GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Unrated, (22) 40 minute episodes
In 1999, Queer as Folk, a refreshing and no-holds-barred look at gay life, aired on England's Channel 4. The eight episodes, and its two hour sequel, took place in, and around, the gay club scene in Manchester. Writer Russell T. Davies' goals were summed up by its advertising slogan: "No Victims. No Martyrs. No Role Models." Rather than plead for tolerance, the series simply presented a story for our entertainment without concerning itself with issues. And that, perhaps more than anything else, made Queer as Folk one of the most groundbreaking and honest portrayals of gay life to ever hit the airwaves.
Due to the explicit nature of this program, Queer as Folk wasnÕt even aired here on PBS. A gay cable channel, available only in a few cities, televised the series but even they cut it. But now, the American remake has made its much heralded debut on Showtime. Regular readers of Outcome might remember my review of the original last year and my fears that the remake would be watered down. The verdict? Thankfully, Showtime has lived up to its "No Limits" credo and the remake is every bit as in-your-face and explicit as the original. Plot-wise, the premiere double episode was almost a carbon copy of the first two episodes of the daring Britcom. The main differences were cosmetic... names were changed and the characters Americanized. A certain British charm, especially involving the use of the word "shag," is missing now but the flavor of both shows is essentially the same.
Queer as Folk centers on the lives of three very different gay men. Brian, (Gale Harrold), is a party boy who lives to get laid. Hal Sparks plays his best friend, Michael, a comic book fanatic who lives in Brian's shadow. When we first meet them, both men are just months away from turning 30 while Justin, (Randy Harrison), is 17 and has just made his first frightened foray into a gay bar. He goes home with Brian and is devastated later to discover that he was nothing more than just another notch on the lethario's bedpost. Each actor, even though two of them are straight in real life, seem very natural in their roles. Sharon Gless steals the show as Michael's very supportive mother who works in a diner on the club strip and hangs out in the bars. Michael remarks that if he hadn't been gay "she'd be playing bingo instead of organizing Pride marches and handing out condoms."
A number of supporting characters from the original enjoy beefed-up roles in the Showtime rendering. Michael shares an apartment with a very campy man named Emmet, and one of their best friends is a man named Ted who "has a really big heart, except that no one here is interested in the size of that organ." Rounding out the cast are Lindsay and Melanie, a lesbian couple who stand out from all the men by being firmly committed to each other. In the first episode, Lindsay gives birth to a son and the sperm donor was Brian. Lindsay and Brian are old friends, while Melanie disapproves of his loose ideals. When Brian arrives at the hospital, with Justin in tow, Melanie remarks, "So... youÕve both had an infant tonight."
Much of the new series, just like its predecessor, revolves around Brian's shenanigans as he scores with almost every good looking gay man in Pittsburgh. In contrast, each man that Michael brings home is a disaster. Equal time is also given to Justin's coming out issues both at school and at home. Justin is not an angst-ridden suicidal gay teen-ager. Out and proud, he mocks his schoolmates to his best friend Daphne: "They're just kids. They're just talking. I'm doing it!" Meanwhile, Michael is terrified of coming out at work and his fellow employees are trying to fix him up with a new clerk named Tracy. When he is roped into meeting them at a straight bar after work, Emmet hands him a football magazine "in case the conversation veers from Liza's weight problem." Matters aren't helped when a mean-spirited Brian later tells Tracy that Michael really likes her.
Michael's complicated relationship with Brian seems to still be the crux of the new series. Because they were friends since boyhood, Brian is oblivious to Michael's true feelings for him. Michael's longings for Brian are much more pronounced in this version, and his disgust with Justin seems motivated more by jealousy this time around.
Queer As Folk has all the intrigues of a late night soap opera but it's all set in the queerest of milieus. Like the British series, the writing is very sharp and drama queens will love all the snappy lines. Each of the characters is a fully developed individual. The new 22 part series will have a larger canvas to fill than the 8 part original and already, by the fourth episode, the original tale has begun to develop in new directions. For example, Ted's British counterpart tricked with a stranger and wound up dead of a heroin overdose, but he survives in the new rendition. Ted also has feelings for Michael, and this is a new dynamic that will be interesting to watch unfold.
So how do the two compare? I have to admit that, when I watched the premiere, I spent too much time comparing it to its British blueprint and felt that the original had more of an edge than its American stepchild. Because the new version is starting to travel new roads, I can now treat the two as separate entities. Some of the new additions are racier than what came before. Re-watching both editions, I noticed that the new one shows even more sex than its predecessor. But Queer as Folk isn't just about sex. Without great characters and good plotlines the series would lose its novelty quickly. By the time I got to episode four and noticed the new storylines, I lost that deja-vu feeling of "been there-done that" and began to enjoy it more for the new pleasures it offered.
The biggest difference in tone between the two is that more is explained for the benefit of the straights in the audience whereas Davies' first script made the assumption that everyone would get it. There is also far more criticism of bigoted straights in this version too. And Justin is two years older than his counterpart Nathan was across the Atlantic.
Again, I am trying hard not to keep comparing it to the Britcom, but I can't review this honestly without stating that the original's Stuart was cockier and a more compelling character than Brian. Make no mistake here, Brian is every bit the self-centered Don Juan that Stuart was but I get the impression that Showtime's filmmakers are trying to make him more likable. The actor who played Stuart was also much better looking than his American counterpart (making his exploits totally believable) but there was also something about him that seemed just a little bit...almost evil. He was the proverbial character you "loved to hate," like perhaps a gay male version of Alexis Carrington.
On the plus side, Lindsay and Melanie are given a lot more airtime than they had overseas. Their stable relationship is refreshing after watching Brian in action. Granted they argue in some of their new scenes, but each time they are fighting about Brian. However, the premiere added a beautiful new scene where Lindsay breastfed their new son while Melanie looked on, blissfully happy. This was followed by a short romantic interlude that was almost pastoral compared to the frantic cutting and flashy camera pans employed with each of the guys.
But do we want conservatives to watch this show? Well, for those with an open mind, Queer As Folk might foster awareness whereas the Pat Robertsons of the world will undoubtedly cite the show as a harbinger of the fall of civilization. Was it irresponsible for the filmmakers to make the first big sex scene one that involved a minor? Maybe. Do such things sometimes happen in real life, and is this scene important to the overall story? Yes. Of course America's double standards are legendary; no one complains when a teen-aged old boy loses his virginity to an older woman in movies like The Summer of 42.
But forget political correctness, Queer as Folk spins a tale that is honest without pandering to any special interest groups. In an online interview, the original creator Russell T. Davies expressed his disgust with cute, cuddly and/or victimized gays and decided to just write a story that told it like it is. Making no apologies for exhibiting excesses on the party circuit, both versions would send the Rev. Fred Phelps into a rubber room. Queer As Folk makes Will and Grace look like Ozzie and Harriet. There is no effort made to make its characters more acceptable to the bigots of the world. Showtime DID, however, add this disclaimer: "QAF is a celebration of the lives and passions of a group of gay friends. It is not meant to reflect all of gay society. Although one of the storylines involves an underage character, all principal performers are adults."
For those who do not subscribe to Showtime, The Underground is showing episodes on Sunday nights, and the series will undoubtedly be released on video sometime in the future. For those who are interested in seeing the original, (and missed the November screenings at Hallwalls and Hamlin House), it can be rented at Mondo Video. It is also finally available for sale in this country but be warned: the price tag is a bit steep. Check out the original if you can because, after all, it DID come first and its considerable achievement should be acknowledged. The new Queer as Folk, however, has its own charms and, if the first four episodes are any indication, should continue to be enjoyable viewing in its own right too.
Reviewer's Note 2007: You will also find two more essays about Queer As Folk in which I discuss the end of the first season and the beginning of its second sason. For the most part, the show was very good throughout its five year run. Out and gay Canadian playwright, Brad Fraser, joined the writing staff of Queer as Folk in the third season. Though he says, in my 2004 interview with the playwright, that he isn't completely responsible for the dark turn that some of the storylines took in seaeson three, his well-known edgy writing helped keep QAF from getting stale in the later years. Fraser is the author of Unidentified Human Remains And The True Nature Of Love (filmed by Denys Arcand as Love And Human Remains), and Poor Superman (which he directed on film as Leaving Metropolis).
also appears in: