Television

QUEER AS MAINSTREAM

Returning for season two, Queer as Folk has a strong heterosexual following

NORA UNDERWOOD January 21 2002
Television

QUEER AS MAINSTREAM

Returning for season two, Queer as Folk has a strong heterosexual following

NORA UNDERWOOD January 21 2002

QUEER AS MAINSTREAM

Television

Returning for season two, Queer as Folk has a strong heterosexual following

NORA UNDERWOOD

Nobody’s paying much attention to the three guys leaning against the wall in the cafeteria. The room is jammed, every seat taken by an attractive young man, and the place is humming with conversation. But still, nobody seems to notice that there are three hairless, perfectly formed Adonises standing around in nothing but white briefs and heavy black shoes while other men slather paint on them. Of course, nobody in the room is an ordinary guy—they are tonight’s 131 partyers at the dance club Babylon, plus eight “kissing guys,” one DJ and three (paint-covered) go-go boys. And this is the cafeteria of Dufferin Gate Productions, a studio in westend Toronto and home for eight months of the year to the hit series Queer as Folk.

On this particular night, the cast and crew are at work on the eleventh episode of season two (beginning Jan. 21 on Showcase). New characters will be added, famil-

iar ones will be developed, but the focus of the show—the lives of five young gay men in Pittsburgh—will remain the same. And so will the raunch. In fact, the first scenes of the season opener will allay any fears that the producers have gone soft: within three minutes the camera moves beyond the mass of sweaty, gyrating men smooching and dancing at Babylon into the back room, where naked guys are in the throes of various sex acts. In a perhaps unrealistic but ultimately tension-defusing moment, a fully-clothed Michael (Hal Sparks) wanders through, looking for his friend Brian (Gale Harold). “Hey Todd,” he says nonchalantly as he passes an acquaintance engaged in sex, “how’s it going?”

Inspired by the controversial British cult hit series of the same name, the North American version of Queer as Folk surprised everybody with its success. Last year, the show was the highest-rated series in prime time for Showtime, the U.S. specialty channel for which it was developed,

and the channel’s highest-rated series debut in three years. North of the border, Queer as Folk became Showcase’s secondhighest-rated show (after the soft-core Red Shoe Diaries), watched by as many as 200,000 viewers every week—a significant number for a Canadian specialty channel. It consistently attracts talented guest directors, including Canada’s Bruce McDonald, John Greyson and Michael DeCarlo. But perhaps even more surprising is that among adults between 18 and 49, women account for 52 per cent of the audience. “It kind of reminds me of Melrose Place,” says QAF fan and 34-year-old mother of two Liza Seward. “Everyone’s sleeping with everybody, the story’s just outrageous, the characters are great, and the men are so beautiful. I like it because it’s a grown-up soap.”

When executive producers-writers Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen were approached by Showtime to adapt the British QAF for America, it seemed a stroke of serendipity. “The thing I admired most about the British show was not only was it graphic in language and sexuality but it was charming, it was fun, it was witty,” says Lipman. “It was very much our voice.” Lipman and Cowen, partners in their private lives who created the acclaimed 1985 AIDS film An Early Frost and the 1991 series Sisters—both Emmy winners—agreed they would write neither a political show nor a politically correct one. Instead, says Lipman, they wanted to tell the truth, or at least what they considered the truth to be. “A lot of people get upset with the show because its not their image of what it should be,” says Lipman. “The criticisms we’ve really got are from the gay press. There’s only one gay drama so they want every character to be a lawyer or a brain surgeon.”

The creators also wanted the show to be graphic in its depiction of gay sexuality, particularly as they initially believed they were writing for a niche audience—an audience already familiar with the gay world. “We were all surprised that we have a vast audience, that we have a straight audience that loves the show,” says Lipman. “People don’t have any problem with it.” (Their two favourite criticisms, Cowen adds: there’s too much sex, and there’s not enough full-frontal nudity.) The only real fuss was made by the right-wing South Dakota Family Policy Council, which took out a full-page ad in a December, 2000, edition of the Rapid City Journal, condemning QAF and urging people to cancel their subscriptions to Showtime. “We could’ve paid for it, it was so good,” laughs Peter Paige, who plays the securely out, fabulously dressed Emmett. “ ‘Don’t watch Queer as Folk\ It has scenes of sexuality and lovemaking and kissing and anal sex and oral sex.’ It was just like, wow! Fantastic!”

Pinned up on a wall of a Dufferin Gates production office is a 2V2-page handwritten letter from a gay woman saying how much she loves the character of Brian—“the hottest gay man on the show.” Although the American QAF is more an ensemble piece than its British counterpart, Brian, a guileless, highly sexual 30-year-old who makes no apologies for who he is, is still the core from which all else flows; the other characters radiate, in true soap-operatic style, from him. There’s Michael, Emmett’s sometime

roommate and the best friend and secret admirer of Brian; Ted (Scott Lowell), the Internet-porn-loving accountant, who harbours a secret crush on Michael; Justin (Randy Harrison), the 18-year-old survivor of gay-bashing who is in love with Brian; and Lindsay (Thea Gill), who, with her longtime partner, Melanie (Michelle Clunie), is mother to a baby conceived with the help of Brian.

The show’s success is at least partly attributable to shock value. “Lots of teenagers—boys and girls, straight and gay—are really drawn to it because it’s bad and out there and their parents don’t want them to watch it, and it’s about sex,” says QAF producer Sheila Hockin. “But it’s also because it’s brave and it’s funny and they get to see this world.” Gay teenagers and older gays, Hockin adds, have written moving letters about how important it is to see someone who represents them on television. “Usually, on television, a young gay person is in torment,” says Lipman, “walking on the beach, about to kill himself because he’s gay.”

Canadian Jack Weatherall, who plays Michael’s Uncle Vic, believes the big draw is the stories. “Quite frankly, I find a lot of the sexuality pretty rough,” says Weatherall, whose character is an older HIVpositive gay man. “Nevertheless, I don’t think the show is about reality, it’s about truth. Each character defines his own truth. My character lives with a disability, he’s part of a non-traditional family, his prime relationship is with his sister [played by Sharon Giess] who really took care of him when he was sick, and he’s been the father figure for Michael. I think we’re

much more ready to deal with those stories. ” The actors know their characters are inspiring to many QAF viewers, a fact that helps reinforce the importance of playing roles that can be demanding in their frankness. Gill and Clunie receive a lot of mail from young girls who have just come out and are dealing with their parents. “Sometimes they are really sad stories, and I try and listen—I feel that’s what my role is,” says the Canadian Gill. “That’s what’s interesting about the show: it’s a personal show, and therefore the connections I make with people are very personal.” It’s been a cathartic experience for Paige, too, for personal reasons. “I’m done apologizing,” says the gay actor. “I’m done saying I’m sorry in all sorts of different passive and active ways. I’m ‘You know what? If you don’t like it, I don’t really care,’ and it’s been a fantastic thing for me to be able to come in here and do it every day.”

Harry Hay, the 1950s father of the gay liberation movement, once said that the only thing gays and straights have in common is what they do in the bedroom. And that’s certainly one of the draws for Queer as Folds audience, whatever their sexual preference. Cowen relates a conversation with a straight male fan, who told the writer that while it took him some time to get used to all the graphic gay sex, he came to realize that it really wasn’t much different from sex between heterosexuals. “ ‘It’s no big deal,’ he said, and those are my four favourite words,” says Cowen. “If watching the show gets people to re-evaluate gay people and their lives and they come to the conclusion that it’s no big deal, then I think, wow, we really did a good deed.”El