Feral offers a queer coming-of-age drama stripped of stereotypes.
Set in the artistic community of Midtown Memphis, Feral largely revolves around the lives of Billy (Jordan Nichols) and Daniel (Seth Daniel), two 20-something gay men attempting to navigate life with that peculiar mixture of confusion and hope available only to the young. Show creator Morgan Jon Fox has said that he intended for Feral to be comparable to hit shows Looking or Girls -- though with a less elitist tenor -- and this is definitely how I would characterize Feral. Unlike other shows aimed at the increasingly ill-defined millennial generation, Feral more plausibly reflects the conditions of life for most 20-somethings who overwhelmingly do not live in the country’s cultural capitals or have access to the kinds of expensive spiritual dilemmas depicted by the shows set within them.
This isn't to say that Feral is short on spiritual dilemmas; it's not. It's just that its tragedies are of a more quotidian, Middle American sort: how to make art when you're waiting tables to pay rent, whether or not to break up with the nice boyfriend you don't like that much, how to grapple with mental illness and addiction in your friend group. In general, each of Feral's main characters seem to be working out, in their own respective ways, that most difficult and perennial of life questions: how do I balance my own needs with the needs of those I care about?
This difficulty is manifested differently for each character. For Daniel, the question is whether or not to leave his current boyfriend, whom he generally treats with an appalling lack of affection or even respect, to escape the familiarity of his life in Memphis and, hopefully, use the change of locale to grow his artistic vision. Billy too must choose whether to move forward with his own life, choosing to take a chance on a future relationship rather than dwelling on the traumatic end of previous one.
Clearly, these are timeless themes that have been constitutive of drama for decades, and yet, there's something new and refreshing about Feral's invocation of them. For one, while it's clearly a gay drama, none of the drama comes specifically from the characters' being gay. This is a refreshing divergence from standard representational strategies that figure queer identity as the central issue of every queer person's life. This isn't to say that being gay is no longer challenging or dangerous but rather that, like the characters in Feral, many queer people have found neighborhoods and friend groups in which the central crisis of our life is not the gender of the person we love so much as love itself and how it fits into the larger fabric of our professional aspirations. Seeing this reflected in a television show as tender and thoughtful as Feral is affirming; we too want gratified our desire for our own coming of age stories, our own romantic melancholy, our own nostalgia for our youth.
Not only does Feral excel at giving this to the queer community, it also provides a devastatingly real depiction of mental illness. In one poignant scene in the second episode, Billy guides the lead actors in his film through an acting technique that, in an earlier scene between him and his boyfriend, was represented as a kind of lover's play. Breaking into the scene, Billy directs one of the actors: "It's not that you don't like her, it's that you genuinely, genuinely don't care. Like with extreme depression it's not 'I'm sad; I'm distant', you cannot find the will to care about her or to care at all."
Both scenes are presented as many scenes in Feral are, with no set-up or exposition to tie them into a linear storyline. The result is disorienting in the best of ways. The viewer has to just go with it, waiting to see what the action and dialogue reveal in their own time. This too is how relationships work, and it’s how we’re let inside of the relationship between Billy and his boyfriend Carl (Ryan Masson). Their love is simultaneously beautiful and incredibly sad, as their most intimate, loving moments are interspersed with scenes of Carl's extreme listlessness and depression. Both are related after the fact, as moments of retrospection interspersed with Billy's daily attempts to understand and cope with their fundamental incongruity.
Feral's representation of depression is startling for both its accuracy and its importance for the queer audience to whom the show is addressed. As reported by The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization created by queer filmmakers to address LGBTQ youth suicide, queer youth are four times more likely to have attempted suicide than their straight counterparts. The reasons for this are complex, and while Feral doesn't address the reasons for Carl's depression, the show's exploration of its effects on Billy offer an important perspective on the impact that mental illness has on queer people and their relationships with one another. For all the heaviness that depression brings to Feral, however, the show never lapses into a general mood of sadness or despair.
Instead, each episode focuses both thematically and formally on moments of tenderness and hope. In general, the show is structured as a series of vignettes rather than a progressive narrative. A hug between lovers in the Tennessee woods, a moment of connection between friends as they lie drunk on the front lawn, a ridiculous karaoke song sung with all the bravado provided by cheap beers at the local dive bar. The cumulative effect of these moments, which don’t always follow a strict chronology, is to perfectly render a tableaux of those impressions that survive our maturation out of adolescence. Many viewers, when reflecting on their own youth, will remember it in precisely this way: the moments when one's self seemed to expand and encompass everything, the moments when one's confusion did the same.
However, whatever the charms of this formal structure, it isn't exactly conducive to the episodic format of TV, and the result is that Feral is better binge-watched than parsed out across single-episode viewings. Even watched as a whole, the show is still prone to a number of continuity errors or holes in story building. Sometimes characters are introduced and for a good minute it isn’t clear who they are or why they matter. So too there are times when interactions take place but have no discernable relation to the main storyline. The result is that some of the show feels noticeably orphaned from the rest, which at times tests the viewer's goodwill toward the asynchronous story arc. This isn't damning of the entire series, but it does suggest that perhaps there is room for Feral to grow into its own format.
Feral is the first original television show of the streaming channel Dekkoo, which boasts its claim to "the very best gay entertainment…more gay films and shows than Netflix or Amazon Prime". I took advantage of the channel’s free 14-day trial to look around at its offerings, and I was disappointed to see that by "gay entertainment" they meant gay [and bisexual] male entertainment. It's not that I disapprove of gay men having a streaming channel to cater to their particular entertainment needs but rather that I am concerned that the channel's decision to cater to such a narrow demographic will negatively impact Feral's viewership. This would truly be a disservice to the show, which I think has a lot to offer not only to the other letters in the LGBTQ moniker but also to straight audiences who would benefit from Feral's departure from queer representational stereotypes.
That said, Feral is a show worth watching by any standards. It's visually beautiful, and it treats its themes with a kind of care and investment that's often lacking in genre TV. It’s also an example of what indie filmmakers and showrunners are capable of making with the right kind of institutional support, and for that I think it deserves our careful -- and sustained -- attention.