Sunday’s Not-So-Guilty-Pleasure

I have a confession to make. I’m hooked on Queer As Folk. Now that the show’s second season has come to a close, I am finally feeling secure enough to come out and publicly admit I am indeed a fan. The majority of my friends claim they stopped watching the Showtime series after three or four episodes. But I suspect many of them are closeted watchers and, like myself, are perhaps very cautious about sharing their insights about the way Brian treats Justin, the sexual problems plaguing Melanie and Lindsay’s relationship, and Ted’s cyberporn business. The situation takes me back to the 1990s when we all pretended we weren’t watching Melrose Place. Even Sienfeld devoted a plotline to Jerry’s inability to hide the fact he’s a fan when he’s challenged to take a lie detector test — and fails.

When Showtime announced their plans to adapt the critically acclaimed British mini-series for American television, I admit I was skeptical. I was a fan of the original when I first saw it at OUTFEST: The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1999. Even before the L.A. premiere, bootleg tapes started circulating around Hollywood and it seemed everyone was talking about Queer As Folk.

A copy no doubt made its way to Showtime, which secured the North American rights and quickly hired two experienced TV writers/producers, Ron Cowen and Daniel Lippman, whose credits include the first made-for-TV movies about AIDS, An Early Frost and the prime time soap Sisters, to adapt it for American television. In the spring of 2000, the channel launched a $10 million ad campaign for the series that specifically targeted gay households. The campaign included a special 800 number (1-800-COMING OUT) for new subscribers; direct mail advertisements to members of the New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco gay communities; and promotional “V.I.P. Coming Out Parties” at gay clubs around the country.

Showtime’s efforts paid off. The number of subscribers increased significantly from 11.3 million in April 2000 to 12.8 million by December 2000, the month the series debuted. Queer As Folk, which was recently renewed for two seasons, is the pay-cable channel’s highest-rated original series (it’s weekly numbers are nearly twice that of Showtime’s average prime time ratings.) From a critical standpoint, the series is also considered a success. Not only did it receive a thumbs-up from most gay publications, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) named it the best drama series of 2001.

Although my vote would have gone to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, I’ve remained a loyal viewer of Queer As Folk, even though the Showtime series bears little if no resemblance to the British mini-series I fell in love with. Of course there are two major differences between them: the British Queer As Folk is a self-contained mini-series (plus a two hour sequel), which was expanded by Cowen and Lippman into a weekly series. Second, and more importantly, the British TV series was the semi-autobiographical vision of a single writer (Russell Davies), while the American version, like most dramatic TV series, is written by a team of writers. Consequently, Showtime’s Queer As Folk is essentially another prime time soap opera.

Like Dynasty and Melrose Place, the continuous plotlines of the American version are predictable and the characters, at least from a psychological standpoint, are not terribly complex. This is particularly true in regards to the two leads; the hypersexual advertising executive Brian (Gale Harold) and, the amiable, yet insecure Michael (Hal Sparks). There is little trace of the repressed mutual attraction that was at the core of the relationship between Brian and Michael’s respective British counterparts, Stuart Alan Jones (Aidan Gillen), and Vince Tyler (Craig Kelly). The producers have chosen instead to emphasize what I think are they’re most irritating and least interesting qualities: Brian’s arrogance and Michael’s passivity.

While we could understand why Vince and every gay man Stuart comes in contact with is seduced by his charm, it’s not clear why men are falling over one another to get close to Brian and, more importantly, why Michael remains friends with someone who is narcissistic, rude, and a little short on compassion. Stuart definitely has a mean streak, yet we also saw the insecurity and vulnerability that such behavior usually hides. By comparison, Brian, is far too dour and unlikable. Michael is finally starting to speak up for himself, though he still lets Brian make snide remarks about his love life, including his latest squeeze, Prof. Ben (Robert Gant). Their relationship is in some way similar to Will and Jack’s on Will & Grace, though I find it much easier to listen to two sharp-tongued gay friends exchanging barbs on a situation comedy than a dramatic series.

In addition to the quality of the writing, which, like most daytime soap operas, lacks subtext and requires actors to let no emotion go unexpressed, Harold and Sparks are simply not seasoned actors. Far better are the cast of supporting characters, particularly Peter Paige as Emmett Honeycutt, Scott Lowell as Ted, and Randy Harrison as Justin Taylor. Paige and Harrison are both openly gay and although I am not an essentialist and believe you need to be gay to play gay, they are by far the most realistic and well-rounded of the ensemble cast. Justin, who seemed like he was headed to becoming a professional gay victim after season one, has emerged as a smart, observant, and more complex than his twenty something friends.

The same with Emmett, who this season was given the story line that had great potential (his affair with a much older millionaire, George Schickel (Bruce Gray). Unfortunately, instead of developing their relationship, the plotline took such a predictable turn (George dies suddenly, leaves Emmett a fortune, the family protests the will, etc.) without enough of a payoff.

I have also recently warmed up to Michael’s mother, Debbie, played by the talented Sharon Gless. As the gay-friendly, outspoken, politically minded mom, Gless had a tendency at first to overact her role. She has toned it down, though I still haven’t quite figured out what the writers are going for by dressing her up in colorful, cartoonish outfits and wigs. Once again, they’ve exaggerated this aspect of her British counterpart’s personality. I think we are supposed to think of her as a “character,” but, like her outfits, I think they’ve gone overboard.

So after what reads like a laundry list of criticisms, why do I keep coming back for more? To be honest, I think the series fills a void that is left by the other networks, which lately have limited gay characters to sitcoms. More importantly, unlike most network television, the fact that these guys are gay is not really the issue. That alone is what makes the show so refreshing. Queer As Folk has been criticized for focusing too much on the characters’ sex lives, which accounts for the disclaimer at the end of each episode reminding us that what we just saw is not representative of the entire gay community. But at least they are having sex, which is seldom discussed, let alone shown on network TV. Did Will of Will & Grace even have a date this season? And why does Jack only get luck off-screen? Even the gay-male centered Queer As Folk‘s resident lesbians, Melanie and Lindsay, who are played by the terrific Michelle Clunie and Thea Gill, were given equal time in the bedroom this season.

Come the fall season, I’ll be eager to find out if Justin and Brian stay together; if Debbie gets serious with her detective friend; if the lesbians live happily ever after; if Professor Ben stays healthy; and if Ted and Emmett can make a go of it.

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