2022 has been the year of Netflix’s Heartstopper, the US Queer As Folk reboot, and Hulu’s Conversations With Friends offering us authentic and original LGBTQ characters and narratives. But something is rotten in the state of Queerdom: this year has also seen a purge of queer TV, with Netflix, The CW and HBO, amongst others, unceremoniously canceling many LGBTQ shows, breaking the hearts of their most ardent devotees and prompting online outrage.
Two of the latest examples of these painful cancellations are BBC/HBO co-production Gentleman Jack and Netflix’s First Kill. In July, HBO announced that the lesbian period drama was axed. The following month, the supernatural, sapphic love story First Kill was canceled by Netflix.
Predictably, the shows’ dedicated fans were furious. Among them, Gentleman Jack fan Megan Troy appealed to HRC, America’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization: “Thank you @HRC for finally being vocal about queer representation on TV! Can you help support the other queer shows that are also at risk for cancelation?” DIVA magazine editor Roxy Bourdillon penned a passionate letter praising Gentleman Jack and highlighting how “we have always been here, and we will always be, whether they like or not. This show saves lives. Now, it’s time to save Jack.”
Another fan, Georgia, shared her thoughts on Twitter: “If Gentleman Jack was a show about a historical mlm [man loves men] couple or a historical straight couple it would have been renewed for season after season. Society is so uncomfortable with the idea that a woman can be happy without a man that they choose to ignore any wlw [woman loves women] forms of media.”
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Despite running for only one season, First Kill’s fans were equally devastated by its sad fate. Xolaris tweeted: “First Kill, a show that didn’t [have] any major names attached to it, getting canceled as if it didn’t dominate Netflix’s Top 10 within it’s [sic] first month of release is upsetting. Let the sapphics have something DAMN!”
“I just cancelled my subscription,” tweeted Alayna, in agreement. “I only got Netflix to support the show.”
Asked about this trend, queer writer Benjamin Cook, who co-authored scriptwriting bible The Writer’s Tale with leading gay TV showrunner Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, It’s a Sin), told LGBTQ Nation, “Having been denied equal representation on TV for so long, it hurts all the more when LGBTQ shows are canceled. We feel it acutely. Viewers have become attached to these queer characters, only for their stories to be cut short, and it feels unfair. It’s happening to straight shows too, but there’s a damn sight more of them. They’re, dare we say it, more expendable.”
The CW is perhaps the network that’s most notoriously put an end to TV shows with queer regular characters. The long list includes DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Dynasty, Legacies, In the Dark, Roswell: New Mexico, Batwoman, The 4400 and Naomi, and even the rebooted Charmed got the axe in May, after four seasons.
Many of these shows contributed to The CW’s role as the leading broadcast network for LGBTQ representation. According to GLAAD’s “Where We Are on TV Report” for 2021-22, the overall percentage of LGBTQ series regular characters on scripted broadcast is 11.9% of all series regular characters, an increase of 2.8 percentage points from 2020. The CW ranked first among its competitors for its percentage of LGBTQ series regulars with 17.1%.
But when the foremost broadcast network for LGBTQ representation changes its internal policies, cancels shows, and consequently does not prioritize queer representation and inclusivity, what comes next? The CW will not air any TV series with a queer lead character in its upcoming line-up. Tom Swift was the only LGBTQ-led CW show and it too was axed, after one season in the summer of 2022. It’s the same old story: queer shows don’t have the longevity nor the protection from streaming, cable, and network television.
So why? Is it about business? Are these shows struggling to create engagement and fandoms? It doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case. One of the recent examples of an uproar among fans is the cancellation of One Day At A Time. Netflix produced three seasons of the remake of Norman Lear’s classic sitcom. While it was critically acclaimed and its viewership increased season by season, Netflix pulled the plug. Fans instigated a substantial social media campaign: they didn’t want to give up on the queer Elena and her non-binary partner, Syd. One Day At a Time was the first streaming show to be saved, albeit for only one season, by cable television, with Pop TV stepping in.
It seems like the streamers and networks are only searching for good publicity: fans will applaud them for making inclusive TV, but they will end up heartbroken when their new favorite shows are quietly and unceremoniously canceled. Many shows are axed way before they are given a chance to succeed. Does this phenomenon derive from an inherent belief that straight characters are more expandable, while gay characters are expendable? Is straight-led TV more financially viable? Does the future really look this bleak?
That seems to be the primary assumption that guides many of these business decisions. Gentleman Jack is an example of this trend, but also of another phenomenon: if queer, male-led TV fares badly, shows with queer, female leads will fare even worse. The BBC/HBO show is on a growing list of series led by lesbian or bisexual female protagonists that were pitilessly canceled, including One Day at a Time, Stumptown, I Am Not Okay With This and High Fidelity. Some critics refer to this trend as a business-minded version of the “Bury Your Gays” trope or “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”. With so many queer shows gone, the trust that many queer people have put in HBO Max, The CW, or Netflix may well dissipate in the long run.
Networks and streaming services should take pride in making TV that so many LGBTQ people find comfort in. Imagine what queer shows could accomplish if given a proper chance to succeed. Netflix, HBO Max, The CW, et al, are all capitalistic enterprises and take into consideration cost-benefit models In representing marginalized communities, they may only attract niche audiences, but those audiences are devoted. Queer audiences are loyal.
LGBTQ people are not a phenomenon that can be canceled or axed, so neither should their shows. Let’s hope they will not be casualties of the decline of the peak TV era.