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).