March 27, 2006TV ON DVD
Same Sex Preference, Different Shows
Queer as Folk and The L Word
On a recent episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the guys were charged with helping a nudist look good in clothes. From the moment the Straight Guy opened the door in the buff, the Fab Five were completely repulsed. Even when Carson took his clothes off to see what the fuss was about, the guys seemed utterly grossed out by the sight of a naked man. Which seems kind of odd if you think about it; five gay men put off by male nudity? I suppose there could be extenuating circumstances; the Straight Guy wasn't exactly Brad Pitt. But then later, during a heart-to-heart with the Straight Guy, Kyan said, "There's more to being gay than sex." This may be true, but I think it speaks volumes about Queer Eye that homophobic America finds the show so appealing. These are five gay men who are basically safe and asexual, the kind of gay men who maybe have better fashion sense and grooming skills than your average man on the street but are about as sexual as a Ken doll.
You may be thinking that the truth lies somewhere in between, but Showtime's two gay dramas, Queer as Folk and The L Word, want you to know that sex is very much a part of gay life, as it is of any of our lives. Both shows are unapologetic and groundbreaking and deal with both issues unique to being gay and issues that are pretty universal with love, friendship, and relationships.
That may be where the similarities end, though.
|I suppose every show has its archetypes, but some critics have argued that the use of these in a gay show is dangerous because it confirms what America already suspects.|
Then again, the characters develop as the series progresses, so that by the end of the first season, the characters transcend their stereotypical behavior. That's certainly true of both of these shows.
I wonder if lumping these two gay dramas into one review maybe does them a disservice, though, as they really are very different shows that both just happen to be populated by gay characters. Otherwise, it's male-centric vs. female-centric, blue vs. pink, techno vs. folk, Pittsburgh vs. LA.
It's set in Pittsburgh and circles around the lives of a group of gay men and women who hang out around Liberty Avenue, home of Babylon and the Liberty Diner. One of the Liberty Diner's most colorful characters is a wise-cracking red-headed waitress named Debbie (Sharon Gless of Cagney & Lacey fame). She's brash and blunt and delightful. Her son, Michael, narrates some of the first season episodes before the voice-overs fade away. He's uptight and has to stay closeted at work (as apparently all the awful homophobes in Pittsburgh work there) and pines after his best friend Brian. And Brian is sex personified; "no regrets" is his motto as he pursues an improbably long line of men — who knew there were so many gay men in Pittsburgh? (I'd totally jump in that line, though, because Gale Harold? Is beautiful.) He's ultimately tamed by Justin, a na¥ve teenager who wanders into Brian's life in the first episode and never leaves. (And the great thing about Justin is that we get to really see his evolution. We meet him as a child and watch him grow as he transcends violence, hate, and vile politics.) Brian also has a son with Lindsay (Thea Gill) a lesbian in a long-term relationship with Melanie (Michelle Clunie). They're the most domesticated, dealing with the issues of raising a son with two mommies. Rounding out the cast are two polar opposites: the flamboyant Emmett (Peter Paige) and the straight-laced Ted (Scott Lowell), who begin as comic relief but eventually come into their own as interesting characters. And then in season 2, we meet Ben (Robert Gant), an Atlas of a man who is HIV+.
The show deals with a lot of issues important to the gay community — AIDS, gay marriage, discrimination, politics — but tackles a lot of relationship issues also as the characters try to navigate life and love and commitment. And I think this is what really makes the show worth watching. At first, you're sucked in by how stylized the show is, by the lighting, by the soundtrack, by the attractive cast, by the dancing go-go boys, by the surprisingly explicit sex scenes and the nudity. But you stay because the characters are interesting and compelling, and while you're in awe of how pretty the show is, you start to get invested in the characters.
|Otherwise, the special features aren't really that spectacular, although on the season 1 DVD, the deleted scenes are hosted by Hal Sparks, and he brings the same level of silliness that he employs for VH1's I Love the... shows.|
The first four seasons are now on DVD, and I think it's key to start with the first season, but maybe skip season 2, as the concepts of "realism" and "continuity" seem to have eluded the writers. They get back on track for season 3, though.
On the other side of the country, we've got The L Word, a sunny, glossy drama set in LA. We'll start with Bette (played by the lovely Jennifer Beals, who you may remember from Flashdance), who works at an art gallery and begins the show with her partner Tina (Laurel Holloman) — who is basically a housewife — by her side as they try to have a baby. In the very first episode, Jenny (Mia Kirshner) moves in next door with her boyfriend. Jenny's a writer with a vivid imagination — the show is full of interludes featuring her dreams and memories and stories — and things are going well with her boyfriend until she befriends the neighbors and is seduced by the female owner of the local lesbian hang out, a cafe called the Planet.
I like the glamour of the show. Perhaps just by virtue of how beautiful the cast is, the show gives the finger to every stereotype about lesbians. These are just women trying to live their lives. But the show also deals with issues perhaps unique to lesbians: the stigma against homosexuality and the fascination with hot girl-on-girl action. Lesbianism is at once a taboo and a male fantasy.
The L Word's second season also has an interesting parade of guest stars including Camryn Manheim, Sandra Bernhard, Ossie Davis (as Bette and Kit's father), and Gloria Steinem. And the show itself is still going strong; the season 3 finale just aired on March 26th.
And the DVDs: quite a lot of special features, mostly featurettes with the cast and show creator. No commentary, unfortunately. And Gloria Steinem plays herself in the season 2 finale, so the DVD includes a featurette on the Ms. Foundation for Women.
The second season builds on the first very well, giving more space for the secondary characters to find themselves. The show has such a big cast that some of the characters — maybe Alice and Shane in particular — don't really seem full realized until season 2, when the Bette/Tina plot arc doesn't dominate the show so much.
|Both shows are tasked also with making gay characters sympathetic enough that you care about their struggles against disease, against the law, against societal expectations.|
So we've got two very different but very good gay dramas out to prove that gay men and women have sex and have problems, so... they're just like everyone else.
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