At first glance, When We Rise looks like a hugely promising gambit. The great Gus Van Sant, who is getting over a critical shellacking over the mediocre but by no means awful Sea of Trees, reteams with Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black for the story of how the LGBTQ (and, eventually, the LGBTQIA) community came to prominence in America. In a bit of a twist, the series is premiering on ABC, with a litany of audacious performers set to play prominent figures in the fight for equal rights, from Guy Pearce and Whoopi Goldberg to Mary Louise Parker and Michael Kenneth Williams. That’s not even mentioning Rachel Griffiths, Rosie O’Donnell, and David Hyde Pierce, and a host of newcomers. It’s a major event series on a network not known for ambition or audacity, and has the chance to be seen even by those who just have basic cable. This could be big.
The first trailer for the series, however, amps up the sentimentality of the fight rather than tease the hard, unforgiving work of organizing communities, recruiting new members, and speaking about equal rights with others who may be stuck in the age of Mad Men. You can take a look at the trailer below and you might notice that the background music is a cover of Leonard Cohen‘s immortal “Hallelujah,” but with the all-important verses excised. The complexity of that song, which has also been used, cheaply, by SNL to switch it’s tune after playing possum for President-Elect Donald Trump, is in the words between the utterances of “Hallelujah,” the poetry and intimate moments of life that build toward that holy word.
This could just be ABC trying to rope in the devoutly faithful for a good cause, of course, but it also struck me as something of a bad omen, that When We Rise could very well ignore the strange rhythms and antic impulses of life that go on in between the battles and only focus on the movement’s most familiar triumphs and defeats. That being said, Lance Black and Van Sant are not people who go saccharine easily and their work on Milk alone suggests that When We Rise will be something worth the audience’s time. But even they have gone sanctimonious before, and if there was ever a time to face the reality of being a part of the LGBTQIA community, as a person as much as a part of a movement, this would be it. The last thing we need is another Stonewall.
Here’s the first trailer for When We Rise: