Queer as Folk

by Michael Abernethy


Regular airtime: Sundays, 10 PM EST (Showtime) (US)
Producers: Ron Cowen, Dan Lipman, Tony Jonas
Cast: Hal Sparks, Gale Harold, Randy Harrison, Sharon Gless, Peter Paige, Scott Lowell, Thea Gill, Michelle Clunie

by Michael Abernethy

Queer as Folk (UK)
Queer as Folk (US)
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Jealousy on the dance floor

cover art

Queer as Folk

Creator: Russell T. Davies
Cast: Craig Kelly, Aiden Gillen, Charlie Hunnam
Regular airtime: Channel Four Video


American Family Association President Donald Wildmon has said it zeroes in “on the deepest part of the sewer,” while the former editor of London’s gay Pink Pages, Tim Teeman, has called it a nauseating depiction of the “metropolitan homosexual lifestyle.” “It” is Queer as Folk, the controversial series that was investigated for indecency by the Broadcasting Standards Commission of the UK and was the cause of a boycott of Showtime by the South Dakota Policy Council. The religious right hates the series for its frank depictions of sex between same-sex partners, and gay advocates hate the series because they believe its preoccupation with sex overshadows other aspects of the gay community.

Attacked by conservatives and gays alike, QAF would appear to be a series that can’t please anyone. So why is it one of the highest-rated series on cable? Because, as any first year ad executive will tell you, sex sells. And QAF has plenty of sex.

Originally a limited run series in the UK, QAF is now entering its second season on US television. After the original version aired in 1997 on London’s Channel Four to considerable press and public debate, Showtime, desperate for a series that could generate press like that for HBO’s Sex and the City and The Sopranos, bought the US rights to the series. They Americanized the plot and characters, and sat back while a storm of righteous indignation over the show’s subject matter guaranteed them the kind of publicity that every network dreams of. This strategy paid off, and QAF debuted in 2000 to monster-size ratings.

Now, as the Showtime series is ready to pick up where season one left off, the UK version has become available on video/DVD in this country. Viewing the original series is pretty much the same as watching Showtime’s first season. The Showtime version has made a few changes to the British version; it moved the location of the action to Pittsburgh, changed the age of one of the characters from 15 to 17, increased the size of some of the smaller roles in the UK version, and hired American actors to play the characters, whose names were also changed. The storylines, including large sections of dialogue, however, remain identical to the original.

Both series follow the exploits of a group of twenty- and thirty-something gay men and their friends. In the synopsis below, I’ve identified the British character first and his/her American counterpart second. The British Stuart (Aiden Gillen) and the American Brian (Gale Harold), is the gay man who has everything but morals. He’s got a well-paying job in advertising, a stylish warehouse apartment, and the kind of looks that get him into bed with a different man every night. He also has a new son, courtesy of his lesbian friend Romey (Esther Hall)/Lindsey (Thea Gill), for whom Stuart/Brian served as sperm donor. Stuart/Brian’s best friend is the cute but insecure Vince (Craig Kelly)/Michael (Hal Sparks), who works as a discount store manager and spends most of his spare time cleaning up his best friend’s messes.

Complicating life for these two is Nathan (Charlie Hunnam)/Justin (Randy Harrison), a high school student who lost his virginity to Stuart/Brian and has been hanging around like a lost puppy looking for another free handout of table scraps. While the UK series focuses most of its attention on Stuart, Nathan, and Vince, the US version has taken two minor British characters and made them more integral players; they are Phil (Jason Merrill)/Ted (Scott Lowell), the somewhat plain but efficient gay man, and Alexander (Antony Cotton)/Emmett (Peter Paige), the flaming queen of the group. One gets the impression that this collection of characters was put together with the thought, “Okay, we’ve got the stud, the guy next door, the teen queen, the nerd, and the femme, so we’ve covered the entire spectrum of gay men.”

The one thing that these five do seem to have in common is that many of their daily decisions are made with their dicks. These guys aren’t the modest types who genteelly refer to their genitalia as “penises”; they have “cocks,” and they whip them out just about every chance they get, so much so that many of the show’s storylines revolve around the group’s sexcapades. Brian (and implied from here forward, his British counterpart as well) wins over a new client by fucking him in the bathroom during a break from a business meeting; Michael must deal with the doe-eyed attention of a female coworker, who has no clue he is jacking off to gay porn each night after work; Ted slips into a coma after snorting what he believes to be cocaine offered by a druggie he has taken home to screw (the British Phil dies; Ted eventually recovers); Justin’s mother learns of his sexual orientation by stumbling across his stash of drawings of nude men; and so on. There’s sex in bedrooms, showers, offices, public toilets, alleys, and nightclubs. There’s group sex, role-playing sex, bondage, anonymous sex, internet sex, and lesbian sex.

Even the characters’ friendships are entirely structured by their sexual desires. Brian and Michael started a jack-off session together when they were 14, we are told, only to be interrupted by Michael’s mother (Sharon Gless), and Michael has been pining for 16 years to finish what was started then. Ted has a secret shrine to Michael in his closet, along with the biggest dildo collection known to man. And, at one point, Emmett temporarily turns his back on his friends after a preacher convinces him homosexual behavior is wrong.

All this is a lot of sex. But most of it is implied rather than explicit, by means of frosted lenses and discreetly arranged bed sheets. Why not show all the thrusting, licking, sucking, and sweating? Basically, anything sexual goes on QAF, except, of course, showing an erection or actual penetration, because those things are “unacceptable” on TV. (Apparently, it’s okay to show one man licking sperm off another man’s chest as long as we don’t see the erect penis it came out of, because that would make the scene pornographic, not just racy TV, a distinction that is apparently growing ever thinner.)

That sex plays such an integral part of the lives of these characters gives credence to much of the criticism of the show. Every episode has at least one sexually explicit scene, and virtually every scene has at least one character thinking about how to get laid or dealing with the ramifications of having just gotten laid. It is easy to see where those who are conservative or religious would find this unacceptable programming, although one has to wonder why their cries regarding obscenity have not been raised as loudly over the equally graphic, but heterosexual, series Sex and the City or Red Shoes Diaries. It is apparently the homosexuality that bothers conservatives, as evidenced by the fact that Ellen went unnoticed by conservatives until the main character came out of the closet in the fourth season, when critics began to lambast the show’s sexual content, although there was none.

Evidently, it isn’t the depiction of sex that is offensive, or else every church in America would be boycotting daytime soap operas; it is homosexuality that offends. However, as more Americans have grown to accept homosexuality as normal, outrage over homosexual subject matter has fallen on deaf ears. Better to swath your prejudice in the shroud of anti-pornography rantings than to come across as a bigot.

Perhaps more justified in their criticisms are the gay activists who argue that the portrayal of gay life here is far from accurate. Of course there are socially responsible gay men and lesbians in the world, just as there are sexually restrained gay people. Gays and lesbians are as diverse as straight people are, but one wouldn’t know that from QAF. Perhaps the best example of the world represented in QAF is Babylon, the gay club where the show’s protagonists hang out. I have been in a few gay clubs in my life, most in cities far larger and more cosmopolitan than Pittsburgh, and I have yet to find anything that resembles this gay disco megaplex, a club large enough to dwarf Radio City Music Hall. Babylon is jam-packed with Abercrombie & Fitch models seven nights a week, and visitors are quickly lost in a sea of techno wizardry and glistening, half-clothed bodies. Most amazing is the club’s backroom, where the crème de la crème of the club’s pretty boys disrobe and screw one another until they can barely stand. This is hardly like most clubs, gay or straight, but Babylon is what this show is all about: glitz, chaos, good looks, and jealousy on the dance floor. After all, as creator Russell Davies notes, who would tune in to watch two gay men cooking dinner and talking about their day?

Actually, I would. And I suppose this is my point: there is room for both good drama and toe-curling sex in this show. Both conservatives and activists are right in saying that this show focuses too much of its attention on matters sexual, not because it needs to, but because it is the show’s hook. Despite being stereotypes, the characters in QAF lead interesting enough lives that a more in-depth examination of their psyches would allow viewers to care about them in a personal and not just voyeuristic manner. Yet, efforts to develop the characters in season one always felt like someone had edited scenes from Melrose Place into a Jeff Stryker porn flick. Even so, if the characters operated from an emotional center more often than from a surge of testosterone, perhaps the sex scenes would be more rewarding, since viewers would have an investment in the behaviors of the characters.

If the new QAF is going to show any signs of originality, now is the time to do it, as the show has completed the original story arc and now in its second season must rely on completely new scripts. In episode one this year, the show’s formula, to show gratuitous sex and naked body parts whenever possible, seems to still exist, but was not as central to every storyline. The new season appears to be headed into deeper waters, as, for instance, as Brian and Justin attempt to deal with the life-altering consequences of a gay bashing that left Justin comatose at the end of last season. Suffering motor skill dysfunction, Justin’s dreams of being an artist are gone, and his first trip to the clubs downtown turns him into a quivering, paranoid mess.

Meanwhile, Brian, who witnessed the crime, has numbed himself with an endless supply of drinks, drugs, and sex. His cavalier attitude towards Justin’s recovery has become a source of contention among his friends, who don’t know that Brian has been snorting coke for weeks in order to sit in the corridor outside Justin’s hospital room all night, every night, watching the boy as he sleeps. The scene where the two finally reconcile and Justin attempts to assuage Brian’s guilt is among the best the show has filmed. Other storylines—like Michael’s breakup with his doctor boyfriend and Lindsay’s decision to propose to Melanie at her homophobic sister’s wedding—still feel like they have been touched by the hand of Aaron Spelling, but I hope that more scenes like the one between Brian and Justin will find their way into the new season.

Many paragraphs ago, I started this essay with the intent of discussing in detail which was “better,” the US or UK version of Queer as Folk. I seem to have gotten sidetracked along the way; perhaps being exposed to so many hours of shallow gay men, from both sides of the Atlantic, has irritated me. I am growing weary of waiting for a show to come along that will embrace all aspects of the gay and lesbian community, one that will make us out to be neither demons nor demi-gods, but will represent us as people with good and bad hair days like every one else. I have no problem watching humpy, sweating men rolling around on top of each other, but I will be truly impressed with TV’s progress when it gives us a gay version of Family or Once and Again. As groundbreaking as QAF has been in presenting gay men and women as sexual beings, it should now take the next daring step and present them as human beings.

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//Mixed media