The Queerest Show on Earth

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.

All of which is a long, long way from the Zeitgeist of the first episode of the British version of Queer As Folk, in which the tongue of a 29-year-old man travels farther down the backside of a 15-year-old boy than any tongue has ever traveled on TV before. That image has produced the identical reaction in everyone I know who has seen it: “How did they ever show that on British television?” Which is always immediately followed by “We’ll never see that on American television.” They might be wrong about that.

The original version already enjoys cult status among gay men on both sides of the Atlantic. Bootleg tapes of the British show were passed to American friends in the show-business community; soon they were showing up all over Chelsea, Fire Island, West Hollywood, and the Castro. In August, an edited version of the British show began to get its first airing on a new gay cable network called C1TV, which has cobbled together a network by purchasing time on public-access stations that reach 7 million viewers in 25 American cities. However, to placate more conservative cable operators, all the nude scenes in the original have been blurred, and the harshest language has been bleeped out. The uncut version has been shown at gay film festivals all across America.

As a result, the director and the executive producers all realize that they will face heavy criticism from the fans of the original if they tamper with its production values. At the same time, they’re not interested in making a carbon copy of the original. Although the pilot does incorporate all of the major plot points of the first three British episodes, it also expands the role of the lesbian couple, who in the new version are portrayed by two strikingly good-looking actors, Michelle Clunie and Thea Gill. And since the first season of the American version will be twice as long as the British one – which involved eight episodes – the executive producers will have to invent many new story lines. In fact, if the show becomes a hit, Showtime hopes to keep it going for five more seasons.

When I first met with them, the executive producers seemed confident that there would be no pressure to tone down the graphicness of the original. “There was a stipulation at the very beginning of this project that we would not hold back – that we would either meet or surpass what they did in the English version,” said Cowen. “They said, ‘Go as far as you want.’ “

The director, Russell Mulcahy, told me he was disclosing that he was gay because that fact makes this project especially important to him. “I just think it’s an irrelevant point most of the time,” he said over lunch in the cafeteria of the Toronto school that was used as a location on the tenth day of shooting. “The only reason I mention it here is, I thought it is relevant to what I’m doing. I feel a double commitment – not only to a good piece of film, but there’s a further obligation for me as a gay man.”

Mulcahy, who lives with his lover in Sydney in his native Australia, is known for the imaginative visual style of his most successful feature, Highlander, and the countless music videos he has made for Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Elton John, Culture Club, and Duran Duran. “It’s definitely not watered down,” he continues. “It’s probably pumped up.” To prove the point, he gleefully described how he simulated an ejaculation on the second day of shooting, using a syringe filled with Liquid Silk, “a shampoo with the consistency and color of sperm. There was me, or the assistant director, with these hands between the legs of some actor with this big syringe.”

Lipman said, “You can’t do this project and not go all the way. And it isn’t even in the graphicness of the sex or the language; it’s in the characters too – especially the character of Brian, who is so unapologetic, who is a gay character who has balls, who fucks, who takes drugs, who is not sick, and who doesn’t need to apologize. This is a character unlike commercial gay characters, who are either eunuchs or clowns. Those are nonthreatening gay characters. To many people, Brian is a threatening gay character. That’s why people have the reactions they do.”

“We’ve talked about what it’s really about, and to us it’s about becoming a man,” Cowen told me. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a gay man or a straight man – you have a certain rite of passage. I think it’s harder for gay men to become men. It’s very easy to be caught as a boy. And it’s almost a fight: Are you going to live or are you going to die becomes a very big question. A lot of gay men die of aids; a lot of gay men experience the death of the soul and the spirit. I think a lot of gay men fall into crystal meth and other drugs. It’s very easy to die as a gay boy and not become a man.”

Most people who know about the new production assumed that it would be toned down after word leaked out that Showtime had decided to age the youngest character from 15 to 17. But the producers have figured out how to have it both ways on the age issue: To fill the youngest role, they found a blond newcomer named Randy Harrison who looks about 14 even though he’s about to celebrate his 23rd birthday. Harrison graduated from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music last March, did a single showcase in New York, found an agent, and landed the role of a lifetime last summer. Queer As Folk is the very first time he’s ever been in front of a camera, and the director is already calling him “the two-take wonder.”

As a member of Generation Y, Harrison felt little hesitation about announcing that he was gay. “I knew that if I ever were to become famous, I would be myself. I’ve had a boyfriend for three and a half years. I’m proud of that.”

Unlike the character he plays, Harrison is a stranger to the gay club scene – he never even bothered to go to the gym until he landed this role. On the other hand, he wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the sex scenes, although he did find it tedious to have to fake so many orgasms “over and over and over again.” He says he’s warned his parents about what to expect, but “I don’t think they believe it entirely. They keep saying, ‘Well, they can’t show anything too bad on TV.’ And I keep saying, ‘It’s going to surprise you.’ “

Peter Paige plays Emmett, the most flamboyant member of the troop, and he also felt the need to be completely truthful about who he is. “I am a gay man,” he said. “I don’t mind that appearing in print. I just don’t think I could do this show and then apologize for my sexuality by not stating it as fact. What I love about my character is that Emmett is the gayest of the bunch, and he’s not self-loathing. Of all these people, Emmett really is the happiest with who he is. And I think that is revolutionary.” Scott Lowell, another newcomer to film, declined to say whether he is gay or straight, because “I’m playing a gay character – that’s what I want people to believe. And after this, who knows what I’m going to be?!”

Hal Sparks, the former host of Talk Soup on E!, who plays Brian’s best friend, Michael, and Sharon Gless, who plays Michael’s mother, are the only two actors in the show who have had any significant public recognition before now.

For this job, Sparks had to accept an elaborate nudity clause, which allows the use of every part of his body on film. “Yeah, yeah,” said Sparks. “But don’t get all excited. This is a cutting-edge series, but there’s nothing cutting-edge about my penis. It’s just standard-issue African-American – it’s just a little paler than most.

“I did have trepidation,” Sparks admitted about his role. “And this momentary twinge of ‘Oh, my God – what if they think I’m gay?’ And I would be a liar if I said that didn’t occur. But what makes you a greater person is when you feel that and you go, ‘But this is for the better me. This is for the betterment of everybody around me.’ “

The willingness of so many of the principals to talk so honestly is another barometer of how much the world has changed since the Stonewall riot launched the modern gay-liberation movement 31 years ago. But there’s a flip side to all this courage. According to Jerry Offsay, president of programming at Showtime, practically all of the major talent agencies were scared away by the show’s content. Even after Offsay offered to triple the starting salary for the actor playing Brian, there were no additional applicants for the role.

“I got on the phone with some of the big agents,” Offsay remembered, “and I said, whoever this guy is, we will offer him parts playing straight characters in our other movies, so that he’s not typecast as a gay man. And he will be a star. And they said, ‘We understand, but it is very sexual.’ ” In addition, there was a long list of fashion companies, including Versace and Abercrombie & Fitch, that refused to allow their products to be shown on the show. (Tom of Finland, on the other hand, was delighted to provide a pair of orange leather pants for Emmett’s character.)

“I think we all realize at this point that Hollywood as a liberal business is a myth,” said Lipman. “It’s extremely homophobic. From our experience on this show, I would say, far more than I ever imagined.” But, he added, “the people who were brave enough, who wanted the challenge and were up to it, found it.”

Sharon Gless, of Cagney & Lacey fame, is one of those actors; she loved the script as soon as she read it. One of Gless’s best friends happens to be Carole Smith, who is Offsay’s personal assistant, so Smith instantly arranged for Gless to meet with the show’s producers. Gless told me, “This is definitely the biggest character I’ve ever played. I didn’t see the original version, but I get the thrust of it, pardon the expression. The stuff that comes out of my mouth is outrageous.”

Gless plays the waitress mother of Michael, the role played by Sparks. “She loves all the boys,” Gless said of her character. “I see her like the den mother to all of them.”

Gless’s favorite line so far is when she asks the boys, ” ‘So what are you having?’ and Emmett says, ‘I’m not hungry.’ And I say, ‘Em, honey, you should try and eat some of your protein off the plate.’ “

Gale Harold is the newcomer who plays Brian, the edgiest character in the piece, a guiltless 29-year-old who seems determined to sleep with every attractive young man in Pittsburgh – except Michael, his best friend, who has secretly been in love with him since they were teenagers. This unrequited love is at the heart of the story. Harold, who looks like a cross between Eric Roberts and Jeff Bridges, ran a motorcycle shop in East Oakland before he started acting three years ago, at the age of 28. In person, he has a smoldering quality, which snared him the role of Brian on the final day of casting. Lipman said, “We all ran over to the casting director’s office, and Gale had it all.” When shooting began, he was also one of the first two actors who had to expose it all.

“The sex scenes were kind of mind-blowing,” Harold told me. “There was one day of wardrobe, and then it was right to bed. And it’s intense, you know, because it’s going to be on television. You’ve got this cavalier predator having his way with a 17-year-old, who looks maybe 10, and the visual implications are unbelievable.” And maybe too risky, even for a cable network whose motto is “No limits.” For the producers, what will actually make it to air has suddenly become the $22 million question – that’s the amount they’re spending to produce the show’s first season.

When I interviewed the network’s executives, I discovered that Showtime has a policy of showing only R-rated movies, and nothing rated NC-17. Even though it doesn’t have to, it has sent all of its most controversial movies to the Motion Picture Association of America to be rated, and recut them slightly to avoid an NC-17 rating. I asked Jerry Offsay if that meant the British version of Queer As Folk could never be shown on his network.

“I think if I’d taken out five or ten seconds here or there, you could have got back to an R.” He said it was “possible” that he would take the new Queer As Folk to the MPAA to be rated to placate cable operators who distribute Showtime. But he insisted it would still be “the sexiest, edgiest series to premiere on any network in America.”

One thing that’s working in favor of the creative freedom of the producers is the network’s eagerness to cause a sensation. “We’re going for it in every way,” Showtime’s CEO, Matt Blank, told me. “It’s going to be hot.” At a time when the competition for television viewers has never been fiercer, Showtime is doing everything it can think of to make sure its latest offering won’t go unnoticed. Already this year it has co-sponsored gay-pride events in a dozen cities around the country, passing out thousands of handheld fans promoting the show and tastefully emblazoned with the words HUNG, BOTTOM, TOP, DISCO WHORE, and BAD BOY.

With this self-consciously provocative marketing campaign, Showtime, which gained attention and viewers when it aired the controversial Lolita in 1998, is hoping to do it again. “Our objective is to get a real inside buzz in the gay community,” said Blank. “And then I think as we move out to the straight community, the greatest thing we have going for us is curiosity.”

Blank admits the show is bound to offend both gays and straights. “There’s a chance that everyone will be upset with us,” he said, not sounding too displeased with the prospect. But Viacom, Showtime’s corporate parent, should be used to a little controversy by now. The company’s other hot-button offering this fall is the new Paramount television talk show featuring Dr. Laura.

The Queerest Show on Earth