Queer as Folk
review by Gregory Avery, 24 November 2000

After a night out at the local dance club -- "When did Seventies Night become Eighties Night?" asks one character -- Brian (Gale Harold) catches the gaze of Justin (Randy Harrison), a blond, strapping young example of American youth who looks like he could have just stepped forth from a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Brian and Justin retire to Brian's place, whereupon a telephone call comes through: a female friend has just given birth. Brian, Mike (Hal Sparks), and Justin all race, somewhat gleefully, down to the hospital, where Lindsay (Thea Gil) is shown holding her newborn son, and Melanie (Michelle Clunie), Lindsay's companion, has a look at Justin. "So," she tells Brian, "you and Lindsay each had an infant tonight!"

And that's not all, folks: On the drive back, Mike asks Justin if he would like a lift home, it being well into the early morning hours. Justin has a look at Brian and replies, "I'm goin' with him." Nope, this ain't your grandmother's television. Lock the doors, bolt the windows, and send the grandparents, the kids -- and the parents -- to their rooms. The American version of Queer as Folk, starting December 2, has landed amongst us.

It is apropos that the cable channel Showtime, whose current slogan is "No Limits," is broadcasting this adaptation of the controversial, then hugely popular (in that turn), 1999 U.K. series created and written by Russell T. Davis. Davis set his story in Manchester, and followed three characters whose lives intersect. Stuart (Aidan Gillen), a P.R. agency man, makes the acquaintance of Ethan (Charlie Hunnann), who becomes genuinely smitten with Stuart despite the fact that Stuart regards him as another passing encounter. This causes Stuart's friend Vince (Craig Kelly), a supermarket manager, to seethe, partly because Ethan, who's not old enough to know better (he's fifteen, and still in school), keeps following Stuart around the club scene at night, and partly because, unspoken, Vince and Stuart are longtime friends who for some reason have never become lovers. Meanwhile, Ethan finds newfound confidence and decides, to hell with it, he doesn't care if his schoolmates know whether he's gay or not: let 'em. (Hunnann's performance in this series quickly garnered him an enormous fan following.)

The U.K. series gained initial notoriety because it not only depicted gay men as having active, healthy sex lives, just like everyone else (who's straight), but also enjoying it, just like everyone else (who's straight). After a while, the series also showed its main characters as guys who were -- just blokes: they had the same general needs, wants, and concerns, and have to run through the same day-to-day minefield of living. The title derives from a Yorkshire saying that can be interpreted as "people are funny" or "there's nothing more stranger than people."

The U.K. series is also funny, and sometimes wincingly dramatic (particularly the scene where Ethan breaks with his father after the father makes only one, yet undismissible, ill-considered remark).That it also, in some ways, perpetrates the negative stereotype that gay men's lives are a whirl of sex and drugs, I will leave to the Michelangelo Signorellis of the world to hash out. What bothered me more was its stand-offish, even acerbic, attitude towards its female characters (what happened to all that talk about "our gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters"?), which perpetrates another stereotype that gay men are also women-haters -- something which the people behind the U.S. version of the series have taken pains to correct.

The U.S. series' two-hour-plus pilot episode, written by the show's executive producers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, neatly condenses the action of the U.K. series' first three episodes into one. The setting has been relocated to Pittsburgh, but it's surprising at how closely it follows the plot of the U.K. series, scene for scene and sometimes line for line. "What does he say to 'em?" one character asks Vince, in the U.K. series, when Stuart whispers something into first one, then a second, guy's ears so that they start dancing with him, together, on the floor of Babylon, the dance club the characters frequent. With a big smile on his face -- part admiring, part chagrined -- Vince replies, "If we knew that, if we knew the magic words -- but he says them for all of us."

In Pittsburgh, where the characters also frequent a dance club named Babylon, Emmett (Peter Paige) asks the same question of Mike when they see Brian doing the exact same thing on the dance floor. Mike's answer is considerably more wistful: "We'll never know.... But whatever it is, he says it for all of us."

It also serves as a presage for two things. Justin, deciding, at the urging of his friend Daphne (Makye Smith), that he can do as well as the more older Brian, hits the dance floor and starts drawing all the attractive guys from Brian to him. And when Brian cuts-in on Justin, he casts his glance back towards Mike, who's not dancing but watching, yet indicating that things may be taking a turn in another direction between the two of them.

While the show may not entirely evoke the same bubbly, intoxicating highs that the U.K. series achieved, the director of the U.S. pilot episode, Russell Mulcahy (yep, the same guy who directed the film Highlander), does a perfectly fine job handling the multiple plotlines and the many different types of characters, from straight to queenly. While the opening line of the show may be, "The thing you need to know is, it's all about sex....," it's of course actually about how the characters treat the other characters decently. The story touches upon such aspects as the emotional reactions that occur during sex along with just the physical ones; how gay men tend to categorize and band themselves together into groups; how they see themselves as living in a sometimes near-hostile coexistence with straight people, where slurs and homophobia are regarded as being expected rather than the exception; and how some men retreat into the world of porn tapes and, now, cybersex rather than go through the trouble, the hassle the awkward tentativeness, and the possible disappointment involved with going out and meeting people, even if a flesh-and-blood person can provide more benefits in the long run than an electronic or virtual one.

As Mike, Hal Sparks has something of a New York sitcom sound to his line readings, but he has a great, munificent smile and look. He also gets us right on his side immediately during his first shot, when he does this great little bit where he acknowledges the camera (and us) with just a little raise of one eyebrow, and it's not a bit showy or upstaging (and that's very hard to pull off as an actor) while telling us everything about his character. His is the one who always seems destined to be the "reliable" one in the group, the one who provides reassurance, who frets, who gives his friends a fraternal nudge, who lets people stay at his place after their apartment building burned down (and, two years later, they're still staying there). He may not be entirely forthcoming about himself -- to his co-workers, or to the people who call him up suddenly and expect him to drop everything, even if he's in the middle of a date with someone after months and months of inactivity. But he fiercely stands up for his friends, even when they behave less than honorably. The show wouldn't have entirely worked if Sparks' portrayal of Mike showed him as being, for instance, too much of a doormat for other people, or didn't have the right combination of elements that made you want to see him emerge from being always the underdog for a change. Sparks' performance has that combination, and it works well enough that it gets better in your recollection of it.

I suspect that he may be the one who may click most with viewers, although that is not to underestimate the performances by Gale Harold, who's swarthy and has a glittery look in his eye that makes one understand why he can draw practically anyone to him (they want to see what's behind that glittery look), but who never turns into a run-of-the-mill, two-dimensional "predatory" character; and Randy Harrison, who brings the right, appealing, erstwhile quality to Justin, but when he steps out onto the dance floor at Babylon for the first time, there's a powerful, and sexy, charge to his character's sudden emergence that's almost breathtaking. In the role of Deb, Mike's mother and a waitress at a diner in the Pittsburgh gay district, Sharon Gless bustles on and off, cheerfully blowzy, wearing a load of buttons from PFLAG and other organizations and shooting out wisecracks like, "I never forget a butt. Especially a cute one." At the moment, she's somewhat terrifying, but hopefully she'll emerge more as a character as the series progresses.

Will the series, to borrow a phrase from the impish Kuchar brothers, turn into a "soul-staining experience" for Americans? I seriously doubt it. Will it prove to be as popular as the U.K. series, which has already continued into the equivalent of a second season? Quite possibly.

Directed by:
Russell Mulcahy

Starring:
Hal Sparks
Gale Harold
Randy Harrison
Peter Paige
Scott Lowell
Thea Gil
Michelle Clunie
Makya Smith
Sharon Gless

Written by:
Ron Cowen
Daniel Lipman

FULL CREDITS

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