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Series' 'mythical' Pittsburgh barely reflects the real thing

Sunday, December 03, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Pittsburgh is the setting for Showtime's "Queer as Folk," but the drama series about a group of gay friends tries for only so much verisimilitude. After all, it's filmed in Toronto. But producers have made efforts to replicate Pittsburgh.

"Queer as Folk" production designer Ingrid Jurek has never been to Pittsburgh, but in a phone interview last month she said a location manager visited the 'Burgh and took pictures that are being used to help pick locations in and around Toronto that can double passably.

"We're imitating Pittsburgh more on a street level rather than using false establishing shots," Jurek said. "We tried to imitate a lot of the brownstones, the architecture, with what was realistic for Pittsburgh."

The original "Queer as Folk" was a British series set in the working-class city of Manchester, and producers of Showtime's version believed Pittsburgh would best equate to that in American terms. Judging by the photos she's seen, Jurek imagines Pittsburgh as a verdant city with many low-rise buildings. As for the gay district in "QAF," Jurek acknowledged it doesn't exactly reflect reality.

"We have here a mythical Liberty Street that goes with our fictional characters," Jurek said. "The Liberty Street that exists is nothing like that."

Plus, it's really called Liberty Avenue.

"I understand Pittsburgh is undergoing a revival of the arts," Jurek said. "We decided to attempt to duplicate that wouldn't do it justice. At that point, we're into the mythical."

Pittsburgh isn't the only mythical element in "QAF." When characters go to a sports bar on the show, the absence of Steelers logos is conspicuous. Nor will viewers see brand-name products from fashion designers, several of whom also declined to have their products featured on "QAF."

"You never get the reason why a trademark is denied," said Mark Zakarin, executive vice president of original programming for Showtime. "But the people at the production company have their suspicions."

"QAF" producers were not available for comment, but in September, executive producer Tony Jonas told Entertainment Weekly, "We knew there was going to be a homophobic attitude, but we had no idea it would be at this magnitude."

"QAF" graphically depicts sexual relations between men, and in one story line, sex between a 29-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy.

"I had never heard that we had a problem before, and this was identified to us as an unusual situation," Zakarin said. "Again, without drawing any specific accusation, what motivated it seemed to a number of people as out of the ordinary."

In September, the New York Post reported NFL marketing director Carol Lucas wrote to a "QAF" producer demanding all references to the league and the Steelers be deleted from the script. When contacted last week, Lucas referred questions to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, who said the NFL receives dozens of similar requests each month. Some are approved, some are not.

"They simply asked us for permission and for merchandise [to use on the show], and we declined to cooperate," McCarthy said. "We were given a brief synopsis of the show and decided the subject wasn't in our best interest. We've politely responded to their letter as did five to 10 other companies that also declined."

Of course, the NFL doesn't have the right to censor a TV program's use of team names in dialogue.

"They can't do that," Zakarin affirmed. "You can't stop someone from saying the name of a sports team or stadium. You can stop someone from having the trademark of the sports team. But you can't stop someone from saying, 'Chicago Cubs.'"

Zakarin said he expects some viewers will be turned off by "QAF," even angry that the series was produced, and that's fine by him.

"There's not a doubt in my mind people will be upset," he said. "It is a groundbreaking show. It is depicting a segment of the homosexual culture in a way that's never been depicted with frankness and openness and unabashedness."

Zakarin insists Showtime isn't pushing the envelope simply to titillate and draw attention to a network whose original programming has long lingered in the shadow of more popular premium cable network HBO.

"We've asked the writers, producers, directors and actors to reflect with honesty the reality which they know," Zakarin said. "We've never said make it more salacious, make it more explicit. We also haven't said tone it down, soften it. All we've ever said to them is make it as real and as true as you can."

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