As Variety reported earlier this year, there aren't a lot of storylines about HIV on television these days, even though some of the most-watched shows 20 years ago featured on-going HIV-related plots. Which made the cancellation of HBO's Looking a big loss to the poz community in terms of representation in popular culture. Fortunately, one of the best recent HIV-positive character portrayals — Oliver on How to Get Away with Murder — will continue next month: actor Conrad Ricamora was bumped up to series regular on the show. (Read our interview with Ricamora here.)
Here's a look back at the most notable HIV-positive characters and plotlines of the past 35 years.
Actor Conrad Ricamora on ABC's How to Get Away With Murder (2015-Present)
When reformed heartbreaker Connor (played by actor Jack Falahee) and shy computer nerd Oliver (Ricamora) started getting hot and heavy, they did the commendable thing and got tested for HIV. When Oliver's came back positive and Connor's negative, it opened up a chance for the serodiscordant couple to learn together what the diagnosis means for Oliver and their relationship. As Rebecca Raber on Take Part noted, "When Connor began taking [PrEP] so that he could resume a sexual relationship with Oliver, it was quite possibly the first time PrEP was mentioned on a prime-time network show. Though there has been some controversy surrounding Truvada, Connor’s decision to take it was presented matter-of-factly, a means to end in which he can continue the physical side of his relationship with Oliver."
Actor Daniel Franzese on HBO’s Looking (2014-2016, including the recently released film version)
The show about a group of gay men in San Francisco introduced the HIV-positive character Eddie (played by gay actor Franzese) in the second season. From the beginning, Eddie was an openly poz man whose status never defined him. “It was just going to be a part of Eddie’s life," Franzese told Variety. "He was never going to get sick [and] he was going to be pursued not in spite of it but maybe because of it."
The love story between Eddie and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) played out in that context, where Eddie wasn't ashamed but was teaching Agustin how to stay HIV-negative in a serodiscordant relationship. That gave writers the opportunity to introduce audiences to PrEP and what it means to be undetectable. learned about PrEP and other community issues. “We tried to infuse things into Looking and we worked with the creators to try to get messages in there,” Franzese said. The fact that they did it well made Eddie one of the best HIV-positive characters on TV.
Charlie Hardwick, Emmerdale (2014)
One of Britain’s most-watched television programs, the soap opera Emmerdale told the story of a woman who was forced to expose her HIV-positive status and risk her relationships with her husband and family. After a fling with a married man in Portugal, Val Pollard (Charlie Hardwick) returns to the town of Emmerdale and discovers she is HIV-positive. After trying to keep her diagnosis from her family, Val is pressed to disclose it when an anonymous comment about HIV is left on her B&B’s website. The show offered an honest account of the struggle Val’s husband goes through to forgive her infidelity and accept her status, and showed how HIV stigma can affect more than just the person who is living with the virus.
The Normal Heart (2014)
Adapted from Larry Kramer’s seminal play, this HBO movie brought the early days of AIDS to life for a new generation. The Normal Heart addressed not only the struggles of gay men with the disease itself but their efforts to make their voices heard and show that their lives matter. Widely considered the most important depiction of the early AIDS crisis, the movie was filled with powerhouse performances from Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Groff, Julia Roberts, and Finn Wittrock.
Hill Harper, Soul Food (2004)
In the episode "Angelitos Negros," which was part of Viacom's KNOW HIV/AIDS initiative, Showtime's Soul Food looked at HIV in the African-American community in a way that other television series had not. When Maxine (Vanessa Williams) throws husband Kenny (Rockmond Dunbar) a surprise birthday party, his brother, Kelvin played by Hill Harper comes to celebrate. While he's there though, Kelvin tells Kenny he is HIV-positive and the reaction is, at first, not a positive one. But Kenny comes around and the two brothers help each other, especially Kelvin as he struggles with all the inital fears that come with diagnosis. The episode, written by Salim Akil and directed by Ken Girotti, was astute with the casting as well: Harper, who would later play Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on CSI: NY, was one of People magazine's sexiest men alive, who was and continues to be a strong HIV advocate off-camera.
Angels in America (2003)
Continuing HBO’s long-standing record of bringing the stories of HIV to the small screen, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Angels in America was beautifully adapted into this miniseries. This imaginatively crafted account of the AIDS crisis combined subtlety with Broadway grandeur. And with acting heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Al Pacino among the all-star cast, this is one timeless TV moment that is truly a must-see.
The HIV-positive inmates of Oz (1997-2003)
The HBO series Oz delivered an often-crueler portrait of life with the virus — the life of an HIV-positive inmate. The show chronicled a group of men who were infected while in prison and were isolated in their own unit because of it. Oz didn’t hold back in depicting the harsh reality of what it was like to live with HIV behind bars.
Gloria Rueben on ER (1995-1999) Rueben played Jeanie Boulet, an African-American physicians assistant and regular on NBC's hit medical drama who contracts HIV from her husband. Jeanie continued to work at the hospital after her diagnosis and was one of the first HIV-positive characters never killed off. Instead, the character left her job at the hospital when she adopted an HIV-positiive baby and wanted to spend more time with her family. The character raised awareness of HIV among African-American women, in particular, giving voice to a community generally overlooked by media before then.
Pedro Zamora, The Real World: San Francisco (1994)
Pedro Zamora will be long remembered for making TV history by showing the reality of HIV. As the first openly HIV-positive person on reality TV before it was “reality TV,” Pedro gave Middle America a chance to see what it meant to live with the virus. He broke down barriers, shattered stereotypes, and became a hero of the modern LGBT movement. Zamora died in November 1994, just hours after the final episode of his Real World season aired and millions of fans mourned together.
Chad Lowe, Life Goes On (1991-1993)
In the early ’90s, Chad Lowe showed the teenage grunge generation what it meant to live with HIV when he played Jesse on the cult TV hit Life Goes On. Jesse was a straight teen who got HIV after having sex with an older girlfriend. As he and Becca developed a relationship, TV viewers got to learn some of the facts and myths around HIV (like it can't be transmitted by saliva. Young girls across the country fell in love, and had their hearts broken, as they watched his struggle and learned that HIV could affect anyone, even Rob Lowe's cute little brother.
Peter Frechette, Thirtysomething (1989-1991)
Heralded as one of the best shows ever on television by TV Guide, Thirtysomething depicted not just the lives of heterosexual baby boomers, but also the life of Peter Montefiore (Peter Frechette), a gay artist who acquires HIV from one of his sexual partners. The series entered new prime-time territory when it showed Peter naked and in bed with boyfriend Russell (David Marshall Grant), apparently after the two had sex on a first date. The episode provided a candid look into the lives of gay men without mainstream filters — and sadly lost some advertisers because of it.
Tony Goldwyn, Designing Women (1987)
In 1987, CBS’s Designing Women pioneered the discussion of AIDS and delivered one of the most epic Julia Sugarbaker moments of all time. In the episode, titled “Killing All the Right People,” a young gay man and friend of the designers named Kendall, played by Tony Goldwyn (Scandal), asks the women to design his funeral because he is dying of AIDS complications. The ladies of Designing embrace the young man and take an opportunity to educate the public on how HIV is and isn’t transmitted. When an acquaintance of the designers learns about Kendall’s diagnosis, she is appalled by the ladies’ willingness to help him.
Imogene: “As far as I’m concerned, this disease has one thing going for it: It’s killing all the right people.”
It is then that Julia Sugarbaker, played by the dynamic Dixie Carter, counters the woman’s hurtful words with what is possibly the best response ever to ignorant and stigmatizing views of HIV.
Julia Sugarbaker: “Imogene, get serious, who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve known you for 27 years and all I can say is if God was giving out sexually transmitted diseases to people as punishment for sin, then you would be at the free clinic all the time!”
Aidan Quinn, An Early Frost (1985)
In 1985, a young Aidan Quinn (now the crusty police captain on Elementary) made TV history by portraying a young gay lawyer who was living with AIDS. This NBC movie was the first program to address the AIDS epidemic and helped humanize the disease at a time when many still referred to it as “gay cancer.” The controversial film captured the attention of the American viewing public and brought Quinn his first Emmy nomination.