By Shayna Maci Warner
Do you like your romances woven with realism, candor, and genuine compassion? What about open communication, painful but necessary introspection, and willingness to grow with one another? Oh, and one more thing — what if this gentle, unglamorous balance of humor and honesty centered a queer, polyamorous, triad of people of color with various gender identities?
Now in its third season (all three available now on YouTube), The Feels follows a bisexual guy, Charlie (Manley) as he explores not only how to process his excess of feelings, but how to navigate the complex, often delightful, and occasionally devastating emotions of those who wander into and around his life. Manley’s guiding creative hand is present in every episode, no matter how experimental the form or seemingly disparate the storyline, but Charlie himself is not always involved. Instead, a large chunk of this 30-episode season presents Charlie as a side character in his own show, shifting focus to a treasure trove of writing and acting talents, including actress/writer Adepero Oduye (Pariah, When They See Us), multi-hyphenate advocate, actor, and writer Tyler Ford, and writer Meredith Talusan. Both Charlie and Manley become facilitators more than authoritarian or rigidly auteurist forces, and nowhere are the benefits of this focal shift more evident than in the Brave House arc, which had a showcase at New York City’s IFC in June and is available in full online (check out episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of the arc now).
Co-created by bisexual actress and advocate Sara Ramirez (Madam Secretary), with additional writing from Shantira Jackson and Ianne Fields Stewart, Brave House is an extraordinary glimpse into three characters, genderqueer S (Ramirez), trans feminine Nina (Fields Stewart), and trans masc Lenny (Jackson) as they attempt to create a loving, open, non-traditional household. The members of this family are a wish list, both in terms of acting prowess and variety of rarely spotlit identities, and most episodes lean into the real, complex work of creating and maintaining a communicative polyamorous space rather than illusions of a fantastical queer utopia. As Nina laments in the particularly poignant “Mourning,” that means acknowledging their flaws and jealousies, and letting go of the hetero-centric monogamous fantasy they may have been trained into desiring for so long.
Like much of The Feels’ other arcs and episodes, the Brave House characters experience each other in ways rarely depicted in any sort of mainstream media. Their episodes bounce from heart-meltingly tender, to absurdly and cringingly funny, to so heavy they spill with unverbalized grief. Amidst it all, the family works toward one another, culminating in S’s wrenching and bare tribute to Ramirez’s real-life late best friend, and a celebration of the ties they choose to bind one another.
As a performer, activist, and educator Fields Stewart (who uses both she and they pronouns) relates, participating in the creation of this deeply vulnerable arc felt like an “honor,” and their journey to The Feels’ family was a combination of determination and kismet. Fields Stewart, who is also the founder of the Black Trans/Gender non-conforming food insecurity organization The Okra Project, realized she needed to be a part of the show when she watched earlier seasons, and felt an instant connection to the “honesty” and “touching” complexity of the material.
“I’m a very, very proudly Black woman, and a lot of my work centers around that. And I was surprised by how touched I was by this white man’s story,” Fields Stewart says. “What is happening? What is going on? Well, what I found was that it didn’t feel like he was the center of the narrative […] it was just about things being complicated, and the natural way conversations change, and the honesty with which they change. And I just thought ‘when is season 3? I need to be on that.’” Fields Stewart was eventually pulled in to the Brave House arc by Ramirez’s recommendation, which Fields Stewart emphasizes as an example of Ramirez being a genuine advocate, and a reason that they felt both pressure and exhilaration in honoring the Brave House vision.
Crediting their own start as an activist to the encouragement of long-time friend and bi+ (bisexual, pansexual, queer, fluid, etc.) advocate Sarah Young, Fields Stewart says that not only was the Brave House arc “truly a highlight” of their career, it also fits into their work supporting their intersecting communities. Fields Stewart is particularly effusive when it comes to how necessary it is for a show like The Feels to prioritize the emotions and romantic relationships of bi+ people of color, evading the more common and problematic media model of queer people of color existing solely as a support system to white queer people. “I see a world that is cruel to Black Trans women, and erasing of bi+ people, and I have to do something about it.”
Jackson, a comedian and writer, echoed this sentiment when speaking at the IFC showcase, saying that the structure of the Brave House triad, as well as Manley’s and producer Camden Elizabeth’s approach to on-set work, allowed the series to “make space for things you want the universe to provide.” According to all three main cast members of Brave House, and many on the IFC showcase panel, the tenderness and visibility promoted in the arc was part and parcel with the exploratory, uniquely patient approach which Manley took to pre-production collaboration, and production itself.
As Ramirez elaborated at the showcase, her work in mainstream television had always linked production with impatience and fear, due to the inextricable relationship of television to capitalism, but Manley provided a completely different atmosphere. From the outset, Manley encouraged writers and actors to be intimate and experimental in their creations. Ramirez emphasized that, in contrast to her previous television work, Manley allowed the actors to feel at ease creating their best work in an “emotionally and mentally humane working environment.”
For his part, Manley does not see his style as reactionary to less humane sets, primarily because he doesn’t come from a film or television background, but rather one as a live storyteller, fiction writer, and high school English teacher. He credits his teaching career as the cornerstone to his desire for collaboration, and an aversion to top-down direction, or, as he puts it, “front of the room” teaching. He is far more interested in asking collaborators “what do you wish you could see on screen,” and acting as a guide to their character’s version of self-discovery.
“I have no interest in being the screenwriter or director who tells everyone else what to do,” Manley says. “It doesn’t make sense to me, especially in this instance when we’re telling stories about characters whose experiences and identities are not my own. For obvious reasons, it’s important for me to give as much autonomy as possible to everyone we’re working with. I’m trying to be of service in whatever way I can to help these stories be told, and to help them reach people.”
If The Feels is fairly suffused with an open-minded, optimistic pursuit of the messiest tendencies of all sorts of relating, and its performances are gentle, raw invitations into humanity on a micro scale, it could be because of Manley’s reverence for the people in front of and behind the camera every step of the way. When asked what advice he might give to a show runner who wants to create the same sort of set, Manley wavered when it came to the usual logistics attributed to a show runner, instead crediting Lataillade’s “loving eye,” behind the camera, and Elizabeth’s simple gestures such as making brownies and making sure there were always snacks on set, but he did have words for intentionally maintaining a philosophy about one’s own creative control. “I think you really just must respect the humanity and the talent and the time and energy and spirit of everybody who is on set with you, cast and crew. You must feel that it is an honor for you to be there with them, and it is your responsibility to do right by them.”
Both Fields Stewart and Manley want to see The Feels continue to thrive: Fields Stewart imagines Brave House as a fleshed-out, scripted series, while Manley would merely like to see The Feels continue in some way, perhaps bringing in more of his dream bicon collaborators, including Stephanie Beatriz, Ezra Miller, Indya Moore, and Travon Free. For a series that takes such visible care of its audience and creators alike, provides a space of healing, pursues the creation of real representation that goes far beyond the breadcrumbs queer audiences experiece from mainstream media, and hosts bite-size doses of outstanding acting and writing, there is no doubt that The Feels deserves a larger audience and promotion as an example of what queer TV could be, if creators and audiences gave each other the room they needed to feel.
Shayna Maci Warner is a GLAAD Rising Star and former EIC of OutWrite Newsmagazine. She is currently working on her Master’s in Cinema Studies at NYU, where she is pursuing the production, preservation, and programming of queer film and television. You can find her writing at GLAAD, Autostraddle, and Bi Women’s Quarterly.