I’ve been watching gay TV ever since Steven Carrington was a ‘mo’ in ‘Dynasty’. I cried when a gay son died of AIDS in “An Early Frost”, rejoiced when Jack Ethan slipped the tongue on “Dawson’s Creek” and melted when Patrick married David on that other “Creek” – Schitt’s.
Then there was Queer as Folk. I came of age as gay and watched two versions: the 10-episode original that first aired in Britain in 1999, and the five-season American remake that premiered on Showtime a year later.
I’d never seen anything like it. Some of the actors were gay and some were not, and people debated whether that was good or bad. (They still do.) The US version was on a large cable outlet. Both versions had ensembles of gay characters in their late twenties like me. We were gay and urban and went on great dates with terrible guys and had a robust sex life.
A new “Queer as Folk” debuted on Peacock earlier this month, but it’s not a new performance, as it’s billed. It’s a reboot. The characters, set in New Orleans, include transgender, non-binary and disabled people, played by unknown, mostly unknown actors in many colors. Kim Cattrall and Juliette Lewis play moms. It even has a Pulse-style nightclub massacre on Episode 1, in case you need more trauma plots in your TV diet.
Reviews are mixed. “A joyous effort to explore queer stories for all they’re worth,” said the AV Club. “Has trouble locating humanity,” argued Vanity Fair.
I couldn’t get in. Because the creators never quite figured out how to make their characters more complex than the contours of their identity. (A friend couldn’t decide whether “Queer as Woke” or “Woke as Folk” would have been a better title.) The group of friends made for TV has the emotional depth of strangers in freshman orientation. The actors believe in their lyrics, but don’t always play them believably.
In that sense, this new “Queer as Folk” joins the other big queer and queer-friendly revivals and reboots that have overextended themselves in recent years in the service of the otherwise admirable goal of diversifying the main casts that were originally primarily white and cisgender. — people whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth.
Similar criticism has been circulated about “The L Word: Generation Q”, a revival of the popular Showtime series “The L Word”. In a critique of Season 2, The Los Angeles Times wrote that “the optics of representation can only do so much when stories are one-dimensional, fractured, or guided by outdated tropes.” “And Just Like That,” the revival of “Sex and the City,” made related mistakes seeking Queer Bushwick’s approval.
“The performance of diversity”: This is how Julia Himberg, associate professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University, described what happened to “And Just Like That” and “Generation Q.” (She hadn’t seen the new “Queer as Folk.”) Himberg, a lesbian, is the author of “The New Gay for Pay: The Sexual Politics of American Television Production.”
“Representation is important,” she said. “But if it’s separate from a deeper storyline or a deeper investment in the characters or if the quality of the writing isn’t good, it impacts the audience’s ability to connect with the show.”
I agree with that. I believe we’re in a place – please let us be in a place – where it’s no longer enough that there’s a queer show with characters that look like you; diversity should be the baseline, not the finish line. And so what started as a recent reporting assignment to New Orleans for a recording of the new “Queer as Folk” turned into a deeper investigation, including conversations with friends, academics and others outside of production.
The good news is, if you’re a queer person who finally sees yourself on television in the new reboot, it might not matter if it’s good or bad – being seen means the world. If you don’t like the show, you have the luxury, decades in the making, to watch new and original queer series, such as the new hit Netflix show ‘Heartstopper’, an example of how diversity and good writing – considerate , complex, lived-in- can work together.
Pain vs Puppy Love
“Heartstopper” offers an accessible and ambitious story – a combination that seems to work. (Amid declining revenues and layoffs, Netflix has already extended it for two more seasons.) It turns out that what a lot of people want right now isn’t a memorial of gay pain, but a romance about puppy love.
Based on Alice Oseman’s best-selling graphic novel, it’s a minimalist and escapist series that the whole family can enjoy, depending on the family. It integrates richly drawn characters who are black, Asian and transgender, and their identities are factual, not trauma.
The signature heartmelters are animated butterflies circling the lead (white) characters, Nick (Kit Connor) and Charlie (Joe Locke). I know those butterflies – is there a queer person who doesn’t? — because they were on my shoulder when I fell for my (real) best friend in high school. They’re the same butterflies Will has for Mike in “Stranger Things,” but neither guy fully understands that yet.
Audiences had a similar choice when Showtime took a risk with “Queer as Folk,” two years into the 11-season run of another groundbreaking show: the NBC sitcom “Will and Grace.”
Talk about two gay Americas. The “Will and Grace” assimilationist movement held America’s hand and whispered: Everything will be fine. “Queer as Folk” showed us stupid things and barked: Look after.
Openly gay characters were on television as early as 1971, when Archie Bunker learned on “All in the Family” that his friend Steve (Philip Carey) was gay. On YouTube, I caught up with “Brothers,” an overlooked Showtime comedy (1984-89) with no gay characters—a brave demonstration of homosexuality in a bygone era of hateful attitudes and a vicious virus.
I don’t remember that show, but I remember growing up closeted in the 80s and 90s. Back then I watched every show with a gay character. Even when the options were void, I watched. Of course I looked.
Stephen Dunn, the new creator of “Queer as Folk” (and executive producer, writer and director), also watched. Remembering he was twelve, he watched the distorted broadcasts of Britain’s “Queer as Folk” broadcast late at night on Canadian television at his family’s home in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
“It was amazing to see these bodies and these people kissing,” says Dunn, who directed the gay coming-of-age film “Closet Monster” (2016). “It was my first encounter with a queer person.”
Dunn told me this during a tour of the “Queer as Folk” set in March. Earlier, I saw actress Jesse James Keitel shoot a scene wearing a T-shirt that read, “A woman without a penis is like an angel without wings” — except the word wasn’t “penis,” but a vulgar understudy.
Badass, I thought: a transgender actress who, along with other transgender and non-binary actors, plays transgender characters in a trans-inclusive show at the hands of Jaclyn Moore, a transgender woman and executive producer and writer.
That inflection of transgender power was a welcome sign that this wasn’t going to be the “Queer as Folk” I grew up with. Dunn told me he couldn’t and couldn’t make the show for every queer person, but that he and his writers “were tired of seeing shiny, perfect, safe images of queer people.”
It was exciting that a new generation would have a “Queer as Folk” to call themselves who was nothing like what the queer TV landscape looked like around the year 2000: white, cisgender, male, gay. Keitel later told me that her character, Ruthie — a former party girl and new mom — gave her the chance to play a transgender woman with a full-frontal nude scene that she described as “empowering and sexy, and a vulnerable moment.”
“This is the body I walk around in every day,” she later said on the phone. “Too often stories of transbodies are rooted in shame and the negative. It was exciting.”
Devin Way, who plays the jock heartthrob Brodie, told me there was “no way we could cast people of color and perspective not have shifted.”
“I don’t know what you look like, Erik,” Way said, who is gay. “But if you’re not a biracial boy from the South, our lives will be completely different. If you are not focused on one group of people, everything changes radically.”
I called Russell T. Davies, creator of Britain’s Queer as Folk, to ask why he gave this version his blessing. (He’s an executive producer.) He said this was partly because the show was so politically oriented at a time when “everything we’ve set up is under an active and intelligent threat,” citing the American “Don’t Say Gay” laws.
“Nobody talks about too much straight content or measures the straight stuff on TV,” he added. “Queer stories can be as varied as queer people.”
A good kind of privilege
I wish I liked this “Queer as Folk” more than I did because I was looking forward to it. The makers wondered: “What hasn’t ‘Queer as Folk’ done yet?” and then made that show. But, in my view, it involves an “improperness of trying too hard” to borrow a phrase from essayist Chuck Klosterman in his new book “The Nineties.”
Still, I hope Queer as Folk changes the life of a 12-year-old boy in St. John’s. If not, ‘Heartstopper’ might just do that. Or ‘Orange Is the New Black’ or ‘Looking’ or one of the many nuanced, easy-to-stream portraits of queer characters and stories that have surfaced over the past decade.
Or whatever. I’m looking forward to seeing “Uncoupled” hit Netflix on July 29, starring Neil Patrick Harris as a wealthy New Yorker in his 40s who pursues a single life after being dumped by his longtime partner.
It won’t change my life, and I’m done with stories about rich white men, gay or straight. But it’s nice to see that Netflix hasn’t forgotten that gay men over 30 exist.
Speaking of privileges: having access to so many queer shows and not enough hours. To watch anytime, anywhere, not on a bootleg VHS tape, as I watched the UK’s “Queer as Folk”. To connect with other queer fans of all colors and genders on social media.
To watch with friends at home, not in the hospital, where not long ago many young gay men spent their nights. “It’s a Sin,” Davies’ heartbreaking AIDS series, last year reminded us that there are friends and loved ones who would have loved nothing more than an evening at home with too much queer television.
How different their lives, and mine, would have been if we’d had the luxury of switching channels.