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Television review

‘When We Rise’ traces the gay rights fight over decades

ABC’s four-night miniseries “When We Rise” was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
ABC’s four-night miniseries “When We Rise” was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.Eike Schroter/ABC

Originally, the four parts of the ABC miniseries “When We Rise” were scheduled to air consecutively next week, Monday through Thursday nights. It would be an epic group portrait of the LGBT civil rights movement over four decades, building from strength to strength, heightening with each new chapter. But last month President Trump scheduled a congressional address for Tuesday night, and so ABC altered the plan; the miniseries will now premiere Monday, skip Tuesday, and finish Wednesday through Friday nights, a hard journey of triumph interrupted.

The schedule change is perfectly symbolic. The Trump administration is breaking into a miniseries that celebrates the same kinds of LGBT rights — notably protections against discrimination — that it threatens. “When We Rise” has an air of fulfillment about it, as if the fight is winding down and honor is due. It was written, by Oscar-winning “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, as a victory lap for a civil rights crusade that has taken the LGBT community from a disenfranchised population, through a ferocious AIDS crisis, to a visible community with the right to marry. But with the changing Supreme Court, a vice president who wanted to divert money for HIV/AIDS research to fund conversion therapy, and an attorney general with a long history of opposing gay rights, the miniseries now feels more like a reminder of the need for persistence.


So “When We Rise” is an important and timely TV event to which ABC is devoting almost a full week of prime-time space — which makes its many flaws all the more disappointing.

Black & Co. (including Gus Van Sant, who directed the first night) have set a goal — an admirable goal — that’s nearly impossible to reach in eight hours of commercial TV. “When We Rise” could easily be an ongoing TV series like “The Crown,” which devotes one season to every decade or so of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. There are attempts to humanize the LGBT story, to give the epic some intimacy and specificity by following three activists in San Francisco across the years — feminist Roma Guy, community organizer Ken Jones, and Cleve Jones, mentee of Harvey Milk and founder of the AIDS quilt (some of “When We Rise” is based on his 2016 memoir). But those stories, like so much here, ultimately feel reductive and superficial, lost in the process of following every twist in the rights struggle, and making each twist comprehensible to unaware viewers. Dangers of the “Forrest Gump” variety lurk, as the action skips like a stone from one iconic moment to the next.


There is very little dialogue in “When We Rise” that isn’t junked up with expository points or somehow meant to further the broad themes of gender, sexuality, race, bullying, and the conflicts between gay men and lesbians who aren’t certain they have common ground. I longed for a little subtlety, a few tossed-off scenes that merely established character and texture and didn’t drive toward an issue or an educational moment — moments you generally do find in shows from David Simon, who has also written about wide-ranging social topics. I wanted to be emotionally invested in these characters. At one typical point in the final part, Cleve Jones clunkily mentions “Congressman Barney Frank” in a conversation, and I was distracted wondering if he really needed to use Frank’s title and even his last name, or if they’d been gratuitously added to the script for clarification.


In the 1970s episodes, the three activists are mobilized separately, each heading to San Francisco, the American homeland of all kinds of counterculture. Cleve Jones (Austin P. McKenzie and, later, Guy Pearce) is trying to get away from his father, a psychiatrist who has publicly argued that homosexuality is an illness. He runs into Guy (Emily Skeggs, then Mary-Louise Parker as an adult), who is struggling with her sexual identity and whether the women’s movement should include lesbians. Through her relationship with Cleve, we see gay men and lesbians grapple with whether or not to join forces — a question that, by the time the AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s, when lesbians were at the front beside the men, became less fraught. Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors, then Michael K. Williams) is a black Vietnam veteran whose race and war experience make his search for a place in San Francisco’s gay community particularly complicated.

Each of their stories is rich enough to merit more screen time, particularly Ken’s drug-plagued battle to belong, but history moves forward and doesn’t have time for them. The 1980s AIDS segments of the miniseries alternate between being moving and saccharine, while they are consistently predictable. Indeed, there are requisite scenes everywhere throughout the miniseries, with a man mistreated by the family of his newly dead lover, a daughter of lesbians longing to know the identity of her father, a gay-bashing scene, a trans girl who has run away. Of course these things happened, and still do — but in the context of a thousand other situations that all need to be covered, like bases, they lose narrative potency. And if you’ve already seen TV shows and movies that have covered this ground, from “An Early Frost” and “The Normal Heart” to “Milk” and “The Kids Are All Right,” you will already have seen those scenes done in more detail and with more feeling.


Given the shortcomings and overreaches of the script, the acting is as good as it can be, with Skeggs standing out as the young Guy and Williams evoking deep alienation effectively. But the transition from the young actors to the older ones is disconcerting, since they aren’t physical matches, and so are the many star cameos that run throughout the miniseries and peak toward the end. Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, Rob Reiner, Debra Winger, Arliss Howard — when they show up in such numbers, they pull you out of the action. They add prestige, but, alas they don’t add to the storytelling power of this honorable effort.


Starring: Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, Rachel Griffiths, Ivory Aquino, Mary-Louise Parker, Dylan Walsh, Sam Jaeger, David Hyde Pierce, Austin P. McKenzie, Emily Skeggs, Jonathan Majors, T.R. Knight, Carrie Preston, Fiona Dourif

On: ABC, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, at 9 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.