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TV Review: Cable television's 'Queer as Folk' leaves nothing to the imagination

Sunday, December 03, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

With hairy legs akimbo in multiple graphic sex scenes between men (or man and boy), it's safe to say Showtime's new adults-only drama series "Queer as Folk" will have limited appeal.

That's not just because of the sex, although plenty of people will flip the channel for that reason. Even those inclined to stay tuned may be uncomfortable with the random hookups and rampant promiscuous sex. This isn't a series about people in loving, committed relationships; it's mostly about immature gluttons for instant gratification who hop from bed to bed.

Add to that sex scenes between vulgar, selfish, supremely confident 29-year-old Brian (Gale Harold) and equally selfish but underage 17-year-old Justin (Randy Harrison, a May graduate of the University of Cincinnati), and Pittsburgh-set "QAF" (airing at 10 tonight) is guaranteed to anger some.

"Queer as Folk"

When: 10 tonight on Showtime.

Starring: Hal Sparks, Gale Harold, Sharon Gless.

Related article:

Series' 'mythical' Pittsburgh barely reflects the real thing


It will be especially interesting to see how gays react. The depiction of drug-taking, anonymous sex-having characters make gay life appear pretty empty. That image softens a bit in later episodes, but tonight's premiere concentrates heavily on sex, sex and more sex. The first lines of dialogue from the show's most likable character, Mikey (Hal Sparks), set the tone for the next two hours.

"The thing you need to know is, it's all about sex," Mikey narrates as the camera, with pulsating music in the background, pans through a dance club, the appropriately named Babylon. "In fact, they say men think about sex every 28 seconds. Of course, that's straight men. With gay men, it's every nine."

There are several soap opera-like love triangles going on in "QAF." Mikey has pined for arrogant Brian since they were both teen-agers. Nice guy Ted (Scott Lowell) has a secret crush on Mikey. And Emmett (Peter Paige)? Well, in "Will & Grace" terms, he's the "Just Jack" among these characters.

In addition, lesbian couple Lindsay (Thea Gill) and Melanie (Michelle Clunie) have a baby. Lindsay was artificially inseminated using sperm donated by Brian, who shows some signs of humanity when it comes to his son but often fights with Melanie.

The Brian-Justin hookup remains the most troubling element of tonight's show. "Lolita" movies aside, I can't imagine that a weekly TV series about a high school girl initiated into sex by an older man would fly, even on a premium cable network like Showtime. And by forsaking a "less is more" approach with its sex scenes in the premiere (later episodes are less graphic), "QAF" follows a course that will likely prove "more is less" (i.e. more sex equals fewer viewers).

Putting the sex aside -- and it requires a lot to get past it -- "Queer as Folk" actually has some interesting characters, funny but profane dialogue and much better plotting than the last series from creators Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman. They also created the NBC melodrama "Sisters," a show with a great concept but painfully predictable plots.

It's clear Cowen and Lipman are writing in a more comfortable arena with "Queer as Folk." The dialogue is natural, the characters are believable and the stories seem realistic. Many of the situations the "QAF" characters encounter are universal. Just as in the straight world, it depicts a gay culture where nice guys go home alone and jerks find quick companionship.

The depiction of Justin's concerned mother (Sherry Miller) is especially well played. She wants to accept her son's homosexuality, but it's a new concept and she's not comfortable with it immediately. It's a struggle for her, and it's also the most poignant story in the show.

Though the cast consists mainly of unknowns, their status as such is unlikely to last. Sparks is probably the best known as the last regular host of the E! series "Talk Soup." A self-described "boy-next-door" type, Mikey is the audience's access point to the show. On the "Will & Grace" scale, he's the "Will" -- a gay guy who doesn't fit the stereotype.

Sparks proves to be a good actor and successful leading man, but the real revelation is Harold. As the obnoxious Brian, Harold is a study in complexity. He's a gay lothario, but he's also filled with contradictions and some depth once you get past his facade. Loathesome as Brian is, Harold makes the character riveting whenever he's on screen.

Sharon Gless ("Cagney & Lacey") has a supporting but noteworthy role as Mikey's mom, a waitress at the Liberty Diner. She's proud as can be of her gay son.

"I've always said, it isn't who you love, it's how you love," Debbie says. "Genitalia is simply God's way of accessorizing."

With teased red hair, Gless looks rather haggish, but it works for this colorful character.

As for the depiction of Pittsburgh, save for references to the Pirates, Steelers and Carnegie Mellon University, there's no sense of the city in early episodes. "QAF" is filmed in Toronto, but some of the neighborhoods chosen for filming could pass for Shadyside, Squirrel Hill or Mt. Lebanon.

Despite Mikey's contention in a later episode that Pittsburgh has no "gay scene," "QAF" posits that Pittsburgh's gay mecca -- complete with drag queens -- can be found at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Barkers Street (it looks vaguely like parts of The Strip). Those in the know will have to judge whether "QAF" offers an accurate depiction, but I looked for Barkers Street on a Pittsburgh map and couldn't find it.

Other Pittsburgh things of note: No one has an accent. Old Pitt beer substitutes for Iron City. However, a box for the real alternative newsweekly, InPGH, is seen in one episode and an extra can be spotted reading the paper in tonight's premiere.

But Pittsburgh is incidental and unlikely to have much bearing on the show in future episodes. "QAF" is not a Pittsburgh show; it's a series about a specific culture and, more importantly, an even more specific club-hopping segment of that culture.

No doubt some of the same viewers who worship at the font of HBO's "Sex and the City" will revel in the bawdy behavior of the boys on "Queer as Folk." But there's no shame acknowledging this too: It's not for everyone.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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