It doesn’t get any gayer than this. Forget “Will & Grace” and “Normal, Ohio.” Showtime’s much-publicized American version of the British mini “Queer as Folk” is definitely not a sanitized version of the original show that raised more than a few eyebrows in 1999. If anything, the steamy sex scenes are even more amped up and graphic in this fast-moving series that paints an uncompromising and unpleasant picture of the young, gay urban experience. But as Brit creator Russell T Davies and U.S. writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman have pointed out in numerous press interviews, the series is not responsible for the hedonistic, shallow lifestyles of many of its lead characters. Although show lacks the freshness and depth of the Brit series, it offers an honest, politically incorrect slice of life that’s as heartbreaking at times as it is funny.
This time around, the story is set in a working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh instead of Manchester, England. In the two-hour opener, viewers meet Brian (Gale Harold), a sexual conquistador who changes partners as often as some change TV channels. Rarely motivated by anything other than pleasing himself, he moves from one man to the next and scorns anyone who believes in love and commitment.
Following Brian around like a puppy is his childhood friend Michael (Hal Sparks), a boyish store manager whose life changes when an older man (chiropractor Chris Potter) shows some interest in him.
Also in the picture is 17-year-old Justin (Randy Harrison), one of Brian’s one-night-stands who falls for him in a big way, and lesbian couple Lindsay (Thea Gill) and Melanie (Michelle Clunie) who are new mommies thanks to sperm generously donated by superstud Brian.
Rounding out the cast are Emmet (Peter Paige), a flamboyant club boy who has a fling with a Japanese hustler, and Ted (Scott Lowell), an accountant with a big porn collection and very little self-esteem.
Although several of the leads fail to go beyond the sitcom-ish, surface delivery of their lines (relative newcomers Harold and Sparks come nowhere close to generating the charisma and chemistry of Aidan Gillen and Craig Kelly in the Brit version) the women seem to fare better here. Gill and Clunie are quite effective as the sensible lesbian couple whose lives are forever entangled with Brian’s, and the dynamics of their relationship is frequently more interesting than the sexual escapades of the boys.
Veteran actress Sharon Gless (“Cagney and Lacy”) also makes a most welcome return to the tube as Michael’s accepting mother. Her portrayal of a working class woman who feels at home in the gay and lesbian community, is a real winner, and she brings a heady poignancy to almost all of her scenes.
Director Russell Mulcahy (“The Highlander”) adds his usual visual-candy approach to the subject matter. There are a lot of MTV-style, super-hyper sequences, and the sex scenes, as explicit as they are, are handled quite tastefully.
The episodic nature of the show and its storylines may remind some viewers of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” but overall, the tone of “Queer as Folks” has a certain year-2000 acidity. Although everyone seems to be having lots of sex (in museums, hospitals, executive restrooms, sex clubs, starkly decorated condos and various other spots), there’s a cruel undercurrent here, which points out to the way youth and muscular definition are valued above anything else in the gay community.