3 min

Sex, guys & videotape

From the opening sentence you know they’ve got it all wrong, but in that cute American way that says they think they’re being daring.

“The thing you need to know,” says the narrator of the new, 22-hour, US version of Queer As Folk, “is that it’s all about sex.”

Well, yes and no. Sure sex dominates gay life but it’s only of interest, artistically speaking, because it says something about us. And not as a group, but as individuals – where we are in life, our needs, desires, fantasies and fixations.

Russell Davies, creator of the original UK series, understood this and used sex to advance the plot and delineate character. Stuart’s energetic self-interest, Vince’s ineffectual passivity and Nathan’s eager innocence were all laid bare by the way they did or did not have sex.

The celebrated rimming scene in episode one of the original wasn’t there to titillate little old ladies in Iowa. It said something about a cocky 15-year-old kid who thought he knew it all but had many pleasures yet to discover.

Mostly, too, the sex was there because it was the chief way in which Stuart kept Vince at bay; it was the one thing the two best friends did not do together.

For a show that was widely believed to be about sex, the original Queer As Folk was never more erotic than when addressing the largely sexless relationship of Stuart and Vince. The conflicted dynamic of their 15-year-old relationship drove the show and supplied its suspense. Their love was a given. The only question was where and how it would find expression.

That tension is gone from the US version, along with the original’s bracing ambivalence toward contemporary gay life. The plot is pretty much the same, at least for the first three episodes, broadcast in one lumpen sum (Mon, Jan 22). Two 29-year-old gay best friends, here renamed Brian and Michael, get mixed up with a 17-year-old ingenue, while their gay friends suffer bad dates and their lesbian friends deal with their first child.

The difference is that the minor characters steal the show. Peter Paige and Scott Lowell do a great deal with a couple of seemingly limited roles – a comic-relief queen and a very average-looking accountant.

But the major characters are completely unmemorable. Hal Sparks’s happy-go-lucky Michael is charming but depth-free, while Gale Harold’s self-interested Brian is a one-note parody of what the tabloids are pleased to call a “sexual predator.” In place of Aidan Gillen’s mesmerizing portrait of an angry young man, we get a crude, clanking portrait of promiscuity.

When Brian tells their friends about the first and only time he and Michael almost had sex, it’s with the sort of joyless pornographic detail that would be out of place in most bar conversations.

When Brian picks up some guy on the Internet, he not only questions his trick’s dimensions, he pulls out a tape measure and measures the guy’s 10 inches on screen.

Instead of a character, Brian has a credo: “I don’t believe in love; I believe in fucking. It’s honest, it’s efficient. You get in and out with a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of bullshit.” As an emotional defence this may be believable but as a prelude to the kind of growth that drives good character drama, it’s a dead end. How is this one-note wonder supposed to change?

Much of the power of the original came from what was not said. Whether it was Vince’s baffled hurt, Stuart’s simmering anger or Nathan’s cocky determination, the characters feelings were reflected in their faces. Here, feelings are telegraphed and sex jokes are screamed – at high volume. It’s like being at the cinema with a bozo who not only talks through the entire movie but uses “fuck” as adjective, noun and verb. The lack of originality is numbing.

Like most US dramas, Queer As Folk operates on the assumption that more is better – more sex, more shocks, more plot twists. As long as they keep it moving, you won’t notice the lack of substance.

By episode four (on Mon, Jan 29), this begins to seem like an effective strategy. Once the producers drop all pretence of breaking new ground and get down to the serious business of creating a riveting primetime soap, the series starts to click.

In terms of tone and intent, it reminds me of Beggars And Choosers as redone by Aaron Spelling; an efficient, middle-brow entertainment with a serious helping of schlock.

No shame in that. Just don’t call it Queer As Folk.


10pm. Mondays, starting Jan 22.