Learning From Queer As Folk

So it's not The Pizza Boy: He Delivers. But Queer As Folk, Showtime's new series about gay life set in sultry Pittsburgh, is a much-needed antidote to those shows in which the homosexual gentleman (that's a faggot who's just entered the room) is a sensitive companion to the female lead whose sex life consists entirely of affection lavished upon a small dog.

This pay-cable series goes as far toward a frank encounter with gay sexuality as any movie outside the adult-video section ever has. True, the critic's tape I received was more explicit than the show that actually aired (thanks to a rating system much harder on gay films than on comparable straight stuff). Still, there's enough of the old in-out to keep this pervert's pecker up. Itching to see the fabled rimming scene in its entirety? Stay tuned for the deluxe video edition. For sex addicts who just can't wait, word is that those unexpurgated critics' tapes are being auctioned on eBay.

There has been plenty of buzz about the show itself. Though HBO's prison drama, Oz, shows lots of male nudity—not to mention rape—violent images of homosexuality are far more acceptable than what frightens the horses most: relationships. This series is not just about gay sex; it's about the bond gay sex creates. This unique aspect of gay life has been all but forgotten in the age of AIDS. Among its many casualties, AIDS has squelched the potential for erotic attraction to cement group solidarity. But this powerful force in human behavior —sublimated in straight male society as the basis for teams, military units and music combos—was once the central element of gay liberation. These days, it's fashionable to think of gay sex as a binary act rather than a tribal one. But Queer As Folk recalls the older—and never really repressed—gay model.

This is what makes the show groundbreaking, despite its stilted characterizations and flimsy, sitcom reflexes. Unlike The Boys in the Band, whose characters expressed their sexuality entirely outside the group, this drama shows how the ramifications of desire can form the gay equivalent of family. Consider Brian, whose lust (and, more important, respect for his lust) makes him the leader of the pack. Not the alpha, mind you. Brian doesn't measure his macho by the ability to subordinate others; in fact, Brian has no real authority at all. But this band coheres around his free-floating desire, and once someone connects with Brian, he —or she—becomes part of the fold. The pack keeps expanding as each member brings lovers into it. Everyone lives by the unspoken erotics of longing, anger and love.

While the show delves (not always subtly) into the notorious gay fear of intimacy—which is really a male fear writ queer—it doesn't surround it with the usual patina of imminent doom. Yes, gay life can be cruel, but there is also what Jackson Browne calls “tenderness on the block.” And while Brian's promiscuity certainly springs from terror, it is also presented as a source of nurturing. His feelings for his child and its lesbian mother are no less genuine—and no less alienated—than many a husband's. When Brian gets hooked, reluctantly, on young Justin, the result is a snarling devotion that is not so different from what often passes for fathering.

What's missing from Queer As Folk is that old trope of gay drama meant for a “general” audience: mixed company. Straight society is an intrusive, if not hostile, presence here, mitigated only slightly by each character's parents. Though the fathers are either absent or abusive, the mothers remain loving, mirroring the scenario of many gay men's lives. These moms serve as guides to the netherworld and points of identification for female viewers (who are likely to form a large part of the audience). The gay-friendly mother who can't wear enough pride buttons is the show's most insufferable creation, but one thing you can count on from Queer As Folk is that she will prove to be richly paradoxical.

That's the way life is, and verisimilitude is the signature of this series. Sex isn't what makes the show provocative but rather the distinct society created by gay desire. The bonds between these men resemble their relationships with their parents in all sorts of refracted ways. So, what ultimately comes across is that gay life is the template for a new kind of family: a lot more flexible than the traditional model, but no less painful or binding.

But about the sex! It's only slightly more raunchy than those softcore, gay-porn films with buff boys greeting the sunrise in each other's arms. Think Last Tango in Pittsburgh and you'll get the drift. But just as Last Tango was notorious not only for the sex but also for the relationship that enclosed it, Queer As Folk draws its power from infusing the kinky with the interpersonal. Once the distancing conventions of porn are shattered, sex resonates with all the hidden dilemmas that actually make it dangerous—and irresistible. Though safety is the name of this game (and the action affirms that AIDS is spread by semen, not promiscuity), the show preserves the riskiness of sex by demonstrating that what's at play with every roll in the hay is not only the body but also the self.

There are many lessons to be learned from Queer As Folk. One of them is that universality can only be rendered by being faithful to the particulars of life. Another is that sexual explicitness has enormous power to deepen a story and convey character. Novelists have long known this and fought for their right to party. Yet our visual novels—films and TV shows—have been deprived of this crucial narrative device. At the same time, we have created a separate genre for erotic works, in which sex is stripped of its interpersonal vitality. The dichotomy between porn and other dramatic forms is a testament to our abiding puritanism, which insists that you can't be both pornographic and profound. This show points to a future in which the forced segregation of the erotic and the emotional is overcome. Are you ready for Johnny Depp in flagrante or Jennifer Lopez getting rimmed? I know I am. But then, I'm queer as folk.

Queer As Folk airs on Showtime. Sun., 10 p.m.; Tues., 11:10 p.m.

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