Thursday, June 26, 2014

Current State of Queer TV

I’m leaving to head to St. Pete Pride this weekend, and it’s got me thinking about the state of Queer characters and storytelling today. I wrote last week about Queer as Folk, and I don’t want to trivialize that show’s importance, but I think the current state of queer storytelling truly shows that QAF is a show of the past and it wasn’t capable of, or perhaps the audience wasn’t ready for it to do the sort of things shows today are doing. I think we’ve officially left behind the time when queer shows and characters were primarily defined by their sexuality. Some part of that can be seen in the titling of shows. We’ve gone from shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word which reference their queer identities in the title, to shows like Looking and Faking It.  But it’s about more than just what the shows are called.

For starters, I think issues of queer visibility have gone through the roof. We’ve reached a point where shows are almost required to feature queer characters in some capacity. And more importantly, these queer characters get to be important to the overall story of the series, while also being more than just defined by their sexuality. There’s Nolan Ross over on Revenge (who beyond being generally fabulous also gets to be one of the few, if not the only, honest representations of bisexuality on TV), Cyrus Beene on Scandal is allowed to be gay and a horrible person too, and everyone’s favorite Sapphic scientist Cosima Niehaus over on Orphan Black (more on this in a minute). 

So we no longer have to look to exclusively queer shows for representation; instead, queer themes and characters and storytelling have made their way into the mainstream in a manner that they hadn’t as little as 10 years ago. And along with that comes the ability for queer characters to start to invade genres that have long been seen as havens of heteronormativity. Game of Thrones adapted Martin’s amazing world, but more importantly they took Martin’s characters who were gay in rumor and subtext and placed their sexuality firmly in the text of the show. As such, we have a fantasy series with gay, bisexual, and asexual characters. Likewise, Orphan Black is a sci fi show which has featured gay (Felix), lesbian (Cosima), and even trans (Tony) characters in its young 2 season run.  Even Penny Dreadful has found the time to work sexually ambiguous characters into its horror based story. As queer characters and storytelling grow to find itself more and more in the mainstream, it seems like typically heteronormative genres are starting to become more inclusive.

Speaking of Tony from Orphan Black, I think there’s also a case to be made that we’re seeing the start of a kind of trans revolution. Between Tony and Laverne Cox’s Sophia over on Orange is the New Black, I think it’s fair to say we haven’t had this much trans visibility on TV ever.  While it certainly isn’t where I’d expect the struggle to end, I do think that the presence of these characters as well as the popularity of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the media focus people like Cox and Carmen Carrera have gained lately serves to start up a dialogue on gender issues within this country.

But the way that LGBT characters have progressed into more typically heterosexual shows isn’t the only progress queer storytelling has made. Even the more exclusively queer shows of the day have moved in a different direction than their predecessors. As much as I sang the praises of Queer as Folk last week, I think it’s possible that Looking could progress into an even better series if it withstands the test of time. The main difference that I see between the two is that Looking seems to be interested in its characters as more than just their sexual orientation. So where QAF might have been “more interested in making its point than it is in simply allowing its characters to be and its story to develop,” Looking is just interested in allowing its characters to be themselves and progress rationally in a lot of ways. The closest Looking gets to being an issue show (which I think is territory QAF often found itself in) is in the story of the interracial relationship between Patrick and Richie. But as a show with an established interracial couple, you’d think it would be a subject they’d tackle more often.

Likewise, I don’t think that Faking It is as interested in making broad points and delivering its core message nearly as much as The L Word was. Faking It is far more interested in allowing the story of Karma and Amy’s relationship to progress organically and allow the natural conclusions about the development of human sexuality to happen as they will. But another similarity between Faking It and Looking that set them apart from their predecessors is that both shows are half hour comedies instead of hour long dramas. In the case of Looking, the show isn’t bringing the comedy as forcefully as it could, but it’s still working harder to bring the laughs than QAF did. This shift out of issue based storytelling into a purer plot/character based storytelling is important and noticeable.

I don’t know that these same sensibilities are being transferred over to other mediums. For the most part, film seems unchanged and anyone who might have been assuming that Brokeback Mountain’s release and relative success in 2005 would herald a new age of fearless mainstream queer cinema seems to have been wrong. But a lot of people (myself included) have been talking about how we’re in the midst of a TV renaissance, so it makes sense that the landscape is changing for the better. Better storytelling methods and better stories to be told have all led to a far improved atmosphere for queer characters and shows. Queer as Folk and The L Word did a great job of laying the foundation, but shows today have built upon that foundation to create something grander and more fabulous than even these shows could have imagined.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Five Reasons Queer as Folk Should be Considered Great TV

In honor of Pride month coming to a close, I thought I'd make a couple posts dedicated to LGBT themes and stories in contemporary TV and Film. If I were a smarter person, and if the season's end hadn't left me with more excitement than I could contain, I would have saved my Ian and Mickey post for this outpouring of queer love, but if it makes you feel any better, you can read that post here.

Premium cable networks have been producing top notch television ever since they got into the original programming game. Shows like The Sopranos, Oz, and Queer as Folk were critically acclaimed, artful, and entertaining long before Mad Men and Breaking Bad made it fashionable to be so. And yet, Queer as Folk seems to have taken up a darker corner of the TV universe since its final episode aired. While people still remember The Sopranos and Oz fondly, Queer as Folk seems to have become the red headed bastard step child of TV. It’s remembered solely as a show that was groundbreaking for its portrayal of LGBT characters, and nothing more. And yet, in my opinion, Queer as Folk is as good a television series as we’ve seen in the 21st century. Here are a few reasons why:

1) Balance of a fairly large ensemble cast.
In the first season alone, QAF focuses on a cast of 10 characters. Each with his or her own storylines, history, and character traits. Each equally important and useful, and that’s to say nothing of the multitude of different love interests and other characters to enter and leave the show in its subsequent 4 seasons. It juggles its characters perfectly by allowing some episodes to pass without much focus being given to certain stories only to have them brought back to the forefront the following week. It does not allow a story to take up space in an episode for the sole purpose of filling time or because of an obligation to cover it. Shows like Glee and True Blood simply cannot claim the same.

2) A deep understanding of the art of long form storytelling.
I can safely say that QAF is one of the only shows I’ve watched all the way through (multiple times I might add) in which each of its main characters experiences a great and fundamental change over the course of all five seasons. It is my experience that, in most series, character change is a slow affair. If a TV series were to be compared to a novel, then each individual season would be akin to a chapter, or perhaps a collection of chapters, while the entire series is the novel. The character doesn’t tend to change over the course of each chapter, but experiences a compounding effect over the course of the entire book in order to reach some cathartic moment in the end. In this sense, if a TV series lasts for 7 seasons, the characters might have experienced a great change by the end of the 7th season. Now consider the character of Justin (played by the adorable Randy Harrison) in QAF’s first season. In the first episode, Justin is a scared timid kid who has to steel himself to step off of the curb and onto Liberty Ave (the show’s equivalent of San Francisco’s Castro). He’s still closeted to his friends and family, and takes on a passive role in his first meeting with Brian (Gale Harold). By the end of the first season, Justin has persisted through all of Brian’s subsequent rejections and has convinced him to attend the Prom as his date. This all happens moments prior to the season ending cliff hanger in which Justin is bashed by his main tormentor and left bloody on a garage floor (which of course facilitates his next big journey in season 2) with Brian “I don’t believe in love” Kinney sobbing and screaming uncontrollably while cradling his bleeding head. These transformations would be enough to sustain a lesser show for multiple seasons, and yet it’s a feat QAF pulls off in just 22 episodes.

3) A deep understanding and love of each of its characters.
Brian Kinney is one of my favorite TV characters. Here is a man that claims not to believe in love, to value sex above all else, and who is often presented as the most self-interested person you will ever hope to find. Over the course of the show we discover that most of that is a facade to protect himself from getting hurt, but the show never makes any overt moves to break down this illusion. Whenever Brian is faced with a situation in which a few simple words could save his most prized relationships, he always keeps his mouth shut. There are multiple moments throughout the series in which he clasps either his best friend Michael (Hal Sparks) or his lover by the back of the neck and kisses them as passionately as you’ve ever seen two people kiss on screen. These moments serve as Brian’s own personal “I love you” to the only two people on earth that he has those feelings for. He won’t say the words, but he will show it in the most physical way possible because he respects the physical more than he does the verbal. This is perhaps because, as a top dog (pun intended) in the advertisement industry, he knows just how faulty and misleading words can be. A lesser show would need to spell out that this is who this character is instead of trusting the viewer to simply get it.

4) It celebrates the good without condemning the bad.
LGBT individuals are strong willed, resourceful, creative, talented, and intelligent people. The lives we lead of subterfuge and constant fear tend to produce and nurture those qualities. So when QAF takes a character like Emmett (Peter Paige) from being a clothing retail associate to being Pittsburgh’s premier party planner, or when it shows how a group of gay men can pull together in the eleventh hour to give their  friends the wedding of a lifetime, or how a young man can overcome the horrendous after affects of his gay bashing and still be a renowned and successful artist, it is showcasing these strengths and talents in a remarkable and uplifting fashion. However, LGBT individuals can often also be riddled with self-doubt and self-loathing, and can fall into deep bouts of depression (we're kind of like regular people that way). Living our lives within a society built to continuously remind us that we are somehow wrong or defective can have that effect. So when QAF tells the story of a once comfortable and successful accountant, Ted (Scott Lowell), who loses everything and spirals into a crystal meth addiction, it is being honest without being judgmental. That Ted beats his addiction is a testament, again, to the strength and resilience of the gay community, but that he goes through a really dark place in order to get there (and that the progression of this story is so nuanced and well paced) is a testament to the show.

5) It has balls!
And it’s not afraid to show them either. In a time when gays were still being showcased as the funny, sexless best friend, QAF stood up and said, “Guess what, straight people, gays and lesbians have sex too! And when they do, it looks a little something like this!” From its back rooms to its bedrooms, QAF never once shied away from its graphic nudity and depictions of gay and lesbian sex. But that’s not the only way that the show had balls. QAF had the guts to also talk about the darker elements of the gay community. From hustling, to HIV, to drug addiction, to gay bashing, to cheating, QAF left very few stones unturned in its glaring and honest look into this community and the lives its members led. I love Will & Grace as much as the next guy, but that show was far more interested in getting laughs and showcasing the simpler aspects of being gay than this show was, and as a result I don’t know that it did nearly as much good for the LGBT community as Queer as Folk did.

For all of its triumphs, Queer as Folk had flaws too. It was not nearly racially diverse enough (with the exception of a couple random sex partners, the show is devoid of people of color), it basically ignores the trans community all together, and it never really touches on issues of bisexuality, questioning youth, or the intersection of sexual orientation and religion. The series also can be said to have suffered for it's place as a pioneer within American TV. While it's storylines are almost always well executed, at times it feels like the show is more interested in making its point than it is in simply allowing its characters to be and its story to develop. So while Michael and Ben's (Robert Gant) relationship progresses in an organic and understandable manner, the point could be argued that these characters only exist and interact in this manner because the show wants to tell the story of one man with HIV dating one without. It's an important story to tell, and the fact that it progresses well and organically is to the show's credit, but when a show has the responsibility of representing an entire community in the manner that QAF does, sometimes the "message" can be seen as being more front and center than the story.

But the fact remains that in 83 episodes, Queer as Folk accomplished things that other shows couldn’t do over a much longer span of time (I’m looking at you, Weeds), and I can only imagine how much more it could have accomplished if the showrunners hadn’t made the wise decision to bow out of the game while the show was still on top (pun still intended).