The funny thing about TV is that it has a reputation for being the junky kid brother of the feature film industry, yet the best shows have the opportunity to develop their characters far beyond the limits of a two hour movie. What movie has characters with as rewarding arcs as Mulder and Scully, Tony Soprano, Detective Pembleton? Cable in particular has made a habit of blazing trails by telling controversial stories before the networks are ready. Showtime's Queer as Folk (based on a British series of the same name) is certainly a more intimate look at various gay lifestyles than any more conventional broadcast could ever be. The idea is simple: Throw a diverse bunch of gay men and women together and track the various dramas in their lives.
The show is set in Pittsburgh (which is apparently chock full of gay men and Canadians). Michael (Hal Sparks), who narrates the show from time to time, serves as the friendly, clever, and down to Earth protagonist. He is sort of the gay boy next door, attractive enough that he garners sporadic attention, but still a bit awkward and unsure of himself.
Michael's best friend from childhood, Brian (the excellent Gale Harold), is the kind of cold, reptilian player that gives Jerry Falwell nightmares. He carries himself with an attitude and confidence that leaves any man powerless. Justin (Randy Harrison, whose youthful energy makes the character one of the most unique and compelling), a high school student who begins the show an innocent newbie, falls hard for Brian only to have his heart broken. Still, he's clever and driven enough to occasionally turn Brian's game back on him. Ted (the hammy but convincing Scott Lowell) is the smart, socially unsure friend, while Emmett (hilarious Peter Paige) is the flamboyant drama queen.
The show also features a pair of lesbians named Lindsay and Melanie (Thea Gill and Michelle Clunie, both solid) who are awkwardly tethered to the guys since Brian served as the sperm donor for their baby. While it might be a little unrealistic that this bunch of club hopping gay boys would hang with a pair of serious lesbians at all, the tension is at least believable.
That's the thing that makes Queer as Folk compelling. Even when the story lines feel a little repetitive (like watching Ted beat himself up for being unattractive, or Brian pick up yet another shirtless beefcake), there is still a sense that these guys are real. Their troubles seem affecting because they usually aren't so bad. If the show hit the audience over the head with a huge life-or-death drama in every episode it would just feel exhausting. Instead, the pleasure is watching the relationship between Justin and the older guys, or between Michael and Ted, or Michael and Dr. David develop bit by bit. In one episode, when Ted accidentally overdoses from a synthetic drug given to him by a one night stand, his mother sits by his bedside and speaks frankly with Michael. "If he had taken a woman home instead of a man," she asks, "would she have left him alone to die?" Michael doesn't answer but it's clear from his expression that he feels some responsibility for his friend. (And when the situation is revisted many episodes later, as they often are, it gets even more interesting.)
Similarly, the further Justin explores into the nightlife the more it becomes clear that the guys don't want the responsibility of having a minor around. There is a sense of danger to the show. Whenever one of the guys, particularly one of the more sensitive, introspective guys, takes a big, macho man home, there is the possibility that something terrible is going to happen. It's the measure of the writing and acting that the audience actually worries a bit for them.
Oh, did I mention the sex? There is so much gay sex in Queer as Folk that occasionally you have to remind yourself that this is a TV show. Much of the action is fairly explicit and, while sometimes it feels gratuitous, it usually serves to explore the power dynamics between the various characters. The distribution of sex in the episodes is curiously uneven: The two-parter pilot is practically a non-stop orgy, followed by some relatively chaste (for this show) episodes. I thought perhaps the first show was designed to weed out viewers who couldn't handle the man-on-man stuff. There isn't much blatant on screen nudity of the frontal variety until about midseason, at which point it becomes a full on wiener roast. Every viewer is bound to have a different reaction to this stuff, but there isn't much that's funnier than a footlong schlong suddenly draped in front of the camera's lens.
That's not to say that the show is caught up in demonizing the gay lifestyle or making it out to be a dangerous place. It also plays it as a funny, campy party as well as an emotionally intense place. Michael's mother Debbie (Sharon Gless) spends a lot of time around the scene, wearing PFLAG pins and rainbow shirts. When she tells Michael that she supports his lifestyle he looks tortured. "Maybe I don't want you to support my lifestyle," he responds. "Maybe I want you to go home and cry!" The emotions on display here are real and complex, and that, more than the onscreen sex, makes Queer as Folk unique. By the sad , beautiful final scene of the last episode, a wordless masterpiece of mutual understanding, the show reaches a rare level of emotional truth that is all the more affecting for how long and difficult the path has been.
I've heard some gay men accuse the show of pandering to stereotypes (although they can't wait for each new episode). I don't see it. Even though I'm an outsider to the world depicted I see a lot of different qualities in the characters: Strength, weakness, bravery, cowardice, greed, apathy, generosity. Gee, it sounds kinda like real life.
"Special editions" of three of the episodes (including the pilot) are included. They feature on screen commentary from the cast and creators discussing the show as it plays, but the comments aren't scene specific as the packaging indicates. Instead they're culled from interviews (although they do pertain to the onscreen action). This is an interesting feature, although it could have been better integrated through the multi-angle feature and alternate audio tracks, especially since the use of on screen interviews for this is hardly necessary. As it is the special editions have to be accessed on their own.
A great extra that could have been included would have been clips from the British series upon which the American Queer as Folk is based, but since that's available on its own DVD set there isn't really any incentive for the producers to include it here.