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2002 - January'The Return of the Show that gets Gay Life Right'
T is, for this viewer, the best gay series on television, treating gay and lesbian subject matter with insight, objectivity and equanimity. And it's returning with new episodes tonight. No, it's not "Queer as Folk." It's "Sex and the City."
"Sex and the City" is clearly not a show about gay life (although gay viewers joke that while it concerns four primarily heterosexual women, it's really about gay men — who else could have so much sex with so little guilt?). But since its 1998 premiere, it has featured story lines portraying contemporary gay life with a wit and depth that the more overtly gay "Queer as Folk" hasn't achieved.
Both series return tonight, with "Sex and the City" resuming its fourth season on HBO with the first of six "bonus" episodes at 9 and "Queer as Folk" starting its second season on Showtime at 10.
The shows are similar in at least one respect: their characters spend a great deal of time pursuing or engaging in sex, a refreshing contrast to programs like NBC's gay sitcom "Will and Grace." "Most gay characters in prime time aren't allowed to be sexual," said Michael Musto, a columnist for The Village Voice and Out magazine. "They're only gay because they say they're gay."
The characters of these two shows have no such problem. They live in sexual Disneylands: nighttime Manhattan ("Sex and the City") and a gay neighborhood in Pittsburgh that makes Christopher Street look like Amish country ("Queer as Folk").
Where the shows diverge is when the characters are not having sex.
"Sex and the City" portrays a world in which gay and straight people are fully integrated into each other's lives. On "Queer as Folk," once the characters step outside the cocoon of their gay ghetto, they quickly become victims of discrimination. The former is delightfully nonjudgmental, while the latter seems mired in polemics.
The difference in perspective is more than geographic; it derives from the attitudes of the shows' creators and writers. "A character on our show would more likely be judged by who they are, rather than who they do," said Michael Patrick King, executive producer of "Sex and the City." Ron Cowen, who, along with Daniel Lipman, adapted "Queer as Folk" from the original British series, said, "I write out of a lot of anger."
Mr. Cowen added that the show reflects his day-to- day experience as a gay man. "In almost everything we do, we have to deal with issues of discrimination and all of the ways in which we're deprived of first-class citizenship," he said.
Those viewpoints are apparent in the series' story lines. The most consistently recurring gay character on "Sex and the City" is Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson), the balding, bespectacled friend of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker). In many ways, Stanford represents a classic gay stereotype. He's unattractive, effeminate and sexually nonthreatening. Even Mr. King described him as an outsider. And that is the point. His looks subject him to more discrimination than his sexuality does.
Granted, Stanford can't catch a break. In an episode from the third season, he finally landed a promising date only to discover that the man was obsessed with dolls. "Stanford's always on the outside, so we put him with an outsider," Mr. King said. The scene's subject matter may have been gay-specific, but its looks-are-deceiving moral was universal.
Past episodes have featured Carrie dating a bisexual and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) befriending a group of "power lesbians." Both women ended up having to confront the limits of their sexual adventurousness.
Earlier this season, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) found romance in the arms of another woman (Sonia Braga), only to break up with her several episodes later. The split occurred not because of Samantha's discomfort with her sexual feelings, but because of her long-standing problems with intimacy.
Next week the women go dancing at a gay nightclub where Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) runs into a colleague who she didn't know was gay.
When he admits he's afraid to come out at work, Miranda confesses that she is equally apprehensive about revealing she is pregnant.
Viewers are left to ponder which of them will hit the glass ceiling hardest, underscoring the similarity of their dilemmas.
Each time "Sex and the City" tackles a gay story line, the writers seem to be able to make it accessible to all audiences, handling it with dexterity and humor. "Queer as Folk," by contrast, seems to go out of its way to pit gay and straight characters against each other, offering up a steady stream of stories that deal with anti-gay discrimination.
Over the course of the first season, which began in December 2000, the series' central character, Michael (Hal Sparks), remained closeted at work, surrounded by homophobic colleagues. His H.I.V.-positive uncle, Vic (Jack Wetherall), was a victim of police entrapment in a public restroom. His best friend, Brian (Gale Harold), was accused of sexual harassment at the advertising firm where he works. Justin (Randy Harrison), the show's teenage character, was gay-bashed.
If the show's gay and straight characters share any common ground, it's in their contempt for one another. In tonight's second-season premiere, four of the show's gay characters attend a straight wedding, mocking the traditions surrounding heterosexual unions, until one delivers a harangue on gay marriage. Although meant to be poignant, the scenes play as shrill. Mr. Lipman, an executive producer, said, "It was good drama," but added, "It is a little heightened."
But even as it spotlights the hurdles many gays continue to face, "Queer as Folk" rarely gets beneath that dramatic surface. The characters handle their problems in a formulaic manner, seldom carrying the scars or the lessons from one episode to the next.
Larry Gross, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications and the author of "Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men and the Media in America" (to be published next month by Columbia University Press), said the series has quickly turned into a soap opera. "It's running into the same problems that most serial narratives have, which is how to balance short and long-term stories," he said. "It takes real writing skill to sustain that balance and, frankly, they haven't shown that skill yet."
In fairness, Mr. Gross was equally critical of the gay content of "Sex and the City," and singled out Stanford Blatch as an irritating stereotype — the ugly duckling, unlucky in love. "It's fine to have a gay character who isn't pretty," Mr. Gross said.
"But let him win occasionally."
There is hope for Stanford. Mr. King hinted that romance might be in his future. But don't expect him to land Prince Charming. As with all the other characters on the series, Mr. King said, "it's not a question of what should happen to them, but what could happen."
And that may be the show's greatest distinction when compared to "Queer as Folk." It follows no agenda but its own.
'QAF: Soap Trots Out its Old Tricks'
The Washington Post
by Tom Shales
January 5, 2002
"Queer as Folk," returning for a second season on Showtime tomorrow night, unfortunately now has the slightly seedy aura of Yesterday's Hot Stuff. The serialized drama about life among gay friends in Pittsburgh (not that you'll believe it's Pittsburgh for a minute) was a breakthrough once but now settles into being a novelty, a rather predictable soap opera generously seasoned with glimpses of human flesh.
The program, airing at 10 p.m., developed a solid following and is likely to hold on to most of those viewers but unlikely to attract many new ones -- although it's worth noting that in early episodes of the new season, the two resident and attractive lesbian characters get more screen time than they usually got last year. And female nudity is a bit more evident, too, though bare boys still outnumber naked ladies by a wide margin.
If all this sounds shocking to you, then "Queer as Folk" is obviously not your cup of cocoa. Curiously, the show has drawn remarkably little condemnation from conservative or religious groups. That may be because Showtime has a relatively small audience and because it comes into no home uninvited; you have to sign up and pay for it.
But it may also be because even those politically inclined to disparage the program are unlikely to claim it makes an effective "recruiting poster" for homosexuality, which is usually their big worry, right? The show doesn't offer a very inviting -- or, perhaps, accurate -- picture of gay America. Its four main characters, who come up way short on lovable qualities, treat one another with little sensitivity or affection.
The main exception is a fifth main character who crashed the clique: Justin, a lovable 18-year-old lovably played by Randy Harrison. Justin is the least cynical and most innocent character, and he became even more sympathetic in last season's cliffhanger finale when a rich young creep attacked him with a baseball bat.
Loyal viewers probably did not spend the summer wondering whether Justin would live or die, however, because they knew the producers would be nuts to eliminate the nicest and arguably cutest cookie in the canister. As long as Harrison was willing to return, Justin was bound to recover.
And so he does, but not completely. The first episodes of the new season -- which are set about six weeks after the gay-bashing incident -- find him plagued by fear and nightmares, and suffering from trauma. He's a gifted artist but may never again have full use of his right hand.
In a melodramatic but sadly believable turn of events, the rich boy who assaulted Justin gets a mild slap on the wrist from the plainly evil presiding judge, who claims the burly bigot was "unduly provoked" by the sight of two men dancing together. "We'll march, we'll protest," vows heartbreaker Sharon Gless as the mother of Michael, one of the festive foursome.
Instead, the judge is made the object of a bizarre practical joke involving -- well, let's not go into that.
Oddly, no one mentions the possibility of finding another baseball bat and meting out a punishment to fit the crime; as Woody Allen said in one of his movies, you don't fight fascists with op-ed pieces in the Times. Nor does anyone raise the possibility of pursuing a civil suit that would haul the rich boy back into court. Or making a federal case of it, also a possibility.
The weakest aspect of "QAF" is the fact that those four main characters have changed too little since they were first introduced. All of them are irritating to various degrees -- especially Ted (Scott Lowell), the mealy-mouthed little mole, and Brian, the preening slut played sulkily by Gale Harold.
In the second scene of the season premiere, we're back at the gay bar that is the friends' favorite haunt and, surprise, surprise, Brian's in the back room having anonymous sex. He doesn't even seem to find it pleasurable. From the look on his face, you'd think he was getting a haircut.
"Up to your old tricks?" he is asked. "Never old ones," he replies. "And never the same one twice." That passes for wit on this show. Thank goodness (which has nothing to do with it) there are little signs that Brian is warming up, though he takes pains to ensure that friends don't get that impression. His brooding is boring.
The series needs new tricks more than Brian does, but it also deserves the benefit of doubt since it started fairly slowly last year -- indeed, even "The Sopranos," though a thousand times better than this, usually starts its seasons slowly.
It would be a nice gesture by the penny-pinching producers if, after all this time, they found it in their cold little hearts to put the cast members' names and faces in the opening credits. Actors like Peter Paige as Emmett, Thea Gill as Lindsey and Sherry Miller as Justin's mixed-up mother deserve more credit for their work. Some of the actors playing gay stereotypes do their best to breathe life into those boys and make them seem real.
So few changes are evident in "Queer as Folk" that one gets the feeling the producers think their show is utterly perfect just as it is. They are wrong.
'New Folk Fracas'
by Michael Ausiello and William Keck
January 3, 2002
When Showtime's addictive gay soap Queer as Folk kicks off its second season Sunday (10 pm/ET), don't expect a resolution to what has become one of the show's most disorienting plot inconsistencies: How could Hal Sparks's Michael character have been reared by such a liberal, pro-gay mother (Sharon Gless), and yet still remain closeted at work? Turns out, it's a question Queer producers apparently asked themselves, as an episode from last season was to have featured the thirtysomething department-store manager coming out to his colleagues. But a funny thing happened on Michael's way to full disclosure — his portrayer slammed the closet door shut.
"I refused to do it," Sparks tells TV Guide Online. "I didn't think seeing all seven of us on a pride march every week would serve the audience. There are too many people who are in the closet living this double life, and we lose touch with part of our audience if we're all out of the closet and everyone's okay with it. That's not how life is.
"We're trying to reach people who aren't already close to the community — who aren't accepting," adds the heterosexual thesp, who raised eyebrows last year by comparing busses with his male co-stars to kissing a dog. "When you're trying to bridge a gap, you need to bring people in, and Michael is one of the ways we bring people in. Straight people can maybe relate to this guy."
For her part, Gless believes strongly that her TV son needs to start mixing business with pleasure. In fact, she hints that her forward-thinking alter ego may be the one to blow the whistle on him. "We're going to deal with that [during season two] where Michael is going to come to me and say, 'You have to keep your mouth shut. It isn't your business.' And she's going to have to take it and back off.
"I still believe that [my character] Debbie is who she is, and she's going to hold her position and say, 'I know who you are and I'm proud of it, and if you're ashamed, that's your problem.' They haven't written it yet, but I'm going to fight for it. But Hal feels very strongly that Debbie has overstepped her bounds. And we're having these little tiffs with the producers about... these issues."
Regardless, don't expect Sparks to back down. "I'd like [Michael] to stay closeted for as long as possible — at least in his workplace," he says. "It gives more depth to the character. If we all come out, what would the last season be? All of us attending the GLAAD Awards?"
'QAF: Still Out There'
The Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh)
by Rob Owen
January 2, 2002
Once it got past its "Look at us! Look at us! Two guys going at it over here!" attention-grabbing, sexed-up premiere, the Showtime series "Queer as Folk" settled in to become an above average soap in its first season.
But instead of leaving viewers to wonder if Amanda will get back together with Jake, the big question was whether arrogant Brian (Gale Harold) would once again hook up with sassy, boyish Justin (Randy Harrison).
On the surface, little has changed in the show's second season premiere. The sex scenes remain graphic and too many of the characters are shallow.
Viewers uncomfortable with a show about gay characters that are defined almost solely by their sexual orientation will continue to ignore "Queer as Folk," which has its season premiere at 10 p.m. EST Sunday.
The new season picks up where the old one ended -a predictable cliffhanger.
Justin was the victim of a gay hate crime, hit in the head with a baseball bat as Brian looked on, unable to run to help him in time.
TV shows, regardless of their agenda, often play to the fears of their target audience. If this was a Lifetime women's series, the cliffhanger would have been rape. If there was a show about an NRA member, a character would have been unable to defend himself during a break-in due to gun control laws.
Regardless of the obviousness of the "Queer as Folk" season-ender, the repercussions resonate with a dramatic believability that's eluded the show thus far. It's a significant improvement. Some of the characters and their relationships feel more real.
Brian, in particular, becomes more human. Previously an emotionally constipated jerk who reveled in hurting the feelings of others, Brian has been forced to grow and feel during Justin's recovery.
He's actually willing to allow Justin past his hipper-than-thou, unfeeling facade.
Likewise, once Brian allows Justin to see this softer side of him, Justin becomes a lot less needy, and Brian finds he's not in control of the relationship as much as he once was.
Justin's conservative mother (Sherry Miller) also remains one of the show's more complex characters. The way she deals with her son, his sexual orientation and with Brian shows the depths of her love for Justin despite her misgivings about the life he leads.
But it wouldn't be "Queer as Folk" without someone pulling out a soap box and putting it to grandstanding use. In Sunday's premiere, lesbian couple Melanie (Michelle Clunie) and Lindsay (Thea Gill) attend the wedding of Lindsay's sister, who requests they both come with guys as dates to avoid "an undignified display of my private life," as Lindsay says.
It's hard to believe two characters so out and proud of their lifestyle would agree to this, and it's no more believable that Lindsay would ask Melanie to marry her while toasting her sister.
Writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman may think a scene of Lindsay "getting back" at her sister is great drama, but it only makes Lindsay look like a nose-thumbing child.
The alleged Pittsburgh setting for "Queer as Folk" feels as much like Pittsburgh as, say, Toronto, where the show is actually filmed. Producers still make no effort to graft on the character of Pittsburgh, save for references in a few lines of dialogue.
"Some people may say the Grand Canyon or Big Sur, but I think some of the finest vistas to be found anywhere in the United States are right here in Pittsburgh," says Emmett (Peter Paige) as he surveys the shirtless, sweaty torsos writhing on the dance floor at the gay club Babylon.
"I'm the most fabulous fag in Pittsburgh," Brian says. "That is if it's possible to be fabulous in Pittsburgh."
Probably not. But "Queer as Folk" certainly wants to be fabulous in its depiction of carefree libidinous characters for whom sex is as meaningless and impersonal as a handshake. When it explores the psychological underpinnings of its characters and their relationships, "Queer as Folk" succeeds. Too often that's sacrificed for a tawdry joke and gratuitous glimpses of flesh.
'Bold QAF Back for More'
by Lynn Elber of the AP
January 2, 2002
"Queer As Folk" begins its second eyebrow-raising season on Showtime Sunday.
LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- As might have been expected, "Queer as Folk" got mail, and lots of it, in a first season that included sex between young gay men, and lots of it.
Unexpectedly, perhaps, it was mostly fan mail -- about 100,000 messages from supporters versus a scant 100 from detractors, according to Showtime's count. That was a pleasant surprise for series creators Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman.
"We thought, 'Oh, my God, they're gonna come after us, there's gonna be real nuts out there coming after us,' " said Cowen. "It didn't happen."
The Showtime series about a circle of friends tracked their freewheeling nightlife and emotional ups and downs. AIDS, drug abuse and harrowing gay-bashing also figured in the plot. The fleeting kisses and coy farce of quasi-gay shows like "Will & Grace," sanitized for broadcast TV and our protection, bear no relation to the bold style of "Queer as Folk."
The series became Showtime's highest-rated, doubling the cable channel's primetime average audience. It was renewed for a second season, which begins Sunday, January 6.
Women a sizable part of audience.
The show, based on a hit British TV series of the same name -- the U.S. version is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and filmed in Toronto, Ontario -- turned out to have crossover appeal.
"We knew there would be an audience among gay men for the show," said Jerry Offsay, Showtime's president of programming. "What we didn't realize is that it would have as strong a following among women as it did."
The audience was fairly evenly split between gay men and straight women; Offsay and others at Showtime have kicked around theories why. (Straight men tended to take a pass on "Queer as Folk.")
"The guys are really good-looking. It's a soap, and women like soaps. It's a story about friends and that's something that plays well with women," Offsay said. "They came, they watched, they liked it."
Cowen and Lipman, writing partners for 25 years and a couple for even longer, welcomed the expanded audience. But they didn't create or shape the series to accommodate heterosexual viewers.
Lipman recalled one magazine review that questioned the lack of a "straight guide" to the series, and the response a reader sent in: "I don't see a gay guide to 'Once and Again.' "
"We've never written the show to try to guide people into this world," Lipman said. "We've written it very specifically, and if people get things they get it, and if they don't they don't."
'Boys becoming men'
What he hopes they get is how much in human experience is universal, whatever one's sexual orientation.
"What the show is really about is boys becoming men," Lipman said. "Some characters will succeed at that, and some won't. The show is about maturing."
The characters populating "Queer as Folk" are mostly young men, attractive and single, whose adventures we follow at work, home and in bed.
Brian (Gale Harold) is a handsome heel, successful and self-absorbed. Michael (Hal Sparks) is his goodhearted childhood friend who carries a torch for him. Teen-age Justin (Randy Harrison) is coming to grips with his sexuality.
Also featured is a lesbian couple (Michelle Clunie, Thea Gill) whose lives intertwine with the men.
It was Justin who was brutally attacked by a homophobic classmate at the end of last season. His recovery, and the assault's psychological effect on him and others, will be explored in the second season.
The series really hit its peak in the finale, Offsay said. It emphasized the men's camaraderie and "hit the nail on the head of how dangerous it can be sometimes being gay in America."
The women will get more attention this time around; Showtime thought they were underused last season. The rest of the ensemble cast, including Sharon Gless as Michael's kooky but supportive mother, also will be seen more.
The show's first season had 22 episodes, which are out this month on DVD and videocassette. The second consists of 20 episodes.
'Our show is not politically correct'
Although the bedroom scenes are steamy, Offsay said they are no more graphic than other Showtime fare about heterosexuals. "We don't want to push it beyond that just for the sake of pushing," he said.
"Queer as Folk" has not escaped criticism altogether. Some of the loudest denunciations came from members of the homosexual community who resented the show's depiction of gay promiscuity.
The series' creators respond that they are not trying to represent all of gay life, but a slice of it as lived by young singles.
"I think there are a lot of people who think if you're going to do a show about gay characters it should be politically correct. Our show is not politically correct," Lipman said. "It's not about a doctor and lawyer who live in the suburbs and walk their poodle."
The focus is specific but honest, Cowen said.
"There is nothing we're showing that doesn't exist in West Hollywood,
Chelsea, the Castro," he said. "In fact, the version we're showing
is a gentle version. What goes on in the world is even more harsh and disturbing
than what we're portraying."