Queer As Folk broke through walls, simple as that. It was one of the first-ever television dramas to focus exclusively on characters that were out-and-out homosexual and, as such, the show caused quite a bit of controversy in the UK upon its release. While many of its cast and crew went on to absolutely extraordinary careers (creator Russell T. Davies went on to famously reboot Doctor Who, Aidan Gillen went on to play Littlefinger in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and the young Charlie Hunnam went on to play Jax in FX’s Sons of Anarchy), and the show was spun off as a long-running American counterpart that retained the name. Yet now, looking back on the original show that started it all, something is lacking.
The show centers around the lives of three gay men at different times in their lives. Stuart Allen Jones (Gillen) is the embodiment of sexual charisma. Hating the fact that he’s “old” (29), he makes the most out of every opportunity he can, sleeping with anyone he desires, even if they’re straight, married, and clients for his company (when asked about his job, he notes how he’s an account director, saying nothing more than “I direct accounts”).
The one who most frequently cleans up Stuart’s messes is his best friend, Vince Tyler (Craig Kelly), a sweet man of boyish charm who’s the assistant manager of a supermarket. He finds excuses to get out of dates more often than he actually sleeps with them, and holds an unrequited love for Stuart. (The only time one of Vince’s dates actually doesn’t want to have sex is when he picks up a fellow sci-fi nerd who, upon seeing Vince has the classic Doctor Who episode “Genesis of the Daleks” on VHS while making out, insists that they watch it together),
Complicating things is young Nathan Maloney (Hunnam), a 15-year-old boy who is just beginning to discover his sexual identity. In the show’s very first episode, he walks down Manchester’s most famous gay central, Canal Street, and is picked up by Stuart. It’s his very first time ever, and shortly thereafter he becomes smitten with Stuart. Brash, arrogant, and determined, Nathan continues to meddle in the lives of Vince and Stuart, much to their chagrin (during when episode when Stuart places his arms around Vince and Nathan, declaring that “I think I found the perfect three way”, it’s Vince who says “I’d rather have a wank”).
The reason why Queer As Folk largely works is because it’s driven by the characters, not their sexuality. Vince’s eternal pining for Stuart winds up keeping him from true happiness, and once Vince manages to score a serious (and quite rich) boyfriend, it’s said boyfriend who puts Stuart on the spot for eternally teasing Vince with the shag that will never come. Stuart, ever the vindictive one, gets revenge by inviting the supermarket employee that has a crush on Vince (but doesn’t know about his sexuality) to his out-and-loud birthday party, completely throwing a wrench into things.
It’s behavior like this that makes Queer As Folk quite the curio: a majority of these characters are actually quite mean and nasty. Nathan lies his way into Vince’s home when his parents argue about his sexuality, Stuart vaguely threatens the life of the mother of their flamboyant friend Alexander (Anthony Cotton) when she deliberately makes sure he doesn’t get any of his father’s inheritance following his passing. Even sweet Vince winds up making numerous — sometimes outright uncomfortable — excuses for getting out of dates. These characters are definitely well rounded, but it takes a good while for them to come across as likeable.
Although the series is good, it’s far from perfect, as Davies has a tendency to go for the melodramatic far too often, sometimes tackling an “issue of the week” take on his storytelling, which includes Nathan acting defiant towards a school administrator who obviously has little time for gay students, their friend Phil (Jason Merrells) dying due to a back reaction to illegal drugs after taking a guy home one night (leaving his body unfound for days), and — in one of the show’s most over-the-top moments — Stuart blowing up a car, never once even questioned by the police.
So while the show meanders between characters (and the show is assuredly a character-driven drama, not a plot-driven one), the show winds up focusing more on the gay scene than it does about deep dynamics between the characters. That said, there are still some poignant moments to be had.
A conversation with Phil’s mother at her son’s funeral is quite devastating, questioning the boys about how if Phil were straight, his death might have been avoided. Then, there’s a Series Two episode when, after Vince and Stuart go to a wedding, it’s suggested they spend the night together, and in a beautifully shot-and-edited scene of undressing before bed, we feel like they’re going to finally connect — only to be duped into realizing they’re sharing a bed together, but they’ve never done anything beyond that. The series’ final moments, wherein Stuart decides to move to London and everyone tries to get Vince to follow him, is riddled with romantic-comedy clichés, but is fun to watch, regardless.
One of the best moments comes in Series Two, where Stuart begrudgedly entertains his two younger nephews, one of whom, upon discovering porn on his computer, blackmails him, saying unless he received a certain set of money every week, he’ll tell Stuart’s parents. Next time Stuart sees his parents, though, he delivers one of the show’s most quoted speeches, telling his parents in a deadpan fashion who he is, all while getting back on the manipulative little liar right in front of him:
“I’m queer. I’m gay. I’m homosexual. I’m a poof, I’m a poofter, I’m a ponce. I’m a bumboy, baddieboy, backside artist, bugger. I’m bent. I am that arsebandit. I lift those shirts. I’m a faggot-ass, fudge-packing, shit-stabbing uphill gardener. I dine at the downstairs restaurant, I dance at the other end of the ballroom. I’m Moses and the parting of the red cheeks. I fuck and I am fucked. I suck and I am sucked. I rim them and wank them, and every single man’s had the fucking time of his life. And I am not a pervert. If there’s one twisted bastard in this family, it’s this little blackmailer here. So congratulations, Thomas: I’ve just officially outed you.”
Although scenes like this certainly elicit a great variety of reactions, perhaps most fascinating is the behind-the-scenes portions, wherein we get to learn a lot about the genesis and reaction to the show. Some of behind-the-scenes moments were culled from around the time of the release, and look awfully dated, while some of the deleted scenes were very rightfully excised from the final broadcast (including, rather embarrassingly, a scene where Nathan defiantly states “I’m gonna be gay forever!” — which Davies and producer Nicola Shindler in the commentary acknowledge was probably the best cut they made).
What’s of most interest are two very interesting featurettes. One is the very by-the-numbers “history of the show” doc entitled “What the Folk…?”, wherein the show’s creators and actors all talk about what they fell the show means to them and the impact they felt its had (which, although interesting, is still pretty typical stuff).
The DVD set’s most daring inclusion, however, is the full broadcast of a program called “Right to Respond”, wherein regular people got to discuss the programming choices out there today (and by “today” we mean 1999). Shindler and the head of programming at C4 sit down with a very condescending executive of a UK gay rights group named Stonewall and a “regular gay” named Mark Fearn, who says the show doesn’t represent his lifestyle nor the lifestyle of any of his friends. It’s an intensely heated debate, wherein the Stonewall executive calls the show a “missed opportunity” and Fearn laments the scene of underage Nathan having sex with 29-year-old Stuart. Shindler and the C4 exec very smartly defend their ground, saying that the show is a drama, it’s fictitious, and it’s a world that Davies has very much lived in. They don’t have a “responsibility ” to do the right thing just because they’re on TV — in fact, many of the actions by the characters have great consequences later on.
Right to Reply almost stacked the deck against the show by having Fearn do these speak-to-the-camera sequences prior to the broadcast, describing what he didn’t like (which was also a narrative device the show used in its first episode but very wisely dropped), so much credit must be given to Shindler holding her ground. (It should be noted that all this furor was not only based on the first episode — the only one that anyone had seen — but also because Parliament was pushing through a measure that could have potentially lowered the age of consent.)
In the end, Queer As Folk remains a good drama, flaws and all. It ultimately succeeded not because it was the first truly prominent gay drama on the air, but because it was a character-driven show that tackled a lot of ground in a very short time. Although the show’s influence might actually outweigh its plot and characters, that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s still worth catching up on.