When We Rise Review ABC Gay Rights Miniseries Cleve

When We Rise Review: ABC's Gay-Rights Mini Is a Tedious History Lesson

grade_DThe struggle for gay rights in America is absolutely a piece of history we should all learn. It’s too bad, then, that ABC’s bloated, self-serious miniseries When We Rise (debuting Monday, Feb. 27 at 9/8c) is such a slog to get through.

Spanning more than four decades of the gay-rights movement in four two-hour installments, When We Rise fictionalizes the stories of three real-life activists — free-spirited rebel Cleve, brainy feminist Roma and former Navy sailor Ken — as they fight for acceptance, from San Francisco’s Castro district in the ’70s to the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage in 2015. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and Rise‘s storytelling falters as it tries to squeeze in every significant moment.

The older versions of Cleve (Guy Pearce), Roma (Mary-Louise Parker) and Ken (Michael Kenneth Williams) are played by recognizable stars, along with Rachel Griffiths as Roma’s girlfriend Diane. But those stars don’t show up until Part 3 of the miniseries, which means we have to get through four hours of prologue just to catch a glimpse of them. Parts 1 and 2 only feature the younger versions of the characters in the ’70s and early ’80s, and play like one of those cheesy retro miniseries like NBC’s The ’60s, with shallow characterizations and too-obvious music cues.

When We Rise Review ABC Gay Rights Miniseries RomaIn the go-go ’70s, Cleve campaigns for doomed gay politician Harvey Milk, Roma battles for lesbian representation in the women’s-rights movement, and Ken comes to terms with being a black war veteran who’s also gay. But they’re all just walking, talking textbooks rather than fleshed-out human beings, rattling off exposition and making grand proclamations about their place in history. Their antagonists — disapproving parents, cops, gay-bashers — are all blockheaded villains with no hint of depth or nuance. And When We Rise feels too sanitized for network TV, with chaste sex scenes and violence that never gets truly ugly.

When We Rise Review ABC Gay Rights Miniseries Guy PearceI hoped Parts 3 and 4, with the older actors taking over, would redeem When We Rise — but if anything, it gets worse. The older actors don’t resemble the younger ones at all, so their stories don’t feel as connected as they should. And the plot slows to a crawl as Cleve, Roma and Ken’s stories turn from political to personal in the ’80s and ’90s, covering the AIDS crisis and the legal fight against California’s Prop 8. After neglecting to establish who these characters are beyond their beliefs in the first two parts, the miniseries asks us to get invested in their internal struggles in the last two, and I started to long for the kinetic ’70s scenes again. (At least things were happening then.)

Writer Dustin Lance Black is in his element here — he won an Oscar for penning the 2008 Harvey Milk biopic Milk — and he’s clearly determined to educate today’s youth about the struggles their gay predecessors went through. (Pearce’s Cleve even chides a young interviewer in 2006: “Your generation is asleep.”) But Black’s determination leads to an overly ambitious narrative that tries to force-feed us huge volumes of gay history without giving us a reason to care. Rather than a living, breathing story, it feels like homework — and at eight hours, a lot of it.

While watching When We Rise, I kept thinking of all the other ways I’d rather see this story told: Maybe if they focused on one activist’s story or one time period, or maybe if it was on cable, or maybe if they scrapped the script and just made a documentary instead. Ultimately, though, When We Rise is what it is. It sets out to be the comprehensive historical record of gay rights in America, but its unwieldy structure and clumsy writing make it more of a footnote.

THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Despite good intentions, When We Rise‘s dull, didactic take on the gay-rights movement doesn’t do it justice.

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37 Comments
  1. Eric7740 says:

    Glad to know that I’m missing my TGIT next week due to this. Thank you for saving 8 hours of my life, I was looking forward to watching this as a gay man and seeing how it was. Now, thanks to your review, I can skip it!!!

    • Becca says:

      I wouldn’t skip it based on one review by a straight man.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Because a straight person couldn’t possibly accurately review a show about homosexuals.

      • Pedro says:

        I don’t see how any of the points he made connect to his sexuality. A bit of prejudice there. Characters not being developed, antagonistas that are one-dimensional and writing that is too preachy instead of compelling are arguments that transcend sexuality.

      • Esteban says:

        I’ve been saying for years that TVline should only have lawyers review legal shows, and cops review cop shows, and mutants review superhero shows.

    • Mary says:

      I am still going to DVR and watch. I look at it as a documentary which sometimes those are not exciting but informative. I never expected a drama short show so I hope I won’t be disappointed. Still valuable information.

      • matt says:

        Thats part of the problem. Its a fictionalized presentation so its not a documentary. Go read some history books for history.

    • ronald jackson says:

      I saw the screening, and I couldn’t disagree more with this review! It may not be perfect, but the stories were told in an eloquent manner. I learned a lot and wish all my straight friends and family would watch it.

      • matt says:

        I think thats the challenge with something like this, esp the length – getting the people who SHOULD watch it to watch it.

  2. Jason says:

    Sadly I’ve yet to see films or tv biopics that portray gay stories in a light that’s actually quality. Queer as Folk to me is the only series that nailed it. Recently, everything comes off as over acted fluff and could be compared to those horrible religious direct to DVD movies

  3. Marco says:

    A “D”?!

    Seriously? That’s some blatant homophobic that I have ever seen.

  4. Connor says:

    Respectfully, having watched the entire series, I feel like this review is totally off-base, and it will be sad if a single critic’s opinion and experience keeps anyone from watching this. I would encourage anyone to give the series a try and form your own opinions because my experience watching it could not have been more different than what I am reading here. Through my eyes, the series was beautiful, and I cried, laughed, and felt wholeheartedly inspired. While some people may see it differently, for me, this was honestly one of the most important and poignant pieces of television I have seen in a long long time, and it would be a shame for viewers to miss it on account of a lousy critique.

    • kort says:

      “I would encourage anyone to give the series a try”

      Seriously, it will be sad if a single commenter’s opinion and experience leads anyone to watch this. Please ignore Connor’s comment. He not cares about you losing 1, 2 or 3 hours from your life.

      • Olivia says:

        Actually, I was going to pass after reading the review but Connor’s comment makes me want to at least give it a shot. I’ll make my own opinion then but if gay people disagree with the review they must have seen something in it the straight guy has not. It’s like showing a photo of a loved one to somebody, what you see and what they see is totally different because it’s personal to you, not to them.
        So yeah, thanks Connor and others for your input, I’ll take a look at it and go from there instead of ignoring it altogether.

      • Mary says:

        You know the old saying one man’s garbage is another ones treasure. I for one don’t listen to reviews either positive or negative. Many of times I enjoy or benefited from a show that others hate. I think everyone should give it a try and decide for themselves. Some of us are capable of making our own decisions.

    • mary says:

      I read reviews, but I always make up my own mind. I’m sorry, but he’s just a bad reviewer. He always seems to go into a series expecting something so particular(in this case no stars in the first 2 parts). We have a local reviewer who never reviews horror movies, because he doesn’t enjoy them. So he says it wouldn’t be fair to the movie for him to review it.

    • Dennisse says:

      I agree..well stated..

  5. JOE S HILL says:

    If ABC-TV thinks it has another “ROOTS” on its list of potentials with their Mini-series history,then they waste their time and ours! “WHEN WE RISE” is little more but a one sided view of the insane LGBT movement that originated from the Obama era,nor do these self chosen people or their liberal supporters offer anything here that even puts any value on their so-called “equality rights” movement,which is such a serious lie! Homosexuals offer no huge compelling argument about their same sex values and behaviors,and trying to make their plight into some “ROOTS” wannabe saga is such a disgusting and repulsive insult!

  6. matt says:

    I feared this would be a boring, preachy mini-series. It seems like its going to be a referendum on gay rights in the Trump age and I fear poor ratings are going to be seen as a step back for lgbt americans. i hope not.

  7. jbj says:

    I think the reference to NBC’s The 60s miniseries best puts this one in context. It’s meant to be intergenerational family viewing, not “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.” There is going to be a cheesiness to it to keep it okay for children and teens to watch with their parents and grandparents. The goal is to increase awareness of history in a digestible fashion. I don’t know how many historical miniseries I watched as a kid with awe that are just downright silly to me now, but they still had an impact.

  8. herman1959 says:

    It’s on ABC, that’s all I need to know. I’ll skip this one in favor of so many others on PBS and cable TV.

  9. mary says:

    Lol. You seem to have a problem with the fact that they don’t have “stars” for the younger versions. It’s only your opinion. But it does seem based on it not meeting the vision you planned out.

  10. michael says:

    As a gay man who has lived through all the times portrayed last night in the show, I just finished writing my sister thanking her loving support. I found the show very connected. As a highly educated man I did not see the reviewers perspective. Maybe I was mixing my own personal experiences then with the characters. Shows like this do make a difference. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been bored by mini series and shows on television involving heterosexual life. I watch but I somehow feel like it’s an out-of-body experience. I fell into the show, but then I feel empathy and search for a reason to understand!

  11. Stan merkle says:

    I don’t get the bad reviews for when we rise. I loved the first episode and cant with for the next. This sentiment is shared by so many i have spoke to. Not dull. Exciting and educational all at the same time.

  12. danin says:

    As a 63 year old queer woman& actor/writer, I too thought it was poor. The script, the pacing, the over acting of Guy Pearce who I always love..it did not win me over. And I have been involved in activism from the early 1970’s on.

  13. Karmanot says:

    I was there. You are wrong Bigot.

  14. Eileen says:

    The reviewer complained that the show “tries to force-feed us huge volumes of gay history without giving us a reason to care.” That has got to be one of the most callous things I’ve ever read. You should care because this is the story of people who suffered, struggled, fought, and died. Because these people are our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, our cousins, our friends, our coworkers. Because in this political environment these people will be under attack once again by the haters. But mainly, we should care because we are human, and so are these representations of the LGBTQ community. I lived through those times, but it’s important to be reminded of the struggle for equal rights and for those younger than I to be educated about them. The fight is not over. Unfortunately, it probably will never be over as there will always be those who think that they speak for the will of God. So I care, and I’ve cried for these people.

  15. Patricia Mccoul says:

    No it’s not exciting and it was not cast well but people should see it gay or lesbian has nothing to do with it how many millions didn’t know three black women we’re responsible the putting satellites in space there’s just as many millions that need to know the plight of others ignorance is bliss as they say

  16. adam says:

    Personally I loved it. Wish it had been double or triple the runtime. It was over way too soon.