Once in the TV Spotlight, HIV Slips into the Shadows

Written by | Entertainment, HIV, Screen, Wellness

Conrad Ricamora

Characters with HIV are disappearing from screens, though their presence is crucial. Oliver Hampton is charting a lonely path. Not only did a potential lover spurn him when he disclosed his HIV status on the most recent season of ABC’s hit drama How to Get a Away with Murder, but the tech wizard played by Conrad Ricamora is the sole recurring HIV-positive main character on primetime television.

Two decades after Physician’s Assistant Jeanie Boulet contracted HIV from her ex-husband on NBC medical drama ER, the network television landscape is sorely lacking in ongoing roles featuring characters living with HIV and AIDS.

“If you go back to the early days of the epidemic, the entertainment industry played a huge role in helping the American public understand HIV and AIDS,” says Joel Goldman, Managing Director of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). He is concerned that lack of representation will translate to complacency, which in turn will lead to new infections. “We feel if we don’t do something now to curb the direction of the new infection rate in this country, we’re going to see much bigger numbers.”

ETAF recently presented Our Role in the Fight: The Entertainment Industry & HIV/AIDS, during which an entertainment industry panel emphasized the dearth of ongoing HIV storylines and how the small screen can have a big impact on awareness that HIV and AIDS still present a very genuine health hazard.

Playwright and actor Tarell Alvin McCraney, —whose script was developed into acclaimed film Moonlight — reminded the assembly that “People get sick, and if it’s not a part of the tapestry with which we tell our stories and understand ourselves, it will always remain outside of our conversations.”


Photo courtesy John P. Johnson/HBO.

It has been five years since “Uncle Saul” Holden tested positive on ABC’s groundbreaking Brothers & Sisters. More recently, HBO’s Looking featured substantive discussions of PrEP and undetectable viral loads — and notably culminated in the wedding of Agustín and Eddie (pictured, above) — a character living with HIV, but the series concluded after two seasons and a feature finale. In its most recent season, Amazon’s Transparent featured trans characters with HIV, but they were secondary characters.

Experts suggest that presenting stories that address issues surrounding HIV is crucial to reaching younger audiences who have grown up in the period since HIV and AIDS were viewed largely as a death sentence. Veteran television producer and writer Neal Baer still recalls how ER’s HIV storyline “opened people’s eyes and hearts,” and he predicts that future audiences may be similarly reached by new media, which creates opportunities for more personal, reality-based content addressing HIV. “As he sees it, “I think we’re going to see a lot more self-shot shows.” In the meantime, social media can help remind TV creators of the importance of telling these stories today. Says Goldman: “As we go into pilot season, it’s a great time to put this issue back into people’s minds.”

Last modified: July 27, 2017