I’ve been watching gay TV since Steven Carrington was a ‘mo on “Dynasty”. I cried when a gay son died of AIDS in “An Early Frost”, I rejoiced when Jack slipped Ethan’s tongue on “Dawson’s Creek” and melted when Patrick married David on this other “Creek” – Schitt’s.
Then there was “Queer as Folk”. I grew up as a gay man watching two versions: the 10-episode original which first aired in Britain in 1999 and the five-season American remake which premiered a year later. on Showtime.
I had never seen anything like it. Some of the actors were gay and some weren’t, and people wondered if that was right or wrong. (They still do.) The US version was on a major cable outlet. Both versions had sets of gay characters who were in their late twenties like me. We were gay and urban and had wonderful dates with terrible guys and had robust sex lives.
A new “Queer as Folk” debuted earlier this month on Peacock, but it’s not a reimagining, as advertised. It’s a reboot. Set in New Orleans, the characters include transgender, non-binary, and disabled people, played by mostly unknown actors of all colors. Kim Cattrall and Juliette Lewis play moms. There’s even a Pulse-style nightclub massacre in Episode 1, in case you need more trauma plots in your TV regimen.
Reviews have been mixed. “A joyous attempt to probe queer stories for all they are worth,” said the AV Club. “Struggles to locate his humanity,” Vanity Fair replied.
I couldn’t get into it. Because the creators never really understood how to make their characters complex beyond the contours of identity. (A friend couldn’t decide whether “Queer as Woke” or “Woke as Folk” would have been a better title.) The show’s made-for-TV group of friends has the emotional depth of freshman strangers. . Actors believe in their lines, but they don’t always act them out believable.
In that sense, this new “Queer as Folk” joins the ranks of other major queer and queer-friendly revivals and reboots that in recent years have outdone themselves in service of the otherwise admirable goal of diversifying mainstream casts that were originally predominantly white and cisgender. — people whose gender identity matches the sex assigned to them at birth.
Similar reviews surrounded “The L Word: Generation Q,” a revival of Showtime’s hit series “The L Word.” In a review of Season 2, the Los Angeles Times wrote that “the optics of representation can only do so much when narratives are one-dimensional, fractured, or driven by outdated tropes”. “And Just Like That,” the revival of “Sex and the City,” made related mistakes in pursuit of Queer Bushwick’s endorsement.
‘The Performance of Diversity’: This is how Julia Himberg, associate professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University, described what happened with ‘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 when it’s disconnected from a deeper story or a deeper investment in the characters or the quality of the writing isn’t good, it impacts the audience’s ability to connect with the series.”
I agree. I believe we’re at a place – please let’s be at a place – where it’s no longer enough that there is a queer show with characters that look like you; diversity should be the baseline, not the finish line. And so, what began as a recent reporting assignment in New Orleans for a recording of the new “Queer as Folk” turned into a deeper investigation, including conversations with friends, scholars and other people outside of production.
The good news is, if you’re a queer person finally seeing yourself on TV in the new reboot, it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad — being seen means the world. If you don’t like the show, you have the luxury, decades of preparation, to watch new and original queer series like Netflix’s new hit show “Heartstopper”, an example of the diversity and quality of writing—thoughtful, complex, lived-in—can work together.
Pain vs Puppy Love
“Heartstopper” offers an accessible and ambitious story – a combination that seems to work. (Amid slowing revenue and layoffs, Netflix has already renewed it for two more seasons.) It turns out what a lot of people want right now isn’t a commemoration of queer pain, but a romance about puppy love.
Based on Alice Oseman’s best-selling graphic novel, it’s a minimalist, evasive series the whole family can enjoy, according to the family. It incorporates richly drawn characters who are black, Asian, and transgender, and their identities are facts, not matters of trauma.
Its melting hearts are animated butterflies that surround the main characters (white), Nick (Kit Connor) and Charlie (Joe Locke). I know these butterflies – is there a queer person who doesn’t? — because they perched on my shoulder when I fell in love with my (straight) best friend in high school. They’re the same butterflies Will has for Mike in “Stranger Things,” but neither boy fully understands it yet.
Audiences had a similar choice when Showtime took a risk with “Queer as Folk,” coming two years after the 11-season run of another groundbreaking show debuted: the NBC sitcom “Will and Grace.”
Talk about two gay Americas. The “Will and Grace” assimilationist held America’s hand and whispered: Everything will be alright. “Queer as Folk” showed us butt stuff and barked: Look for.
Openly gay characters had already appeared on television as early as 1971, when in “All in the Family”, Archie Bunker learned that his friend Steve (Philip Carey) was gay. On YouTube, I caught up with “Brothers,” a sloppy Showtime comedy (1984-89) without gay characters — a brave display of homosexuality in an earlier era of malevolent attitudes and a cruel virus.
I don’t remember this show, but I remember growing up locked up in the 80s and 90s. Back then, I would watch any show with a gay character. Even when the options were paltry, I looked. Of course I looked.
Stephen Dunn, the new creator of “Queer as Folk” (and executive producer, writer and director), also watched. He remembers that, at the age of 12, he squinted at the scrambled broadcasts of British “Queer as Folk” that aired on Canadian television late at night at his family’s house in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
“It was electric to see these bodies and these people kissing,” said Dunn, who directed the gay coming-of-age film “Closet Monster” (2016). “It was my first exposure to a queer person.”
Dunn told me this while touring the “Queer as Folk” set in March. Earlier I watched actress Jesse James Keitel shoot a scene wearing a T-shirt that said, “A woman without a penis is like an angel without wings” – except the word wasn’t “penis” but a vulgar lining.
Badass, I thought: a transgender actress with other transgender and non-binary actors playing transgender characters in a trans-inclusive show at the hands of Jaclyn Moore, a transgender woman and executive producer and writer.
This bending 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 that he didn’t and couldn’t make the show everything for every queer person, but that he and his writers were “fed up with seeing brilliant, perfect, confident portrayals of queer people. “.
It was exciting that a new generation had a “Queer as Folk” to call their own that didn’t look like what the queer television 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 frontal nude scene that she described as “empowering and sexy, and a moment vulnerable”.
“It’s the body I walk around in every day,” she later said by phone. “Too often, narratives around trans bodies are rooted in shame and negative. It was passionate.
Devin Way, who plays jock heartbreaker Brodie, told me there was “no way to throw people of color and perspective not have changed.
“I don’t know what you look like, Erik,” said Way, who is gay. “But if you’re not a biracial guy from the South, then our lives are going to be totally different. When you’re not focused on one group of people, it drastically changes everything.
I called Russell T. Davies, the creator of Britain’s Queer as Folk, to ask him why he had given this version his blessing. (He’s an executive producer.) He said that’s partly because the show was so politicized at a time when “everything we’ve established is under active and intelligent threat,” citing American bills” Don’t Say Gay”.
“Nobody talks about too much direct content or measures direct content 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 supported it. The creators wondered “What hasn’t ‘Queer as Folk’ done yet?” then did this show. But in my eyes, he’s plagued by the “impropriety of trying too hard,” to borrow a phrase from essayist Chuck Klosterman in his new book “The Nineties.”
Still, I hope “Queer as Folk” will change the life of a 12-year-old boy in St. John’s. If not, maybe “Heartstopper” will. Or “Orange Is the New Black,” or “Looking,” or another of the many nuanced, easily aired portraits of queer characters and stories that have popped up over the past decade.
Or anything else. I look forward to “Uncoupled,” which hits Netflix on July 29, starring Neil Patrick Harris as a wealthy New Yorker in his 40s who navigates single life after being dumped by his longtime partner.
It won’t change my life, and I’m done with stories about rich white people, gay or straight. But it’s good to see that Netflix hasn’t forgotten that gay people over 30 exist.
Talk about privilege: having access to so many queer shows and not enough hours. Watch anytime and anywhere, not on a bootleg VHS tape, that’s how I watched British ‘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 many young gays spent their nights not so long ago. ‘It’s a Sin’, Davies’ heartbreaking AIDS series, last year reminded us that there are missing friends and lovers who would have wanted nothing more than a night at home with too many of queer television.
How different their lives, and mine, would have been had we had the luxury of switching channels.