In 1999, Queer as Folk debuted on British screens and caused something of a stir. Whilst nowadays the premise, involving the interlocking lives of a group of homosexual men in Manchester’s gay village, doesn’t seem particularly shocking, it was something of an event at the time, as never before had television been bold enough to go to these kinds of places. Gays on TV were generally camp joke characters, and a show which focused on them as real people – with all their funny, horny, clumsy issues – was surprising; the gays had never been treated with this kind of respect before, indeed, the gays had barely been mentioned at all beforehand. Queer as Folk did help to pave the way for changing television attitudes and was an important show; it needed to happen when it did and we’re glad for it. Though it’s frankly fairly dated these days, Queer as Folk stands as an interesting piece of television history, and is notable for its more in depth American remake, a conflicting version but one worth exploring in more detail.
The first season of the UK version is great – we’re introduced to successful, sexual beast Stuart (Aiden Gillen, playing the role with a ferocious appetite and tragic undercurrent), his best friend and Doctor Who fan Vince (Craig Kelly) and newcomer Nathan (Charlie Hunnam), who is just 15 at the start of the show, leading to a shocking sex scene which had the world talking back in 99. The group have a good dynamic and the show served as an interesting insight into gay life – the scene, the relationships, the drama – and did a good job at portraying gays as real people, without sacrificing their cultural identity. But the show, despite its success, ended rather abruptly – a short first season and essentially a feature-length episode for the 2nd – Davies has stated that he’d said all he had to in 1o episodes and so wasn’t interested in pursuing the project. It’s a shame because it seems more could have been done with the concept; just as the audience is really getting to know these characters, they’re taken away.
The American version is considerably longer, lasting for five seasons, and explores more issues, though it’s certainly got its share of problems and is far from perfect. Strangely, the first season is almost identical but with better looking American actors, and though initially more cautious, grows to contain far more sex-scenes than its UK counterpart, with a lot of this bordering on gratuitous soft-core porn. But it’s once we move past season one that things get interesting, as the show is forced to follow its own path, bouncing around plot-points and character developments in variously successful and cringe-worthy ways. It’s a very melodramatic show, not as witty as it thinks it is, and it suffers to fill the extended time-frame, with the side characters in particular – Ted and Emmet – literally thrown into whatever random situations the writers hastily assemble. It’s clear that no-one knew what to do with Queer as Folk once it surpassed the English counter-mark, and for an important look at gays and their lives, it turns into a fairly standard soap opera. The exaggeration of gay promiscuity and fact that almost everyone in this world seems to be gay can be excused however; it’s television.
There is some good stuff and it’s interesting to compare the series to the original – the central relationship between Brian (Gale Harold) and Justin (Randy Harrison) is considerably fleshed out in comparison to its UK counterpart and the two become the heart of the show; both characters are played by great actors and have strong chemistry and shared sexual tension. It’s clear they want to be together, and the teasing jealousy and will-they-won’t they make for the show’s best drama. It’s interesting to see the difference in focus here, with Davies looking at the relationship as Nathan/Justin’s fledgling first crush before he grows to take on the world, essentially becoming Stuart/Brian for the next generation, and the American version looking to create a more tormented love story. Other strong elements include Lindsay and Melanie (Thea Gill and Michelle Clunie), a lesbian couple with a kid, who again, share fantastic chemistry and come across as a believable, well-drawn couple. There’s also Michael’s relationship with HIV-positive Ben, an important storyline which ties back to the heart of the show – talking about what people ignore, and prejudice.
But here’s where the show falls on its face. For a gay show, its political agenda reaches near comical proportions. Yes, homophobia is awful, but the ways it’s portrayed here are so melodramatic that everything becomes utterly silly and ridiculous. All straight people in Queer as F0lk are evil basically. And this really hurts the programme. Whatever interesting point it could have explored about acceptance and prejudice is thrown out the window by the sheer broadness of the treatment – this is a show where straight police won’t investigate murders involving gay victims, where judges rule in favour of violent assailants and not the boy beaten into a coma. It’s almost infuriating to watch these scenes. The pro-gay anti-straight message actually makes the cause nonsense and whilst these issues needed to be addressed, they should have been covered by far more subtle, nuanced writers who weren’t interested in soap opera drama and black-and-white politics. In this sense, it’s maddening how far back the show pushes its people by trying to promote them.
The American version stands as an interesting example of adaptation and whilst manages to do some things well, its forced politics and soap opera style really hurt the proceedings. The English version is stronger, and perhaps Davies was right to cut after one season. Both shows however, remain an interesting addition to the gay canon and ultimately, were necessary and important to television culture.