Jerry Offsay, programming president of Showtime, has said that the U.S. version of the British miniseries ”Queer as Folk” will be ”the sexiest, edgiest series to premiere on any network in America.” Well, sorry, Jer — if we’re talking mass culture outreach, you’ve been bested by NBC’s Nov. 9 ”Will & Grace” episode, which introduced the concept of the ”three way” as a sitcom sex plot point, and which probably led to many ”edgy” conversations between parents and children (to say nothing of spouse and spouse) during the nation’s hallowed let’s keep ”Just Shoot Me” on mute half hour.
As for ”Queer as Folk”: It started out as a 1999 miniseries on Great Britain’s Channel 4, its title a play on a Yorkshire proverb, ”There’s nought so queer as folk” — meaning, roughly, a Jim Morrison- ism: ”People are strange.” The point of the TV series, written by Russell T. Davies, was to depict the lives of a group of gay men in Manchester, and to demonstrate with tremendous energy and gritty wit that homosexuals are not strange, but are as needy, horny, funny, dumb, lovable, and anguished as any comparable group of heterosexuals. Except the gay guys’ stomachs were much flatter. If all these seem obvious facts, jolly good for you, but they invariably come as news to many people, some of whom were outraged by ”Folk”’s graphic displays of sex.
In transposing what turned out to be a smash hit in Britain into Showtime’s bid for some of the zeitgeist buzz its rival HBO got from ”The Sopranos,” ”Queer as Folk” is now set in Pittsburgh — an industrial city comparable, I suppose, to gray, pop musically adventurous Manchester, except that the Pittsburgh boys are shown swooning excessively over ABBA’s ”Dancing Queen.” The show is still about a gaggle of gay pals — ad exec Brian (Gale Harold), an out, amoral, cheeky slut who’s the adored leader of this social circle; Michael (”Talk Soup”’s Hal Sparks), a meek, half in the closet gay man and out of the closet comic book geek; Emmett (Peter Paige), a flamboyant chatterbox who — sorry again, Mr. Offsay — has already been out- flamed by ”Will & Grace”’s Jack; and Justin (Randy Harrison), a 17 year old who’s just discovering his sexuality, courtesy of the 29 year old Brian.
I hate to be one of those reviewers who tells you that the original, difficult to locate item was superior to the subject under review, but…it was. The American ”Queer as Folk” is written by executive producers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who also created ”Sisters” and wrote the Emmy winning TV movie about an AIDS death, ”An Early Frost.” Anyone familiar with those credits knows that Cowen and Lipman prize melodrama and the zippy quip over ambivalence and the belly laugh. Thus the opening hours of their ”Folk,” while hewing closely to the actions of its British counterpart right down to certain camera movements, is clotted with yuks that wouldn’t have made it out of the ”Three’s Company” writer’s room. ”Now that’s what I call a piece…of art!” chortles Emmett, looking at a male nude in a gallery. ”What’s eating him — or isn’t?” says Michael’s mom, a salty, proud of her gay son waitress played by ”Cagney & Lacey”’s Sharon Gless with all the subtlety of Gallagher eyeing a ripe watermelon.
Bad puns and wheezy references to Judy Garland aside, the new ”Queer as Folk” lacks a soul at its center. In the Brit version, Brian’s character (called Stuart) was played by Aiden Gillen with ferocious intelligence and a profound despair that nevertheless did not contradict the pleasure he took in drugging and fornicating. In our ”Folk,” Brian seems merely truculent and, most disappointingly, rather stupid whenever he’s not making remarks that don’t fit his character. For Brian to greet Justin with ”So, Dawson — how are things down at the creek?” is exactly the kind of lame remark Brian sneers at when uttered by other characters.
Sparks is charming but too tentative, leaving ”Queer as Folk”’s best performance delivered by Harrison, who’s making his TV debut. His Justin is alternately sweet and sullen; you can see in his glinting eyes the mingled delight and terror the kid feels whenever Brian walks into a room; the scenes between that man and this boy are easily the most electric ones thus far. And when I say ”thus far,” I mean it with trepidation. The British ”Folk” was a mere 10 hours total; Showtime, praying for a franchise, has committed to 22 hours, which means Cowen and Lipman will have to invent story lines and more characters. Without Davies’ blueprint to follow, I worry that the American duo will soon be scouring old copies of Blueboy for their zingers. Bravo to everyone involved for the refreshing eroticism of the sex in this production, but please: Never use the phrase ”rise to the occasion” ever again.