News - Archives

2001 - June

'It's Queer, it's Here, Get Used to It'
The Boston Globe
by Matthew Gilbert
June 24, 2001

Remember when, after a few witty episodes, ''Ellen'' turned into a Pioneering Sitcom to Further the Cause and Educate the Masses? Suddenly the breezy topical humor began to blow hard, suddenly no one was tuning in, and suddenly, but not suddenly enough, the series was canceled. The big message? Entertainment with big messages is usually a big mess.

As cultural artifacts, TV shows contain plenty of data about the way we live now - the 1990s as seen in the self-reference and intimacy phobia of ''Seinfeld,'' for instance. But that kind of importance has to be incidental, and as soon as TV script writers become self-consciously significant, as soon as they compromise their entertainment values to make points about culture and politics, they run the risk of insignificance and pointlessness. Which brings me to ''Queer as Folk,'' the post-''Will & Grace,'' post-post-''Ellen'' series featuring gay and lesbian characters and enough insider reference to fuel a queer studies doctoral dissertation.

Here is a show that has stubbornly avoided sanctimony and momentous behavior to achieve its goal: to be an openly dishy, swishy soap opera, and not a soap box. True to its nighttime serial roots, it has refused to do politically correct things such as ''represent a spectrum of the community'' or ''focus on the positives of minority life,'' all in the name of reorienting Aaron Spelling and twirling him under a fabulous disco ball. It has been ''Dynasty'' with nipple rings, nothing more, nothing less. Turn Babylon, the show's gay bar, into a swimming pool, and give Brian Kinney, the show's cool villain, a blow-dryer, and you've got ''Melrose Place.''

Not surprisingly, ''Queer as Folk,'' which wraps up its first season tonight at 10 on Showtime, has suffered the slings and arrows of outrage, though not from right-wingers, who must be too busy going after Howard Stern to bother with cable niches. The criticism has come from gay and lesbian viewers, many of whom feel the show fosters the stereotype of gay men as superficial, sexually obsessed bar boys. Out celebrities have voiced their disdain, too, including Boy George and Sandra Bernhard, who noted, ''It completely marginalizes gay men, and it's every cliche under the sun jammed into, like, one sexfest. It's pretty stinky.'' In between defensive put-downs, many of the same people will also rush to tell you that the British version was, of course, far superior.

Still and all, ''QAF'' is currently the top-rated series on Showtime, the cable network known for airing fare - ''Lolita,'' the ''Tales of the City'' sequels - that other outlets have rejected as too controversial. The show, which will return for its second season in January, has provided the movie-heavy Showtime with a foothold in attracting viewers to original series, just as ''The Sopranos'' did for HBO on a larger scale. There are bars that have ''Queer as Folk'' nights, not least of all in Pittsburgh, where the series is set, and fans are always eager to passionately debate the fates of its characters. A good old-fashioned guilty pleasure, it has become one of the few successful new dramas in a TV season woefully short on durable new product. That it is offensive to some and beloved by others only confirms its power as one of TV's pop cultural forces, which by definition polarize audiences.

Has ''Queer as Folk'' been a step forward for the media image of gays and lesbians? Why not. The more, the Mary-er. The characters may represent only a particular segment of young gay America, but then you can't say ''Friends'' represents all of young straight America. What TV show, not to mention movie or book, doesn't focus in on a particular set of people? And the sex on ''QAF'' - some of which does have emotional nuance - is presented without shame, even if two of the straight actors (Chris Potter and Hal Sparks) have made a point of telling interviewers about their disgust with male-on-male kissing. Presumably they want to protect their marketability with casting agents.

Is ''Queer as Folk'' a great show? Certainly not, although as trashy drama it has many pluses. It's addictive, for sure, and the writers have come up with some amusing and surprising plot turns (remember stumbling across the supposedly monogamous Dr. Dave at the baths?). The developments aren't particularly original, like the time Melanie had an extra-marital affair while Lindsay was consumed with domestic bliss. Don't you just know that the prep schooler who has been gay-bashing Justin is going to show up in a gay bar in some future season? And the characters' crises - Brian's harassment suit, Uncle Vic's arrest - are often resolved too quickly and easily. Sometimes, though, the plots are loaded with melodramatic opportunities for the show's better actors, notably Ted's struggles with Blake, the ''tweaked-out twink'' who left him for dead at the beginning of the season.

Like ''Friends,'' the show has built a wonderful sense of intimacy and connection among its central characters, particularly in relation to the only major character who is straight, the eccentric Debbie, played lovingly by Sharon Gless. She is to ''Queer as Folk'' what Mrs. Madrigal is to ''Tales of the City'' - the maternal and loyal nurturer, taking in orphans like young Justin, whom she calls ''Sunshine.'' While ''Sex and the City'' also has its singles finding redemption in one another's friendship, ''Queer as Folk'' has come up with an even warmer and more extended family of choice.

A number of the actors in the ensemble are unusually good, and they help make the characters more than gay types. Randy Harrison, with his impossibly white smile, captures Justin's teen self-absorption perfectly. Throughout the season, he has created a vivid portrait of a self-aware young man who is so dizzy with his newfound sense of self that he doesn't even recognize his own bravery. Peter Paige provides sweetly camp comic relief, and Scott Lowell imbues Ted with a complex mix of integrity, vulnerability, and self-defeat. Michelle Clunie has also stood out as Melanie, the only character ferocious enough to get in Brian's face.

Also on the plus side, the set design is imaginative and visually engaging. Like the costuming (picture the drag-influenced Emmett on the town with Carrie from ''Sex and the City''), the characters' living spaces nicely complement their personalities. Debbie's house is a comfortable, working-class clash of wallpapers; David lives in a slick harmony of beiges interrupted at intervals by Michael's comic-book flourishes; and Brian's loft is spare and soulless, with a bed as its control central. The camerawork, too, is inventive, especially in the bar scenes, as we swoop over the dancers' heads and through a sea of sparkle and tint.

On the downside, the show's two most important characters are portrayed by its weakest actors. As Brian, Gale Harold is all strut and affectlessness. He's a hollow actor, which doesn't work even if Brian is meant to be a hollow character. Harold should be giving Brian enough dimension and charisma to supply the other characters with their motivations. After all, why has Lindsay chosen such a cold fish to be the father of her child? And why is Michael willing to let his love for Brian jeopardize his relationship with David? We should see the answers to such questions in Brian's magnetism.

As Michael, the show's Everyman, Hal Sparks is also limited. He projects enough innocence to make Michael into an easy mark for controlling men such as Brian and David, who likes his lovers to be docile. But his childlike voice, his slack facial expressions, and his offbeat timing tend to be monotonous. He's queer, but, alas, he's just there.

'Throwing off Sparks'
by Kaizaad Kotwal
June 15, 2001

‘Queer as Folk ‘co-star plays gay in a most effective way

Queer as Folk has fast become the highest-rated program in the history of Showtime. Since debuting last December, it has developed a faithful following.

At weekly Sunday gatherings, groups of friends gather to watch the latest shenanigans of a group of gay and lesbian Pittsburgh residents as they navigate the sexual, personal and professional waters of their troubled and often exotic existences.

The current season will soon climax; but next season is just around the corner.

Queer as Folk has been helped in large part by a sharp and effective promotional campaign unleashed by the cable network. Before critics and enemies of such frank programming had the chance to launch their arrows, the series’ ad campaign proclaimed that the show was too hot to handle.

Hal Sparks, one of the stars of the series, spoke with Gay People's Chronicle from his trailer in Toronto, where the show is filmed.

The affable and giving Sparks shed some light about this ground-breaking show, its impact on pop culture and the people who are queer as folk. Sparks, a straight man, plays Michael Novotny, probably the most interesting and complex of the series’ characters.

Michael is out to his friends but in the closet at work. At 30, he is a romantic at heart and has long carried the flame of unrequited love for Brian, the hunky hedonist who gets away with anything and everything. Michael has the boyish good looks of Justin (the 17-year-old neophyte on the show) bundled with maturity and a sense of responsibility to friends and family.

Yet he also has a childish innocence, obsessed with comic book characters and embarrassed by the double entendres of his sassy mother, played to campy perfection by Sharon Gless. In essence, Michael is the one you would most likely take home to your family; the most dateable one on this show.

So why does Michael continue to be friends with Brian, a self-absorbed, egomaniacal, sex-obsessed S.O.B.? Sparks says the relationship is complex, based in a lifelong friendship and undying love.

"As the series progresses, Brian grows up a bit," says Sparks.

Sparks is hopeful that the series will be renewed from year to year. "We have standard TV contracts and potentially could be in it for years." Based on current ratings, Sparks' dream may come true. But he knows the show’s longevity depends on the "audience's desire" and passing the "scrutiny of the core audience." (Showtime has ordered 20 more episodes for next season.)

I ask Sparks what it was like to play a gay person on a series that is so frank in its sexuality and depiction of sex. On one level, Sparks believes that playing a gay person isn't that different from his experiences as a straight man.

"It's about who he loves, about his level of self-esteem and that isn't all that different." On the other hand, Sparks admits, "The physical stuff is all new to me." And there is a lot of physical stuff for these actors to pull off. Sparks' concern is that he come "across as real and that it looks like there's true emotion behind him so that you end up caring for him."

The show's no-holds-barred portrayal of sex, with oodles of nudity, tantalizing close-ups and slick camera work, would be a challenge even for the most seasoned, uninhibited of performers. For Sparks, those scenes are "very medical, very clinical."

"It's all about hitting your mark, staying in the right light. There's much less emotional content in those scenes than in the relationship scenes, you know, the ones about the unrequited love."

Sparks is also very candid about the fact that everyone from the producers to the audience "has an agenda" about the controversy of the show. Sometimes, Sparks goes head to head with the creative team about choices that his character makes.

"I have to protect the character stuff," he explains, "because it can't be gratuitous. If Michael starts to have sex like Brian, in back alleys and at all times, in all sorts of places in every conceivable position, then it becomes completely unreal."

It seems that the producers, in wanting to keep the hype of controversy and full-fledged sex acts going strong, sometimes lose clarity about the authenticity of the characters and the story lines.

"I am the voice of Michael," Sparks says, "and not that of all gay men. There is a lot of pressure to be risqué. A lot of people were concerned that the American one wouldn't go as far as the British series. So," he adds matter-of-factly, "you get a chip on your shoulder and you try to keep pushing the envelope."

Despite the more liberal standards in Europe, Sparks reminds us that "the British series was on broadcast channels and we are on cable," giving the American series even more carte blanche.

As we talk in his trailer between filming shots that evening, Sparks wants to talk about another issue. "I feel a lot of pressure to be a spokesperson for the gay community now that I am playing this guy on television. And there is no way that I can be that. I can't pretend."

Sparks recounts the bizarre experience he had at the series’ New York première, which he attended with his girlfriend. "There was a lot of talk from the press, the gay press in particular, behind my back, about how I had showed up with a woman in tow."

Apparently, the press and some of the audience were disappointed that their image of Sparks' character didn't match that of the man on the red carpet that evening.

"I was just being honest about who I am in my life," says Sparks. "I think it would have been really insulting to the gay community and worse for me to have shown up at the première by myself, to be ambiguous and to lure the audience into a false sense of fantasy and security."

It's quite obvious that the gay community can be as prejudiced and inane in attacks on celebrities as can the mainstream media.

Sparks and I then turned our attention to the fact that a controversial and frank show like Queer as Folk has its fair share of detractors from the religious and political right; even some from within the gay community.

The former are concerned with the moral decline of America and their vision of modern-day Gomorrahs. Those within the community are concerned about the perpetuation of the stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous, drug-popping, bar-hopping sluts obsessed with designer underwear, full-body depilation and penis size.

Sparks is very aware of the agendas of both sets of detractors. "The danger," he says, "is of only watching the show initially. Of watching the pilot, glancing at it out of curiosity and making such gross judgments." For Sparks, there is much more going on.

"If I were a gay person, I would be concerned, but it needs to be remembered that these are the realities of these seven people and the club scene and not of all gay people. Their real lives, concerns and loves far outweigh the stereotypes of the drugs and alley sex."

Sparks is aware that "the danger is always from those who don't watch but hear bits and pieces from here and there."

Sparks, who came by his fame doing the funny and irreverent Talk Soup on the E! cable network is charming, funny, intelligent and extremely astute. His smile can light up the room and his boyish face exudes charm, sassiness and warmth all at once.

It is clear that he is having a ball playing Michael Novotny. He turns in a solid performance week after week, and in some ways is the grounding force of a group of characters that sometimes become very flaky; even unbelievable.

Gless, known for her role in the 1980s police drama Cagney and Lacey, is a hoot to watch. Her character accepts gay people more openly than anyone else on the show--including the gay characters themselves.

"She is like a rock, and I can always count on her," Sparks says. "She is the pro of the one-hour drama, and we are really like mother and son on the set."

Sparks also has high praise for all his co-stars, referring to them as "fantastic."

Our interview ends when Sparks must return to shooting. As the season winds up, he will be returning stateside to work on other projects. He’ll go back to Toronto in late summer to start shooting a second season of the series.

He promises great things to come as the series progresses, and says he is willing to come back and chat with us again. We certainly hope he does.

'QAFolk: a Firecracker of a Season Finale'
The Washington Post
by Tom Shales
June 9, 2001

"Queer as Folk," Showtime's hot-potato drama series about gay friends living in Pittsburgh, ends its season in a daze of glory with three final episodes full of drama, heartbreak, sex and -- something other episodes have often lacked -- emotional power.

Preempted in May, "QAF" returns to wind up its 22-episode season tomorrow night, June 17 and June 24 at 10 each night, with the quality rising the closer one gets to the last moments.

The season finale in particular offers one stunner after another as various plotlines work themselves out. Showtime has asked that critics not reveal what happens, and there's no reason to spoil it for viewers. But it is fair to say that the episode includes a shocking example of a hate crime -- shocking but lamentably believable. Viewers will not know at the end of the episode if the victim dies or survives. They will have to wait until next season.

One problem with "QAF" is that its major characters don't seem to have developed over the weeks that the series has aired. Another is that they were insufficiently likable to begin with. As the season progressed, story beats just kept repeating themselves and the characters failed to show growth of virtually any kind. Michael (Hal Sparks) was ever the trusting, simpering little puppy-dog. Brian (Gale Harold) remained an arrogant, unfeeling sex addict who callously spurned the devotions of 18-year-old Justin (Randy Harrison), first encountered in the series premiere.

All these weeks have gone by and Brian is still trying to ignore Justin and push him away, even though the kid is devoted to him. Brian prefers having anonymous sex with a nearly infinite number of partners, thus perpetuating the stereotype that homosexuals are by nature promiscuous. In the episode airing June 17, Brian accepts an advertising award from a man in one scene and a short time later is having sex with himin a secluded part of the ballroom where the ceremony takes place.

One could say, to paraphrase Will Rogers, that he never met a man he didn't like.

One fairly recent development has proved to be among the most engaging and touching subplots. Wimpy Ted (Scott Lowell) befriended a young man named Blake (Dean Armstrong, giving the best performance in the series) who is addicted to drugs. Determined to rescue Blake, Ted takes him under his wing and becomes part father-figure to him. But try as he may right up through the season finale, Blake keeps slipping back.

Emmett (Peter Paige) had a brief flirtation with a group devoted to "reforming" gays and turning them heterosexual. It didn't work. Michael moved in with an older man, David the dull doctor (Chris Potter). Fans of the show are probably anxious to see David go away. Not until the last moments of the final episode will they know if Michael will move to Portland with Daddy Doc or stay in Pittsburgh with his real friends.

The flashiest episodes in the series have been directed by Russell Mulcahy, who made his name doing some of the earliest, and best, music videos. But the Mulcahy episodes also have often come across as heartlessly glitzy, and they have made the characters appear superficial and sex-obsessed.

In general, the more time the characters spent at the Babylon Club, their favorite disco, the less interesting an episode was dramatically -- though, no doubt to some viewers' approval, the more flesh was exposed to the camera. Tomorrow night's episode is a virtual boy parade -- a boy watcher's orgy, but a drama lover's waste of time.

But in the final episode, they barely go to Babylon at all, and the amount of emotional investment one has in the story is substantially increased. This one was directed by Alex Chapple and written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the two producers who adapted the series for American TV from a British original.

The cast also includes Sharon Gless in a touching performance as Michael's big-hearted mother, and Michelle Clunie and Thea Gill as two lesbians living together and raising a baby fathered by glum, slutty Brian.

In the final chapters, Brian gets a comeuppance when a job in New York and the promise of a new life fall through. Then he turns 30, a crucial milestone for someone who worships youth and is terrified of growing old. There are signs, though, that Brian's superficial values are changing and that he may be forced to grow up.

The last episode emphasizes, sometimes in stunning ways, that "Queer as Folk" isn't just about being homosexual in America or about a certain lifestyle. It's about the need to love and be loved -- indeed, the need to be needed. About friendship and interdependence and compassion.

Whatever criticisms might be leveled at individual episodes, "QAF" clearly qualifies as among the most adventurous television events of the season, a show like none other anywhere on the dial.

'Folk Tales: Actors Branching Out'
The New York Post
by Michael Starr; courtesy of Heather; [published
June 4, 2001

It's amazing how much one successful TV season can mean to an actor's career.

The (largely) unknown cast of Showtime's "Queer as Folk" have all snagged impressive projects since their debut on the show, which returns June 10 after a four-week hiatus leading into its June 24 finale. Hal Sparks is in Toronto shooting "Bleacher Bums" with Brad Garrett ("Everybody Loves Raymond") for Showtime; Gale Harold finished his off-Broadway run in "Uncle Bob" and is now shooting an independent film in Maine; and Randy Harrison just wrapped "Bang Bang You're Dead" for Showtime.

Meanwhile, Peter Paige is in L.A., doing a play called "Secret Agent," while Scott Lowell just finished shooting wraparounds for Showtime's celebrity-directors series, "On the Edge."

And while Thea Gill shoots a Showtime movie up in Calgary, Sharon Gless (San Diego) and Michelle Clunie (San Francisco) are headlining productions of "The Vagina Monologues."

'QAF Goes from Trite to Dynamite in 1st Season'
by Christine Champagne; courtesy of Pfyre; [published
June 2001

Showtime's "Queer As Folk" has certainly improved over the course of its first season. Is it as good as the original British incarnation? No. But it's a lot less cheesy that it was at the start. Being the drama queen I am, I'm now hooked on the gay soap despite its flaws, and I've actually grown attached to the characters -- Ted (Scott Lowell) and Emmett (Peter Paige) in particular.

So, of course, I couldn't resist popping a review cassette of the show's first season finale, which airs on Sunday, June 24, at 10 p.m. ET, into my VCR and taking a peek. If you're dying for some dish, read on for a preview. Rest assured that I don't give away any surprises: And, believe me, there are quite a few in store for viewers...

As the episode opens, we learn that it is Brian's (Gale Harold) birthday when his friends burst into his apartment and rouse him from his bed. "It's the last day of the rest of your life," Emmett declares.

"Did I die?" Brian asks.

"No, but you'll wish you had. You're 30," Ted cracks.

Not surprisingly, Brian, being the age-conscious egomaniac he is, isn't thrilled about turning 30 and doesn't want to celebrate.

Still, his friends toss him a fete at which Brian stuns them with some news about his future.

Meanwhile, Michael (Hal Sparks) starts to have second thoughts about moving to Portland with David. Hmmm ... What could possibly keep him in Pittsburgh?

Ted is also experiencing relationship woes. It seems his boyfriend can't stay off drugs. Ted takes drastic action to help him, but will it be enough?

In a more humorous storyline, Emmett finds love.

Elsewhere, Justin (Randy Harrison) decides to attend his prom, but he needs a date. The question is: Who will it be?

As for the lesbian couple, Lindsay (Thea Gill) and Melanie (Michelle Clunie), they essentially serve as set decoration in the season finale. If I may make a plea to "Queer As Folk's" producers, give these ladies more to do next season.