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The Queerest Show on Earth

This fall's most explosive new drama is Showtime's version of a defiantly dirty, politically incorrect, sex-and-drug-soaked gay drama that was excoriated in Britain -- until it became a critically acclaimed hit.

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Fasten your seat belts: here comes Queer as Folk, the TV show that makes Sex and the City look like a Saturday-morning cartoon. Arriving this fall on Showtime, the two-hour-fifteen-minute pilot features the most outrageous language you have ever heard, some of the most compelling characters you have ever met -- and American TV's first explicit lovemaking scene between a 29-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy.

Actually, there are two of those scenes in the show's first two hours, punctuated by a visit to the hospital to meet the 29-year-old's newborn son, who has just emerged from the womb of a lesbian who has been inseminated with his sperm. In the maternity ward, the 29-year-old boasts of his conquest of the 17-year-old, provoking this response from the mother's lesbian lover: "So, you've both had an infant tonight!"

Queer As Folk first aired in 1999 in Great Britain on Channel 4, the country's alternative commercial network. Over there, the 17-year-old was only 15, and the gay sex was the most explicit ever seen on British television. So the outrage from horrified heterosexuals -- and from gays disgusted by the predatory stereotype -- was entirely predictable. But what followed was not.

After the third episode, practically every leading British critic fell in love with the show. The reason is simple: Queer As Folk isn't merely sensationalistic; it's fabulous television, the most important gay drama since Off Broadway theatergoers were stunned by The Boys in the Band more than 30 years ago. Just as Boys blew the lid off a slice of gay life that had been hiding in plain sight for years, Queer As Folk is the first completely honest depiction of the ordinary lives twentysomething gay men lead in big cities everywhere -- with absolutely nothing held back. Like Boys, the new program is replete with dark humor and stinging dialogue.

But Queer As Folk is even more revolutionary. Not only are its characters completely lacking in the self-hatred that permanently dates Boys to its birth in 1968, but it also tackles the last taboo for enlightened liberals, the one that still makes even the most liberated straight person squeamish: the fact that every gay adult begins life as a gay child.

This year, Showtime has sponsored gay-pride events in a dozen cities, passing out handheld fans promoting the show that are tastefully emblazoned with the words Bottom, Top, Hung, Disco Whore, and Bad Boy.

It's the willingness of the original show's creator, Russell T. Davies, to plunge into treacherous waters that gives it so much heft. At the heart of Davies's craft is a simple but crucial notion: "There is no drama in political correctness." Davies feels it's important to show a 17-year-old having sex with a 29-year-old simply because it's true to life: A gay teenager in the process of self-discovery is likely to begin by going home with someone much older than he is.

"You've just got to be true to people and character and motivation," the 37-year-old writer told me on the phone from his home in Manchester, England, where the original show was set. "Whatever you're writing about, you've got to get under the skin and get to the heart and look at that stuff that no one likes to look at." And he has two words for the gay activists who believe he has libeled a whole community with his promiscuous, drug-taking protagonists: "Fuck 'em!"

While the characters have a universal quality about them, Davies chose gritty Manchester instead of cosmopolitan London to avoid focusing on the glitzier part of urban gay life. The American producers have done the same thing by locating the series in Pittsburgh, although the show is actually being shot in Toronto.

The title comes from an old Yorkshire saying: "There's nowt so queer as folk," meaning there's nothing as strange as people. For Showtime, which has half as many subscribers as HBO (and a severe case of Sopranos envy), Queer As Folk is an opportunity to create its own uproar. In the words of Showtime CEO Matt Blank, "This is real reality television."

Of course, gay characters are hardly a novelty in American sitcoms; last season, there were sixteen of them in prime time, according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. But no one has ever seen gay characters quite like these, characters just as real and nuanced and hedonistic as many of their real-life counterparts.

It's that spirit of fearless originality that convinced Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman they had to do the American version after they were contacted by Tony Jonas, a former president of Warner Bros. Television who is now an independent producer. Jonas joined Joel Schumacher, the show's then-director, but Schumacher dropped out of the project after complaining that he didn't believe Showtime would remain faithful to the spirit of the original. Cowen, Lipman, and Jonas then became the three principal executive producers. Cowen and Lipman, who were responsible for five years of Sisters on NBC, also wrote the 135-minute pilot of Queer As Folk, which will air this December.

Cowen and Lipman have been lovers and writing partners for more than 25 years; they have a history of pushing the envelope on American television. Their first episode of Sisters opened with an extended discussion of multiple orgasms. That intro was subsequently axed by NBC, creating three minutes of black screen. Before that, they wrote An Early Frost, the first TV movie about aids, and they know better than anyone what a quantum leap Queer As Folk will be for American TV.

"Fifteen years ago when we did Early Frost, we were not allowed to show the two guys even touch," Cowen remembers. "They couldn't kiss, they couldn't even hold hands. Aidan Quinn played a character named Michael who had to tell his parents that he had AIDS and that he was gay -- they didn't even know that he was gay. His grandmother was very supportive when he and his lover came to visit, and we had a line where Sylvia Sidney turned to her grandson and said, ''I like your friend.'' And Standards and Practices at NBC said, ''She can't say that line, because that supports the homosexual lifestyle.''

On the other hand, the flamboyantly gay character who was dying of AIDS was allowed to say anything he wanted, ''because he's going to die," the network censors explained.


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