If you were to ritualize the art of gay bashing -- take it right to the point where the homosexual patsy follows his wolfishly smiling predator down the alley and then freeze it just before the victim's senseless body crumples to the pavement -- you might end up with something close to "Boy Meets Boy," Bravo's intriguingly awful variant on the reality-dating formula. The only trouble is that, by the time the show wraps up tonight (8 p.m. EDT), you may not be clear on who's doing the bashing or what exactly is being bashed. What is clear is that a program that strokes itself for blazing new cultural ground is one of the tamest and most conservative sex-and-gender artifacts to emerge from cable television in a long time.
Does that even matter? Not to the people who watch it, probably. For those who don't, a brief note of explanation. "Boy Meets Boy" follows the romantic mazurka of James, a winsome young homo. (Being gay, he is called "James" and not "Jim.") Week after week, he is courted by a horde of male admirers; after an exhaustive round of televised dating and tête-à-têting, he is then tasked with voting off the suitors, one by one, until he arrives at the man who will claim his heart and share the grand-prize trip to New Zealand. What James doesn't know is that some of his suitors are straight men in disguise, and if one of those poseurs manages to sneak into the winner's circle, he will make off with $25,000 (along with the tattered and bleeding remnants of James' heart).
Call it a cross, then, between "The Bachelor" and "The Mole," and consider how far that goes in defining the two audiences to which the show is very cannily pitched. The first and, of course, the most obvious segment: other gay men. They get the kick, yes, of seeing their brothers negotiate the same mating steeplechase that straight folk have traversed (on bigger networks). They also get a show that plays teasingly into the fantasy of seducing, or being seduced by, straight men. The program is a kind of reversal of all those "straight-acting" gay men so familiar from the world of personal ads. "Boy Meets Boy" gives us "gay-acting" straight men, and, indeed, one of its chief sources of interest lies in how the straight "moles" go about -- very adeptly, in some cases -- assuming the coloration of their gay rivals.
But if "Boy Meets Boy" were strictly geared to gay audiences, I don't think it would be drawing the buzz it does. Like Bravo's other Greek-fest, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," it is rather ingeniously shaped to draw in a straight viewership -- particularly, I suspect, straight women. For this particular demographic, the show takes the form of detective story: Who's straight and who's not? (Which makes it not so much a whodunit as a who's-done-him.) Seen in this light, the dramatic conclusion of each episode comes not when James demurely clinks champagne glasses with the "mates" he wants to keep around; it comes when the rejected suitors step into the next room, as it were, and strip off their masks, revealing their true identity to the waiting camera. "GAY," "STRAIGHT" -- the labels are slapped across them like visa stamps -- and you can almost see every woman in America grabbing her boyfriend or her bestest gay pal and crying: "I knew it! Didn't I tell you? I knew it!"
Figuring out a gay man's orientation can be a point of pride with straight people, and "Boy Meets Boy" allows them full rein for their speculations without, at the same time, embarrassing them with any overt displays of homosexuality. This last point is, unfortunately, key. In marked contrast to the oral probing and rumble-seat gropings and raunchy repartee that have characterized such shows as "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" and "Paradise Hotel," the contestants in "Boy Meets Boy" never do anything but, well, meet. And keep meeting. The show's producers have shaped all of James' dates for maximum aesthetic impact: horseback rides, picnics in the mountains, luaus and conch shells, spa immersions and hot-air balloons and horse-drawn carriages. These are less sexual fantasies than designer fantasias, the kind that might have been thrown together by the Fab Five on a road trip to Palm Springs, Calif. (Probably the funniest moment so far in a woefully unironic series came when a bank of votive candles arranged for James' date with Wes exploded into a small prairie fire.) Plopped down amid this opulence, with their every act of mastication captured by an army of unseen cameras, the contestants on "Boy Meets Boy," not surprisingly, turn into flustered small talkers.
You might think that a show about gay dating would entail some feeling around for health data or bluntly humorous remarks about condoms or, at the very least, a fogged-up car window. Not in Bravo land, where no knees are caressed, no feet are rubbed, and the only sign that a date has actually happened is the chaste kiss that "the mates" bestow on the immaculate James -- an exchange roughly as erotic as the embraces between my 3-year-old son and his best friend Joey. All the stranger, then, to hear James' rejected straight suitors, in their debriefing interviews, extol the show as a major advance in gay liberation (when they're not expressing relief at going back to their girlfriends). One went so far as to hail his role in something called "the gay revolution." Leaving aside the strangeness of hearing such manifestoes from men who have signed on for the express purpose of duping a faygele out of 25 g's, what is this gay revolution they're speaking of? I see the same old devolution -- one more in a long line of homosexual virgins. Gay viewers have already complained at length about the cloistered hero in "Will and Grace." Consider the plight of poor James, condemned to choose a lifemate without even so much as tweaking a nipple. And here's the ingenious part: The show's sexual puritanism is built right into the premise. Because if James were actually to make a move on any of these men, he would discover pretty soon who's ready to be moved and who's not, and that the rules will not allow. Sorry, mates. Keep the hands above the table.
Far from charting a brave new world for gay programming, "Boy Meets Boy" is an emblem of retrenchment -- the safest of all possible shows. (It even has, in James' reliably melodramatic gal pal Andra, a surrogate mother.) And that safeness extends to the crowd of "mates": healthy, white, mostly interchangeable gym boys, exuding the same Tommy Hilfiger enervation. No femmes, no butches, no geeks or intellectuals. The lone minority, a black man, was summarily dispatched in Episode 1, and James himself has the upwardly beseeching blue eyes and unclouded brow of a Raphael putto. (The show might just as well be called "Goy Meets Goy.") Of the three finalists, two could easily be mistaken for each other. Only the third -- a sexy sommelier named Franklin -- introduces the wild card this show so desperately needs. With his brooding lips and cascading black curls, Franklin strikes almost a Byronic note in the proceedings, and when he's on-screen, you feel yourself working synchronously with James, trying to figure him out. (In a poll on Bravo's Web site, he's the one voted most likely to be straight.)
Franklin may be the only instance the show offers of the unpredictability of desire. And there is something else that might not have been predicted. Over the course of five episodes, without even realizing what he was doing, James managed to screen out all but one of the straight moles. What are we to make of this? That the heart trumps the gonad? That the unattainable may be fine for fantasy but not for New Zealand? Or is it just that when a 32-year-old human resources administrator gets done with wanting, he only wants to be wanted back?
Note to Franklin: If it doesn't work out with you and James -- Daddy's got a shoulder just made for crying on.