Ben Whishaw and Alan Cumming give standout performances
Will & Grace and Transparent may be back, but don’t sleep on BBC America’s experimental series Queers, which premieres Wednesday, as you line up your fall LGBT viewing. Created by Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), it comprises eight 20-minute monologues that — taken together — span about a century of British gay life, placing human faces onto a tumultuous history. The format might feel a little stiff and unusual at first, as scripts juggle illuminating individual characters and providing detailed historical context, but each episode builds off of the last. Over time, Queers resonates with increasing force — and by the end, the series feels unsettlingly intimate.
Part of this has to do with the deceptively simple production: Episodes mostly feature one character in one place, yet there are small but pivotal aesthetic choices — a well-timed close-up on an acutely emotional moment; a fade-to-black after a particularly intense monologue — that consistently elevate the scripts and suffuse them with profound feeling. Indeed Queers is more artful than you’d probably expect of what’s essentially filmed theater. Installments begin with a short piano theme, and the filming style gives each character portrait a distinct, personal touch.
Of course, given that the show’s format is single-person monologues, the quality of acting is its most crucial element. Fortunately — and, given the level of talent involved, rather expectedly — Queers excels in that regard. Across the eight episodes are eight very recognizable actors, many of whom are known for their queer filmography and all of whom do great work here. Some performances stand out nonetheless: Ben Whishaw plays a WWI soldier with tender, mournful grace; Rebecca Front is a quiet revelation as a ‘50s woman married to a closeted gay man, and Kadiff Kirwan — the only person of color in the cast — effortlessly expands the series’ boundaries as he recounts a harrowing wartime story of race, sexuality, and the limits of acceptance.
Queers, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the U.K.’s decriminalization of homosexuality, is a haunting work that doesn’t sanitize the past. But it doesn’t take a maudlin approach to depicting history either. Characters emerge vibrantly, funny and sexy and quick to convey excitement. For the most part, of course, they’re confined to their time period. This is precisely why the Queers viewing experience turns near-cathartic when Alan Cumming arrives, playing a groom-to-be in the present-day. Nervous but proud and well aware of the struggles fought before his time, he looks into the camera, melancholy, and puts 100 years of hardship into heartbreaking perspective: “Here I am.” A-