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Is it good for gays?

Promiscuous gay men. Bickering lesbians. Underage sex. PFLG-waving moms. These things happen. But should they be on television for the world to see? Fervent fans and critics of Showtime's QUEER AS FOLK face off.

Are love-struck Michael and the controlling Dr. Dave headed for splitsville?

Will love-'em-and-leave-'em Brian ever acknowledge that he's developed a genuine bond with young and restless Justin?

And what about Emmett? With all his pals pairing off, will he be left single and alone? And Ted--isn't he just asking for trouble by taking in that meth twinkle Blake?

And now that Melanie and Lindsay and their baby are back together, will they live happily ever after?

As Showtime's Queer as Folk ends its first season--the last episode, revolving around Brian's tumultuous 30th birthday and promising cliff-hangers aplenty, airs June 24--the ongoing debates that have dogged the series since its debut in December are sure to intensify. As the first dramatic series on American television to focus unapologetically on a circle of sexually unabashed gay men, QAF, as it's often called, has been a lavender lighting rod from the very beginning.

The show's Web site--which Showtime says draws 300,000 unique visitors a month--has played host to impassioned arguments. "I can totally relate to the characters," enthused one visitor, Rick, hailing the series as a breakthrough for its unflinching presentation of gay lives. "I have known people like Michael, Brian, Emmett, Justin. I think we all have moments like the characters, longing for someone we can't have, longing to be the beautiful one, confused about love and lust, etc." Others, like a visitor signing himself Tolver, have reacted with alarm, worrying that QAF's flank sexuality--especially its major plot thread focusing on 29-year-old Brian's dalliance with the then--17-year-old Justin--can only spell trouble: "This is very bad. Gay men as promiscuous child molesters. The religious right will use it as a weapon to sway Middle America against gays.... Nowhere in this series is there any evidence of stable gay men who are productive members of society."

That feared backlash never materialized. Though the Family Research Council aimed an obligatory broadside the show's way, cultural conservatives generally steered clear of Queer. "The religious right can't make a credible case against a show that's on pay TV late at night--most people tend to side with the Right to freedom of privacy and freedom of choice, no matter what the content," says Wayne Besen, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay lobbying group. "Plus a lot of religious conservatives don't get Showtime--or at least don't acknowledge that they subscribe to a network that advertises `No Limits.'"

But Queer as Folk has clearly struck more than a few nerves among gay and lesbian viewers, who have taken up the slack for the absent antigay forces. Fans and detractors have obsessively submitted the show--based on the 10-episode British series created by Russell Davies, which first aired on England's Channel Four in 1999--to the most rigorous analyses, pro and con.

And whatever they may think, people are watching. "It gets the highest rating of anything on the channel," says Pancho Mansfield, Showtime's senior vice president of original programming development. Indeed, the network has been sufficiently cheered by viewer reaction that it has ordered 20 new episodes for next season, set to begin in January 2002. And the show's executive producers, Ron Cowan and Daniel Lipman, speak of it as an almost sacred trust. "We hope it's a very honest portrayal of a specific group of gay people," explains Cowan. "We put a lot of our lives in the show, and when you put your personal life into a show, it becomes more than just a show or another entertainment. It becomes a presentation and a statement of your life experience, so you want to do it right."

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation recently hailed QAF as the year's Outstanding Drama Series. "Queer as Folk is exciting, intriguing, disturbing, realistic, sometimes overly dramatic-all in one show," observes GLAAD entertainment media director Scott Seomin. "It does show a portion of gay life that perhaps the gay community at large doesn't want everyone to know about--the promiscuity and rabid drug use. But we can't have it both ways. I hear from people who say, `I was like Brian when I was 29--it's realistic and should be celebrated.' And I also hear a common criticism, `I don't want my mom and the straight world knowing about this,' even from people currently living that life."

Even before it aired, QAF was guaranteed to leave some viewers disappointed. It followed in the wake of its near-legendary British template, in which a lot of gay viewers developed a proprietary interest after discovering it on the gay film festival circuit. For them, Gale Harold's Byronic Brian on Showtime would never have the charm of Aidan Gillen's more puckish Stuart, to cite one frequent comparison. Also, QAF arrived on a crest of a Showtime-orchestrated promotion blitz that only heightened expectations further.

Initial mainstream reaction--as typified by Caryn James in her New York Times review--absorbed the sexual shocks but found the drama lacking. "The series is not harmed by its gay perspective," James wrote, but by its limited aesthetic roach." A number of members of the gay intelligentsia quickly agreed. Commented David Tuller at "The problem with the show is not that it includes a lot of sex. And it's not that it includes a lot of anonymous sex. The problem is that the sex is the show's real focus. Oh, and incidentally, there happen to be some men in the show who are the ones having all the sex--and, by the way, not having much fun while engaged in it."

Cowan and Lipman, who'd already completed filming six episodes by the time the series premiered, claim to have been unfazed. "The English series was more like a short story, while our version is more like a novel," says Cowan. Although they borrowed a number of basic relationships--especially Michael's longstanding, unrequited love for Brian--from the original, front the start they veered off in their own direction. In the British version, for example, the character who corresponds to the hangdog Ted (Scott Lowell) died of the overdose that Ted survived; instead of minting a boardinghouse, Michael's mom (Sharon Gless) dishes it out at the local gay diner; and Uncle Vic (Jack Wetherall), an older gay man living with AIDS, is a new addition.

And the producers are passionate in defense of their vision. "Brian is actually very complex, and Gale brings his own complexity to the role," testifies Lipman, as Cowan quickly adds, "Dan and I find Brian very heroic, very honest; he lives by his own code of ethics. He has an active sex life, and some people have dismissed him as a sex addict, but I find that very denigrating."

As for the show's high sex quotient, the two producers are adamant that it's crucial to their design. As gay men, argues Cowan, "we have seen so little of ourselves portrayed in a sexualized manner. How many movies have we seen with straight couples making love? We don't even think about it anymore. But when we see ourselves being sexual, a lot of gay people are uncomfortable. It's important we get comfortable with that. We have a right to see ourselves as sexual beings, and straight people should see us as sexual beings as well."

Of course, that raises another thorny question: Can QAF function as a primer on homosexuality for straights while at the stone time exhibiting a knowingness that appeals to gays? The producers insist they've managed to strike that balance--in part because much of the first season is witnessed through the eyes of high school senior Justin (Randy Harrison), who is just coming out. "I don't think we've done too much explaining," says Cowan. "We do have a responsibility to deal with issues like AIDS, which the British show, as much as it was praised, didn't deal with. We're not trying to give safe-sex lectures, but we are trying to address that one has to have safe sex." As a result, some scenes--like Justin's first encounter with Brian--have made condom use explicit, while others--like all that overheated groping in the back room of Babylon--don't.

Ah, yes, Babylon. QAF's whirlwind of muscle-bound disco bunnies has left many more-literal-minded viewers carping that such a glamorous dance hall doesn't belong in a low-key town like Pittsburgh. "Babylon is a mythical place," responds Lipman. "That's why it's named Babylon. Of course it's not reality. It's like Cabaret, only in Babylon it's all the boys who are beautiful." And fantasies (to come to life in Babylon--in the June 10 episode, virtually all the action takes place in the club in one night, during which Emmett (Peter Paige) finds love and then loses it, playing out the course of an entire relationship in 45 minutes.

Indeed, QAF aspires more to a certain stylization than to strict realism. Out director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) established a high gloss when his camera went swirling through Babylon in the premiere installment, and the producers have allowed directors of other episodes to introduce their own filmic inventions. For the opening of one episode, focusing on the economic disparity between Big Q discount-store manager Michael (Hal Sparks) and the more comfortable Dr. Dave (Chris Potter), director Jeremy Podeswa (The Five Senses) offered up a split-screen homage to The Thomas Crown Affair. "The show's drawn upon a lot of directors from the independent world, not the usual TV hacks," says Podeswa, "and they're encouraged to bring their independent filmmaking sensibilities. The show is very open to experimentation as long as it feels organic."

In fact, behind the scenes at QAF is a veritable who's who of gay talent, including director John Greyson (Lilies), novelist Doug Guinan (California Screaming), and TV and film writers Richard Kramer (thirtysomething), Jonathan Tolins (The Twilight of the Golds), and Jason Schafer (trick). But impressive as that list is, it also underscores one of the show's weaknesses: Only one woman, director Kari Skogland, has played a major creative role in the series.

And that is telling, say many of the show's lesbian viewers, who have complained that in QAF's first few episodes, lesbian couple Lindsay (Thea Gill) and Melanie (Michelle Clunie) existed only to further show lines featuring the guys. "My first impression was that it was great to see hot sex, to see gay men as something other than sexual eunuchs," says Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, "but I was annoyed by the treatment of the lesbian couple. They were used simply as a plot device for Brian."

Kendell particularly objects to the very notion that Lindsay and Melanie would choose to have a baby courtesy of Brian's sperm when Melanie and Brian were so at odds. "It was a disservice to the intentionality with which lesbians and gay men go about having children," she says. "I know thousands of lesbian parents, and not one of them would have a child with someone with whom her partner had a hostile relationship. I have to confess, after the first three episodes, I couldn't watch any more. I think they need a lesbian mom with a conscience on their writing staff."

Cowan doesn't necessarily accept that criticism, explaining, "The two women have had a separate and developing story line of their own, dealing with parenting issues, financial issues--which mom works, which stays at home. In fact, one of our problems has been finding ways to incorporate them into the lives of the guys."

As the producers assemble next season's creative staff--which they expect will include women, possibly people of color, maybe even a straight guy or two--Lipman says, "When it comes to the creative process, there's no such thing as diversity--it's all based on the talent of the individual." Adds Cowan, "We may have too rigidly assumed only gay men could write Queer as Folk. We've discovered that's not true. It really transcends questions of one's own personal sexuality."

In fact, 22 episodes down the line, QAF has declared its freedom from its British forebear. The central Brian-Michael story line has become richer. Loyal viewers have been repaid with glimpses of Brian's emotionally withholding family, even as Brian has grown into something of a proud father figure to Justin, leaving Michael free to negotiate his independence as he's set up housekeeping with Dr. Dave. Along the way, the show has tackled issues including gay students' rights, sexual harassment, and "reparative therapy." Says Lipman, "We never set down a bible for show. We had general ideas about the characters, but we've gone where the characters have led us. It's sort of been more like, `Follow the force, Luke.'"

Just don't look for the boys to settle down next year. "We are doing a show about guys in their late 20s who are single, go out a lot to clubs, live in the big city, and have a lot of sex partners," says Cowan. "We're not going to whitewash that. We're not writing about a middleaged gay couple living in the suburbs. If anyone wants to see that show, then someone should go out and do it."


Gays, lesbians, and friends from around the country assess the impact of Queer as Folk


Nothing like that happens here [in Pittsburgh]. It's a beautiful city, but it has a low-key gay scene. You wouldn't see drag queens walking down the street. Multiple people would not be having sex in an alley. There are no sex clubs here that I know of. There's not a big gym where people are running around going "Oh-h-h, Sister Sledge!" And we have no Big Q.


I think Queer as Folk has to be put into a context of the general lack of programming on television that speaks to the queer community. [The show covers] a tiny part of what some gay people's lives are about, but that's more than what we see most of the time. I wish that every night I would have trouble deciding which gay-oriented programming I wanted to watch, but it's just not like that. Is it the best thing in the world? No. But is it kind of enjoyable? Yeah. A lot of heterosexual Americans watch television because there's pretty people on their shows, so why shouldn't we have some on ours?


I think Sharon Gless's character is an honest representation of many of our active PFLAG moms and dads in how excited she is that her son is gay, in how accepting she is, in how she embraces who her child is and how she doens't hold back. From the first episode where she's wearing the I'M A PFLAG MOM button, people like Justin's mom--at first they're confused and scared and then upset and hurt, and then they move into a more active role. In one of the last episodes [I saw], she was in the school fighting for her son!


I saw the first two hours, and I thought it was terrible. I was a huge fan of the U.K. version, and I thought the American version looked substandard in every respect. I didn't like the casting, I didn't like the design, didn't like the writing. The American version does push the buttons--there are very explicit sex scenes--but everything also is so banal. I think it makes gay culture seem sad and superficial. Also, Pittsburgh is such an amazingly beautiful city, and they didn't even shoot any second-unit stuff there--it's all shot in Toronto. Here it's shot mostly in the gay ghetto, which I mostly avoid--it's the same people over and over again.


I'm a big fan; I've only missed one [episode] so far. I fell like I have a relationship with the show, and as in any relationship, I get angry with it sometimes, but I'm still glad to be in the relationship. It does touch on topics in gay life that we've never seen before on TV. I think that we were quick to get jaded with the show. We were chomping at the bit for sexualized gay characters and then got over our period of being thankful for this very quickly. I think it's a lot more realistic than a lot of gay people would like to admit and also a lot in the tradition of Dynasty than its creators would like to admit.


While I applaud the show for being unapologetically queer, I am nonetheless appalled by the slice of queer life the show chose to portray: hedonistic, promiscuous and drugged gay men. And how is it possible to reside in Pittsburgh, an urban city, and not run into any LGBT person of color? As I have seen no people of color featured in its episodes, even in cameo appearances, the show, I've begun to realize, would have best been called Queer as White Folk.

--reported by Chad Graham

Kilday also contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times and Premiere.

Find past coverage and links to official and unofficial Queer as FolkWeb sites at
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Article Details
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Author:Kilday, Gregg
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 19, 2001
Previous Article:THE FULL PAIGE.
Next Article:Pride of lyin'.

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