This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
- I’m on the last day of my vacation! For this week’s newsletter, I offer one major recommendation of my own—everyone should watch Visible: Out on Television—and then turn it over to The Daily Beast staff. Last week, my culture team colleagues offered their pop-culture thoughts. This week it’s people outside the entertainment beat who are offering their takes for a change. Enjoy! —Kevin
I was skeptical going into the new Apple TV+ documentary series Visible: Out on Television. Of course it’s important and noble to tell the stories of groundbreaking moments in LGBT+ representation—Billy Crystal on Soap, Ellen’s coming out episode, Modern Family, Pose, the first this, the first that—and I could watch those stories told over again, for hours.
Because I am a journalist, because I am a critic, because I am a writer whose job thrives on page views, I watched Visible: Out on Television with a mission: What’s the news? Did Ellen reveal a shocking detail about her coming out experience? Did Oprah say anything about sponsors pulling out of her show? What about Caitlyn Jenner? Did anyone say anything about Mike Pence?
But what happened instead was that I was transported. Educated, yes, but also maybe a little bit... realized? Is that the right word? When you learn what came before you, you become more whole. This is the most comprehensive look yet at the intersection of the moving image, televised news, the impact of scripted television, the LGBT+ rights movement, and acceptance. And that’s the thing: the whole thing. The whole thing is the news.
I wasn’t quite braced for the breadth of Visible: Out on Television. It begins at what seems the first time the word “homosexual” was uttered on television (who had money on it being during the live telecast of the Army-McCarthy hearings?)—and the impact such an expansive, impassioned history can have.
The series is five episodes, with an astonishing array of LGBT+ talent assembled: Ellen, Oprah, Neil Patrick Harris, Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Janet Mock, Andy Cohen, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Lena Waithe, Adam Lambert, Caitlyn Jenner, Jill Soloway, Laverne Cox, Mj Rodriguez, Michael Douglas, Norman Lear, Lena Dunham, George Takei, Dr. Ruth, Wilson Cruz, Armistead Maupin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Tig Notaro, Billy Porter, Jonathan Groff, Ryan Phillippe, Sean Hayes, Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, and, believe it or not, more.
I was stirred by so many of the stories: Wilson Cruz discussing how his father kicked him out of the house after he came out, mirroring his character’s My So-Called Life arc; members of The Real World family talking about Pedro Zamora’s impact; stories of groundbreaking LGBT made-for-TV movies I wasn’t familiar with, like 1978’s A Question of Love and 1985’s An Early Frost.
But, it shouldn’t be surprising, it was the discussion of the impact of Golden Girls and Designing Women on gay men starved for representaton that I found most fascinating in the series’ third episode.
Despite significant progress in visibility and storytelling in the ’70s and early ’80s—an advancement led by Norman Lear—amidst the AIDS epidemic, LGBT characters and storylines began to disappear from TV. Gay people, then, were left looking for representation in other places.
The Golden Girls was a show about chosen family, which is something the gay community could relate to. Plus, the four of them, as Margaret Cho says in an interview, “were all gay archetypes… you couldn’t get away with having guys on it at that time period, but there’s a way to subvert that and trick the status quo by making it about these older women.”
Bea Arthur’s Dorothy, for example, had the biting, dry humor of a drag queen. Billy Porter, in his interview, calls it “The Tennessee Williams effect”: “Gay men had to be in the mouths of female heroines. Every story Tennessee Williams told was about a gay man. That replacement that we had to make for many years is why we love our divas so much.”
You could say much of the same for Designing Women, from which Dixie Carter’s searing monologues as Julia Sugarbaker are gay canon, even lip-synched to at gay bars.
“I think there’s a great symbiosis between women and the LGBT community, particularly gay men,” Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason says. “They’ve both been marginalized by society, so it was so easy for me to just put all those male voices I loved into the women. Now they’re speaking and have their own names. So I think once the LGBTQ community knew that we were on their side, every speech that was made on Designing Women, no matter what it was about, was a liberal diatribe against bigotry, prejudice—and they felt kinship with us.”
I’ve written before about how formative the episode “Killing All the Right People” was for me, in which the show’s leads agree to plan the funeral of a young male colleague who is gay and dying of AIDS—educating the bigoted society women of Atlanta along the way.
It turns out that Bloodworth-Thomason was inspired to write the episode after her mother contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. There were 17 other young men on her hospital floor all dying of AIDS, all alone in their rooms with just the sound of a game show on TV to keep them company. The famous “if you ask me this thing has one thing going for it, it’s killing all the right people” slur that inspired Julia’s iconic monologue was directly quoted from a woman Bloodworth-Thomason overhead in that room.
I had never heard that story, and it’s made the connection to something I’ve cherished deeply and profoundly in my life—that episode—even richer. I’d venture there will be many moments like that for viewers throughout Visible: Out on Television, which quickly joins Jennifer Aniston’s performance in The Morning Show and the anthology series Little America as the best of what Apple TV+ has to offer.
I asked The Daily Beast’s non-entertainment staffers (our politics, media, crime, and national security reporters) what pop culture they’re obsessed with this week. From Love Is Blind to a series of history lectures on Amazon Prime, here they are.
I realized about 2/3 of the way through the 2019 coming-of-age indie comedy Booksmart that Perfume Genius had become something bigger than just a critically beloved art-pop singer-songwriter. At the most critical and emotional moment of the movie, dialogue and sound completely cut out; instead, the audience experiences the slow-motion action while listening to all three minutes of the band’s 2017 song “Slip Away.”
It was a fitting graduation for the band, which over the course of four albums has increasingly eschewed its earlier lo-fi piano ballads for larger-than-life, cinematic rock/pop anthems. On “Describe,” the band's new single released this week, songwriter Mike Hadreas takes that sonic dichotomy even further—the distorted guitar and dense wall of low-end sound gives way to an ambient, twinkling atmospheric outro. It's a thrilling sonic space Perfume Genius continues to experiment in, seamlessly weaving together genres with ease and demonstrating Hadreas' range as both a vocalist and songwriter.
But the real throughline that connects his (very good) older music to his (even better) newer material is his underlying tenderness, the intimacy in his lyrics and dynamic vocal delivery. If his forthcoming album is like “Describe,” indie-distributor darling A24 should probably just hand him their checkbook and have him write himself a big song licensing check.
— Max Tani, media reporter
Our truly deranged times call for truly deranged humor. Enter alt-comedian Conner O’Malley.
His uniquely manic persona has been featured widely on Late Night with Seth Meyers and in several of the best sketches in last year’s I Think You Should Leave. But it’s via social media where he’s shined most: on Vine (RIP) as the hyperactive cyclist pestering rich guys in sports cars; on YouTube, in insanely funny turns as “New Jersey’s #1 Masturbater” visiting a porn expo, or as the quintessentially seething-mad MAGA failson; and on Twitter, as a demented Howard Schultz superfan pleading with the coffee mogul to run for president.
The characters change, but the general theme stays the same: Absolutely ripshit skewering of America’s doltish masculinity and the awkward sadness buried beneath it.
In his most recent masterpiece, titled “Hudson Yards Video Game,” O’Malley is a glitchy RPG’s avatar, roaming the NYC billionaire playground and its gaudy paeans to hyper-capitalism, seeking Hello Points by waving at unwitting tourists, chirping about super-exclusive Amazon deals, or avoiding the “low-income area.” The back half is an interlude set to all six minutes of Tool’s “Schism,” with a CGI’d O’Malley writhing around over images of bodybuilders, corporate branding, and increasingly insane faux-inspirational quotes.
It’s an unsettlingly funny torching of Prosperity Bro culture—the wealth-crazed, rise-and-grind, success-at-all-costs lunacy that goes hand-in-hand with blissful ignorance of others’ suffering and the inherent absurdity of all this bullshit.
It’s certainly not for everyone, but I’ve spent the past month alternating between cackling and being completely puzzled by it. I hope you do, too.
— Andrew Kirell, senior media editor
If you haven’t binged all of Love Is Blind already, stick with it through the first few episodes and you’ll want to inject it straight into your veins. You will love it, hate it, be disgusted by it, laugh, cry, be the most stressed out you've ever been, feel extreme joy and extreme sorrow and then wake up from a dream about Giannini and Damian fighting at 3 a.m.
— Olivia Messer, crime and politics reporter
Lurking in the furrows of Amazon Prime is a massive series of lectures from random academics—some of whom, like the University of Wisconsin’s Gregory Aldrete, are down to wear a toga while walking you through the establishment of the Roman Republic. I’m compelled to fall down rabbit holes of history I never learned about in school, like religious development across the Indian subcontinent or how what we now understand as shitposting was crucial to the French Revolution. But there’s lots of stuff about the Higgs Boson or learning to paint or speaking Spanish if that’s more your thing. You can toggle through auditing a college course or immersing yourself in what’s essentially a gentrified WikiHow. If you’ve got anxiety issues, it’s a great way to fall asleep.
Most lectures are deliriously weird. Professors pace across a constantly redressed set—the inset wooden panel that shows you the tricolor cockade in one series will display hoplite armor in another—talking for half an hour into the void of a dual-camera setup. There is nowhere to hide the unexpected leg kicks, awkward hand gestures and vocal stumbles of your fellow obsessives. I am now a fan for life of Suzanne Desan from U. Wisconsin-Madison. Desan presents 48 vivid episodes on revolutionary and Napoleonic France interlaced with her own history of naming a laptop after Camille Demoulins and getting her food poisoning treated by a National Front-supporting doctor who laments the downfall of the monarchy.
A caveat: you’re going to want to set calendar reminders to cancel and reset the 7-day trial subscription, because The Great Courses is criminally expensive, even for Prime members.
— Spencer Ackerman, senior national security reporter