they need to hear it and see it a little bit clearer, because some of it is brand-new to them.”
Even if you’re part of the choir, much of When We Rise has the power to surprise and move, and to bring buried history to light. It’s painful to watch one character being threatened with electroshock therapy for admitting that he’s gay, or to see another leave behind the woman she loves for fear of what people would say. And some of the archival footage is enough to turn your stomach, like the clip of prominent anti-gay psychoanalyst Charles Socarides saying “The whole idea of saying ‘the happy homosexual’ is to create a myth about homosexuality.” (Socarides’ son Richard later became an openly gay adviser to the Clinton administration on LGBT issues.)
When We Rise covers some of the same historical ground as Black’s biggest project to date, the 2008 film Milk, about the political career and assassination of San Francisco’s first openly gay city supervisor. (It also reunites Black with Milk director Gus Van Sant, who co-executive produced the series and directed its first episode.) In his heartfelt acceptance speech for the best screenplay Oscar, Black invoked a future in which LGBT people would have equal rights across the country, and for a few years, it seemed that progress on that front was unstoppable: The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision delivered marriage equality on the federal level, and the Obama administration dramatically expanded recognition of transgender rights.
With Trump’s election putting many of those gains at risk, though, “When We Rise” becomes painfully timely and relevant. Watching archival footage of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant sweetly explaining, “If homosexuals are allowed their civil rights, then so would prostitutes or thieves or anyone else” in the late 1970s is an eerie reminder that her malevolent spirit has been re-embodied in the form of Vice President–elect Mike Pence.
Using two casts to carry the sweeping narrative from 1972 to the present day, says Black, is a technique he borrowed from the milestone miniseries Roots, which trusted its audience to be committed to the narrative. When We Rise is indebted to Roots in other ways as well, he says: “I remember watching Roots as a Southern boy who had heard a lot of racist stuff in my life. I remember how that series changed me. And it did it with personal stories of a family. I would in no way think that I could recreate that, but I certainly aspired to tell personal LGBT stories in hopes that people would connect with LGBT families.”
Black says he telescoped the timeline and combined some characters to fit four-plus decades of history into eight hours. But, he says, “I thought it was important to keep it true.” To that end, Black actively involved the surviving real people being portrayed on screen not only in the writing but in the filming, flying many of them to Vancouver so they could be on set for crucial scenes. The cross that Pearce, as Cleve Jones, holds during the emotional monologues that frame the narrative is the very same one left to him by his partner Ricardo (Rafael de la Fuente), who died of AIDS, and the bullhorn we see Jones using to rally crowds of protesters demanding action on AIDS is the same one Harvey Milk gave him in real life. (The series is based in part on Jones’s memoir of his life in the movement.)
Black doesn’t hesitate to show the deep conflicts within the movement, including the racist attitudes of Castro bar owners in the early ’70s and the sometimes ugly rifts between gay men and lesbians at the start of the AIDS crisis. It’s bruising and disillusioning to hear lesbian hero Martin saying, “If it’s a gay male issue, is it any surprise? I mean, seriously, come on, they go out at night, they do lots of drugs, they drink all the time, and they have sex with strangers. Is it a shock if they catch something?” Black says it was a creative choice to be transparent about how hard it is to build a movement: “I think young activists coming to the fight need to know that you’re going to get some of the greatest resistance from your own, to be prepared for that and that those struggles exist.”
The only thing that can get a social movement beyond those divisions, he believes, is inclusiveness, and he practiced that in the making of the series. “It’s called ‘When We Rise’ for a reason,” Black says. “If you look at my writers room, it was gay and straight and black and white and men and women. And we hashed out those struggles in the room.” He singles out Dee Rees (“Pariah,” “Bessie”) who directed two episodes in the series, for providing crucial insight. “Dee Rees schooled me on what it was like to be an African American lesbian in the movement,” he says.
Making similar connections among groups under threat from the Trump administration will be key to responding to the current political crisis, says Black. “We have to understand our interconnectedness with racial minorities, religious minorities, immigrants, the women’s movement,” he says. “We have to figure out how to come together and have each other’s backs if we’re going to fight off this backlash. Because it is going to be work. It’s going to be hard work.”
Part of the job will be learning to ignore the voices of hate both online and in real life. The show’s trailers on YouTube have drawn predictably loathsome comments: “A literal AIDS dumpster fire.” “I bet it’s gonna end when they summon their lord and fucking savior Hillary Clinton to kill Trump, then make being straight or straight and white illegal.” “People are so damn sick of all this compulsive political correctness and triggered snowflakes crying for their safe space.” “I want each last responsible for this piece of derogatory anti-White filth put to the syringe. How is this remotely acceptable, legal?” And on and on.
Black insists he isn’t going to worry much about people like that. “That’s a very vocal minority and that’s not who I’m going for here,” he says. “I’ll have to let those people say what they will. I’m not sure those are people whose hearts are changeable.”
He does believe that there are masses of changeable hearts out there. In spite of anti-gay trolls, in spite of the election results, in spite of the prospect of a Supreme Court that could shred the progress on LGBT rights made over the last 40 years, Black maintains faith in the power of narrative to transform opinions.
“You can preach until you’re blue in the face about poll numbers, about politics, about science, about the constitution, and you’re not going to change a damn mind,” says Black. “You want to change a mind, you have to change a heart. You want to change a heart, you’d better introduce yourself, introduce your family, and tell your personal story. If you tell your truth and you do it truthfully, people will relate.”