CLEVELAND, Ohio - The ABC miniseries "When We Rise" has dramatic firepower to spare. This four-night drama about the gay and lesbian rights movement in the United States is packed with wonderfully nuanced performances and splendidly resonant moments.REVIEW When We Rise
What: A miniseries about the real-life personal and political struggles, setbacks and triumphs of a diverse family of LGBT men and women.
When: 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, and also Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Where: ABC (WEWS Channel 5).
Fueled by these performances, it frequently and undeniably rises to great heights. But add up everything that "When We Rise" has going for it, which is considerable, and, well, the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
And that's because the overall narrative structure is what's found lacking in the eight-hour "When We Rise," which will air over four nights, beginning at 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, on WEWS Channel 5. The other episodes air at 9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday.
The script by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") is a decidedly hit-and-miss effort. It can bounce along in intriguing style for long stretches, then lurch awkwardly from one major storyline to another. The dialogue can swing wildly from the profound to the predictable.
While there is a grand, near-epic sweep to these true stories of struggle and triumph, "When We Rise" is at its most uncertain when playing things by the numbers or playing things a bit too safe. There are sequences where you sense Black wants to push things a little further, then pulls back, due to network restrictions.
Would this uneven project been more at home on, say, HBO? Perhaps, but its very presence on a major broadcast network speaks to the hard-fought victories documented in these episodes.
And even when the writing wanders into tame and trite territory, you're still in terrific company. The superb cast, which features Guy Pearce ("L.A. Confidential") and Mary-Louise Parker ("Angels in America"), is more than capable of getting us over the rough spots.
The miniseries begins in 2006, with LGBT rights activist Cleve Jones (Pearce) answering a millennial's questions about what things were like three or four decades ago.
"Each generation has its own epic confrontations that it must face," Cleve tells him. "I knew what I was called to do, not as an individual, but as part of my generation. . . . It wasn't just me who heard the call. It was all of us."
We then make the flashback trip back to the early 1970s, when the teenage Cleve was trying to find a way to tell his psychiatrist father (David Hyde Pierce) that he was gay. Making the revelation all the more painful was his father's belief that homosexuality was a disease that should be treated with shock therapy and even lobotomies.
Although "When We Rise" touches on the stories of a diverse family of LGBT men and women, the primary focus is on three lead characters, each played by two people.
Austin P. McKenzie is the young Cleve, then Pearce takes over the role. Women's rights leader Roma Guy is played by Emily Skaggs, then Parker. African-American community organizer Ken Jones is portrayed by Jonathan Majors, then Michael K. Williams ("The Wire").
The first episode puts Cleve, Roma and Ken on the trail to the "safe harbor" of San Francisco. Their journeys provide the basic framework for these eight hours, but we meet many other key players along the way.
There is Roma's wife, social justice activist Diane (played first by Fiona Dourif, then Rachel Griffiths). There is transgender activist Cecilia Chung (Ivory Aquino). There is AIDS activist Bobbi Campbell (Kevin McHale). There is Del Martin (Rosie O'Donnell), co-founder of the first lesbian organization in the country. There is Jim Foster (Denis O'Hare), an openly gay Democratic organizer.
Also in the impressive cast of big-name stars and dynamic newcomers are Carrie Preston, Whoopi Goldberg, Arliss Howard, T.R. Knight, Rob Reiner, Richard Schiff and Mary McCormack.
Under the guidance of directors Gus Van Sant, Dee Rees and Thomas Schlamme, they deliver big time, keeping the miniseries on course when the script goes astray.
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