Nobler for its ambitions than execution, "When We Rise" is a sweeping, decades-spinning miniseries that seeks to chart the evolution of the gay-rights movement. Yet while the project offers a timely window into history, a surplus of characters and shifting perspectives tend to dilute its focus.
The miniseries has historically been TV's preferred venue for tackling issues of importance, and it's notable that this effort comes 40 years after ABC helped establish the form with "Roots." Despite its passion and idealism, however -- and perhaps partly because of it -- "When We Rise" doesn't consistently rise to that level.
Writer Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar winner for the movie "Milk") has based the four-night, eight-hour project in part on a memoir by activist Cleve Jones, who is introduced in 2006, where Guy Pearce plays him. The narrative then flashes back to the early 1970s, presenting a much-younger Jones (Austin McKenzie) in the early days of brutal police raids and the bravery required to push back against those forces, as activists assembled and found their voices in San Francisco.
Jones is just one of several leading figures whose experiences are chronicled, casting a pair of actors in each of those key roles.
It is, admittedly, a pretty star-studded cast, with other principals portrayed by Mary-Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths and Michael K. Williams. Several other high-profile performers lend their names to the exercise, among them Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell and David Hyde Pierce -- the last of those as Jones' stern father -- and acclaimed filmmaker Gus Van Sant (also from "Milk") directed the first chapter.
The main drawback is that it feels as if there's too much ground to cover on too many fronts. While it's interesting to see gays and lesbians overcome differences to unite politically, or Jones debate tactics with the more militant leaders of the ACT UP movement, there's a disjointed quality, especially in the early going, in trying to service the various stories.
Any one of these personalities might have made for a powerful biography. As constructed, the approach feels as if it touches upon more and ultimately says less.
Perhaps inevitably, "When We Rise" also risks becoming preachy in places, as characters deliver speeches in the course of ordinary dialogue. On the plus side, there are plenty of moments infused with genuine emotion, from the early stages of the AIDS epidemic to examples of gradual acceptance, like Jones' dad quietly expressing concern for his adult son's health or then-President Clinton visiting the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
ABC's plan to schedule the show on successive nights experienced a minor setback, with President Trump addressing Congress on February 28. The new administration has renewed discussion of LGBT rights with its recent action rescinding bathroom guidelines for transgender students -- a sobering reminder that however far the movement might have come, activists still have more battles left to fight.
"When We Rise" will air February 27 and March 1-3 at 9 p.m. on ABC.