Call me old-fashioned, but I've always tried to infuse my anonymous sexual encounters -- whether in bathhouses, backrooms, bushes or bedrooms -- with dollops of genuine intimacy and connection and warmth. That may sound odd to those who haven't had a lot of sex with strangers. And there's no point pretending that last night's random trick will end up being my best friend or the love of my life. I may not even know his name, or don't particularly want to, or find it out only after the deed is done
But something interesting can happen when you hook up with an unfamiliar guy. You can be anyone to him, and he to you, and when the setting's right the sweat and spunk and twisting limbs forge a brief but tender bond between you. That's why my acts of nonlove sex have, at their best, been far more affectionate and just plain fun than the joyless, mechanical groping and grinding depicted in cable's new gay fuck-fest, "Queer as Folk," which debuted Dec. 3 and will run for several more months.
As everybody and his manicurist knows by now, this highly promoted, explicitly sexual series -- Showtime's naked attempt to outdo HBO's sassy, entertaining "Sex and the City" -- is cloned from a British series of the same name that caused a sensation when first broadcast two years ago. That version (let's call it QAF-B and the American one QAF-A) grabbed headlines with its unapologetic portrayal of the lives of several gay men in working-class Manchester, sex, warts and all. The American producers have transplanted the story to Pittsburgh, fiddled with a few of the plot particulars and created a product so inferior to the original that it boggles the mind. The differences between them scream volumes about our society's peculiar approach to sexual issues and how that's reflected in our cultural products.
And that's not even addressing the aesthetic question of why it's necessary to create an American version of an already terrific work. But then I guess it's true that the British are kind of too snooty and sophisticated, and anyway it's real hard to understand those funny accents. And that show did depict a rabid affair between a 29-year-old and a 15-year-old, so it's probably better that the Americans decided to age the youngster by a couple of years to protect viewers of delicate constitution and sensibility.
The British version has recently become available on video -- although it's so popular that I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could find it on the shelves. And the bottom line is that it's, well, sexy, as it's meant to be. The American version -- despite the arty frames of undulating body parts, the glossy close-ups, the blue disco strobe lights bathing bare-chested dancers, the quick cuts and the slow-mo sequences, the shadowed faces gasping in ecstasy -- is definitely not.
Let me be clear: I love watching gay men grapple graphically with each other on-screen, large or small, and I love that straight America is watching it. So do most of my gay friends. Given all the heterosex that's been flung in our fag faces through the years, we're about due for equal time in a mainstream, non-porno medium. Sure, it's lovely to have Will and Ellen and other antiseptic homos popping up now and then, but I appreciate the impulse behind QAF-A's down-and-dirty fumblings.
Good intentions alone, however, do not a great queer series make.
The plot of "Queer as Folk" -- both versions -- revolves around two men on the cusp of 30. In QAF-A, Brian, a selfish, narcissistic ad executive, is supposed to be God's gift to men. He's slept with everyone, and everyone wants him. His best buddy, department store manager Michael, has held a torch for him since their high school days and still waddles after him to clean up the messes Brian leaves in his wake. Assorted friends and family members flit in and out of their lives -- most important, Justin, the 17-year-old high school student with whom Brian starts an affair in the first episode, and Debbie, Michael's supportive mom, a waitress in a gay diner.
Michael lays out the show's theme in the very first moments. "It's all about sex," he says in a voice-over. And he's right. Showtime launched a lavish publicity campaign to promote the series, and that's clearly the notion the network has wanted to convey. The critics, for the most part, have obliged. The ads for the series cite phrases from reviews like "pushes the small-screen envelope," "another milestone," "astonishingly frank," "anything but safe," "destined to become the next cable sensation," "burns down the closet," "breaks every last taboo" and ... well, you get the idea.
Those statements, of course, are code words. What they mean is this: "Watch this show and see gay men kissing, sucking, rimming and fucking, and whatever other nasty things you or they can think of."
Some critics have objected to the emphasis on sex. And some gay commentators have criticized those criticisms as homophobic. But the critics are right, sort of. The problem with the show is not that it includes a lot of sex. And it's not that it includes a lot of anonymous sex. The problem is that the sex is the show's real focus. Oh, and incidentally, there happen to be some men in the show who are the ones having all that sex -- and, by the way, not having much fun while engaged in it.
The British show, in contrast, is about a group of gay men, about their lives -- which do, naturally enough, include a great deal of sex. That difference is subtle but real. As a culture, and often as individuals, Americans have a tendency to take things to extremes. We're maximalists. Contradictions make us uncomfortable. It's no surprise that we invented identity politics, with its rigid categories of existence. We must be black or white. Happy or sad. Gay or straight. Perfectly proportioned or misshapen as toads. And when it comes to sex, we're obsessed with it and puritanical about it all at once. Let's show everything -- but we better not have 15-year-olds doing it or allow anyone to actually enjoy it.
Our cultural products -- including QAF-A -- reflect those attitudes. So everything about the American version is too much. The British guys are attractive in a normal, down-to-earth way. The Americans look like they've sashayed right off the pages of GQ, with the pouty lips and designer clothes to match. Stuart -- Brian's British counterpart -- is selfish and narcissistic, but when he flashes that sly grin he glows with rakish charm.
Brian is selfish and narcissistic, but to such a repellent degree that it's hard to understand why anyone would put up with him for more than 10 minutes. Even his rare smiles are about his power to seduce, not any pleasure he takes in the actual seduction. Great screen villains work best when you sense that they have at least some emotional soft spot beyond self-involvement; at least "Dynasty's" Alexis clearly adored her children and suffered when they fought with her. But if Brian ever expressed more than a smidgen of vulnerability, it must have happened while I was blinking.
Stuart grins when he's fucking; you know he's having a good time. Brian looks grim and angry. Stuart has a heart; Brian is soulless. Stuart flirts with an attractive medical worker in the hospital; Brian fucks an attractive medical worker in the room where his friend is lying in a coma. Watching Stuart have sex, I want to join in. Watching Brian have sex, I want to scrub myself off with Lysol. If I'm going to watch sex, anonymous or otherwise, I'd like it to feature at least some minimal sense of delight at the touch of another human being. Otherwise I could just jerk off to "On Golden Blond" or "Guess Who's Coming at Dinner" or whatever this week's porno hit is called.
The other characters follow the same pattern of excess. Vince, the best friend in the British version, is adorable but hapless and insecure; Michael -- his American twin -- is also adorable but unbelievably hapless and insecure. He keeps whining about his haplessness and insecurity, and his friends won't shut up about it either. It's like they're all in training for a millennial revival of "Thirtysomething."
And like son, like mother. Vince's mom is supportive and hangs out with him and his friends in gay bars; Michael's mom (played by the wonderful Sharon Gless in the worst part she's ever had) is so unbelievably supportive that every word she utters induces cringes. Leave it to Americans to transform a perfectly lovely maternal fag hag into a Super-Parent of Gays spokesmodel sporting 682 rainbow buttons and spouting unfunny-but-meant-to-be-funny bons mots about the sex life of her son and his friends. That's good politics, I suppose, but it's propaganda, not drama.
Listen, if my mother ever joked with my friends about the size of their dicks, or told them -- this was my favorite awful line in the QAF-A -- that they should remember to eat some of their protein from a plate, she'd have enough psychic karma to work off for the next three or four lifetimes. Everybody would love their moms to accept them and get along with their friends. But Debbie zooms way off the charts; she's a caricature, not a character. (Note to Gless: Honey, flush that red fright wig down the toilet and fire your agent.)
And therein lies the problem with the American version. There's no subtlety, no nuance. The characters all come across as types, not individuals: Here's the leering sex predator with the Mick Jagger scowl; here's the self-deprecating nerd who doesn't realize how cute he is; here's the struggling high school teenager; here's the mother who has no life other than being supportive of her son; here's the queeny friend who tosses off quips like bits of confetti.
And as types, they're constantly regaling each other -- and us -- with Profound Thoughts and Personal Mission Statements. "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," says Brian. "Love is something that straight people tell themselves they're in, so they can get laid."
I mean, do you know anyone who talks like this? And if you did, would you have any interest in spending 22 hours observing his escapades? Watching someone behave that way while the actor playing him suggests real desire or longing beneath it -- a pretty good description of Stuart -- can be compelling; watching a character say those words without displaying any apparent awareness that he senses what nonsense it is can be pretty irritating.
The humor, too, is all about sex; every double-entendre goes one step too far. After his first night of sex -- ever -- the 17-year-old has enough self-presence and wherewithal to say this to his high school friend: "I started out as a tight end and ended up a wide receiver." Oh, and he's eating a banana when he says this. Discussing his sex-filled night with Justin, Brian jokes that he "couldn't send him off without a nourishing, high-protein breakfast." (What's with the writers' protein-in-semen fixation, anyway?) It's as if the producers are afraid we won't be able to appreciate full-fledged individuals who don't always have a sassy quip at their disposal.
In the British version, the humor arises from a real sense of character and place. And instead of just engaging in smart repartee, the protagonists are sly and ironic enough to comment on the acknowledged gay proclivity for engaging in smart repartee. At one point, Vince enters a straight bar to have a drink with some co-workers while talking to Stuart on his cellphone. "I'm going in," he says as if he's an anthropologist exploring unknown realms. "It's everything we've ever heard ... There are people talking in sentences that have no punchlines. And they don't even care!"
Part of the problem with QAF-A, I suspect, may be the pressures the producers felt to compete with HBO's high-profile successes like "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos." But those shows built their audience base slowly and only gradually slipped into the broad cultural ether. Showtime's series feels as if it was designed to come blazing into the universe with the rainbow flags flapping wildly. The show's palpable craving for significance seeps through the glossy veneer via the characters' preening and posing, the self-conscious dialogue, the MTV-style editing -- all of which, presumably, are supposed to suggest sophistication.
To be fair, QAF-A still has quite a few months to go. Perhaps in future episodes Brian will display a recognizable human emotion and Michael's waitress mom will decide to dish out the food rather than penis puns. And I won't deny that it's refreshing to see a gay show in which gayness itself is not the "problem." But QAF-A is so self-consciously and aggressively about how gayness is not the problem. It's also refreshing to see a gay show that's not focused on AIDS. But QAF-A is so self-consciously and aggressively not focused on AIDS that it's like everyone's ignoring the big pile of shit on the dance floor.
In a documentary on the making of QAF-B, producer Nicola Shindler explained how the creators approached the sexual aspects of the show. "What we wanted to do was do a drama, and every single time sex was part of the story or character development, it stayed in," she said. "I would never ... keep sex scenes in for the sake of keeping them in, because I don't believe that's good drama ...
"You can't sit there at the beginning and have a meeting and say, 'We're groundbreaking,'" she added.
Exactly. Too bad the American producers didn't take note. The result is a series that has clearly broken ground in explicitness while sacrificing the sweet human fizz of the original.