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“The thing you need to know is, it’s all about sex.”
That’s the pearl of wisdom Michael Novotny shares as the camera pans across a sweaty, shirtless dance floor during the first few seconds of the barrier-breaking Showtime series Queer as Folk, which premiered in December 2000.
The character, played by Hal Sparks, now 48, was only half-right.
Over five seasons, the acclaimed drama, based on a U.K. series of the same name, followed Michael and his friends — Brian (Gale Harold, 48), Emmett (Peter Paige, 48), Ted (Scott Lowell, 53), Justin (Randy Harrison, 40), Lindsay (Thea Gill, 48), and Melanie (Michelle Clunie, 48) — tackling a panorama of issues relating to gay life at the dawn of the new millennium. (His mom, Debbie, played by Sharon Gless, 75, was always good for some wise advice or a wisecrack.)
Reunited for the first time since filming the series finale in 2005, the show’s main cast and executive producers Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen reflect on their series’ groundbreaking moments.
“We saw it as an opportunity to address a lot of issues that had never been shown on American TV before,” Cowen says in the current issue of EW of wanting to create an American version of QAF. “That was very important to us because we, gay people, didn’t really see a true reflection of ourselves on TV very often. Back then, you couldn’t get married. There was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the Army. In 14 states, there were still sodomy laws on the books. It was a very hostile atmosphere.”
The series was the first of its kind: a real reflection of gay life… and gay sex.
“I can tell you what everyone here’s genitals look like,” Harrison jokes. “I won’t, but I could.”
Adds Gill: “I think the sexuality — and the honesty of that sexuality — propelled us throughout the whole series.”
But the cast was warned that their raw look into the LGBTQ world might raise a few eyebrows — and picket signs.
“We had meetings where they told us we were going to receive hate mail and threats and we had to be prepared,” says Clunie.
“We thought the major backlash would be from right-wing religious people, but we never heard a word,” adds Cowen. “The show received criticism from gay people and gay organizations, but they never said we weren’t telling the truth. As we often said, ‘If you don’t like the reflection you see in the mirror, don’t blame the mirror.’”
The show was a major hit and was Showtime’s most-watched series by the end of season 1.
“It was nice to hear that it was being received and people were engaging with what we were doing, but suddenly I wasn’t even myself anymore because I’d become [Brian],” says Harold. “It was really exciting, it was really gratifying, but it was f—ing scary.”
The series enjoyed massive success, but the cast vividly recall being told in 2004 that their upcoming fifth season would be their last.
“The last year, every scene was important,” says Gless. “‘This is the last scene I’ll do with Randy.’ ‘This is the last scene I’ll do with Thea.’ Even though it was sad, it was complete.”
The final episode aired Aug. 7, 2005, but the cast feels the legacy of the show has lived on through today.
“You can see a lot of seeds, I think, in a lot of the movements in society going forward,” says Sparks. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think some of those came directly from this show’s existence.”
And the cast say they enjoy meeting fans who feel an intimate connection to the series.
“Two of the survivors of the Pulse attack came up to me and said, ‘We just wanna thank you all for having done that story line about Babylon [nightclub getting bombed.]’” says Robert Gant, who played Professor Ben Bruckner. “They were just very teary, and I feel that there are so many aspects that have stayed current.”
Adds Lowell: “We do fan conventions and things like that all over the world, and that’s a pretty unique thing for a relationship-based drama. There’s no lasers, and there’s no guys with capes flying… well, there were some guys with capes.”
And while there’s currently no serious talk of a reboot or revival (more on that in the magazine), the cast say that’s okay because the show is timeless.
“God knows the clothes and the hairstyles have changed, but the emotional stories are eternal,” Paige shares. “I often say people came for the queer, but they stayed for the folk.”