Judge Brett Cullum takes a candid look at the series that put the "sex" into "homosexual."
Brian: It wasn't love. I just gave you a rim job and f—ed your brains
Queer as Folk has been facing a daunting task ever since somewhere inside of Season Two. You see, the basis for this Showtime show was a truly ground-breaking British series. It was at that point, during the second season, that the show ran out of plots from the source show, since the inspirational UK flagship only ran one and a half seasons. (Despite high ratings, its creator felt the show and the characters had run their course.) They had to come up with all-new plots to continue the story of the gang hanging out on Liberty Avenue (set in Pittsburgh, but obviously filmed in Toronto).
Season Three of the US Queer as Folk was rough without the blueprint, and many fans of the show cried foul. They were beginning to lose faith in the series, as the writers effectively drug everyone in the cast of queens (and a pair of dykes) through the mud in some shape, form, or fashion. Brian (Gale Harold, Rhinoceros Eyes) and Justin (Randy Harrison, Bang, Bang, You're Dead) broke up for a while. Ted (Scott Lowell, Ladies Room L.A.) was addicted to drugs and stealing money. Michael (Hal Sparks, Talk Soup, Dude, Where's My Car?) and Ben (Robert Gant, Billy's Dad Is a Fudge-Packer) got together and found a teenaged male hustler, Hunter (Harris Allan, A Home At the End of the World), to adopt and run away with in order to avoid his biological mother. Emmett (Peter Paige, Childstar) was single again, after being abused by Ted. Melanie (Michelle Clunie, The Jeff Foxworthy Show) got pregnant. Lindsey (Thea Gill, Bubbles Galore) got her career back. Debbie (Sharon Gless, Cagney and Lacey, The Star Chamber) was still shrill and wearing her fright wig and t-shirts with inane sayings like "I don't like fags…I love 'em!"
So what to do? The title credits got a make-over for the fourth season, and some high-powered gay playwrights like Brad Fraser (Love and Human Remains) were brought into the fold to ground the series. Which brings us to the recently released Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season. So as the Burnside Project urges us in the new theme song…"Cue the pulse to begin!"
Facts of the Case
Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season starts by picking up the pieces from the third season, then spends fourteen episodes showing us the "softer side" of the gay soap opera we all know and love. Stories were introduced to make the characters seem more lovable and less loathsome. Ted spent a day in rehab (that's what it seemed like), and then was set on a course towards a return to the nebbish accountant we met in Season One (before he became a drug-addled porn impresario). Brian was reunited with Justin, and was even given a possibly fatal disease to make him a little less perfect and vulnerable. Michael had to return from his flight, with Hunter in tow, and settled down to build a happy home life with his professor husband Ben and his adopted teenage son. Melanie and Lindsey prepared for a new baby. Debbie cooked a lot of food and cursed a lot (some things never change). Emmett just kept on flaming, and had to find a way to forgive Ted.
But what would Queer as Folk be without loopy plot twists to leave you scratching your head and wondering what's up with the water in Pittsburgh? Justin joined Fight Club, and began attacking gay bashers with a pistol and some rowdy barroom brawl techniques he learned from his street gang, the "Pink Posse." Ted lip-synched a lot of opera while doing a stint as a singing waiter, then started to work at Brian's new ad agency as an accountant. Brian lost a gonad to testicular cancer, and everyone had to make "one ball" jokes for the entire season. Uncle Vic went off into his final sunset; Debbie freaked out throwing a posthumous Christmas bash for him (complete with male strippers and drag queens). Then Vic made cameos in Brian's dreams—making the requisite "one ball" and "you're diseased and old now, baby" comments to torment him. Hunter and Melanie both ended up hopping the homo fence and having heterosexual affairs. Emmett ended up in the sack with an engaged homophobic NFL quarterback. Michael and Ben suffered from some professional jealousy when Ben's book is rejected but Michael's comic Rage is optioned for big-screen Hollywood treatment. (Yeah, a gay comic superhero movie—just what Hollywood needs!) And the climactic season finale? A bike ride for charity. Yes—a bike ride.
There's a telling moment in Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season when Ben confronts the big-time Hollywood director bringing Rage to the screen on gay art. He asks the director, Brett Keller (apparently based on Bryan Singer, given his fictional film credit of V-Men), "Why make a movie about gay people with no social relevance, no political value, and no morally redeeming messages?" I wondered instantly where the creators of this Showtime production of Queer as Folk stand with respect to the implicit judgment in his query. Queer as Folk has always been a tawdry soap opera, where sex is everything and anything else falls by the wayside. All the characters measure their relationships through sex. They talk about everything in sexual terms. Every episode has several well-shot sex scenes, and the actors seem to spend as much time naked as they do clothed in any given hour of the show. Queer as Folk broke a lot of ground by providing a show where the characters were unapologetically homosexual and sexually active. It took more than half a decade for Will to get any action on Will and Grace, but Queer as Folk started with the proverbial (gang) bang right from its opening scene. But four seasons in, I wonder if sex is enough? There's the rub. All the time I've spent with this cast, and the most memorable moments are when their sweaty bodies grind against each other to the beat of a well-picked dance tune. I wish they would spend time making the characters as real as their carnal activities.
The mission statement of Queer as Folk has always been to find common ground between gays and non-gays through its drama. It wanted to prove gay people are common, and handle the same problems as anyone else in America. It is produced and written by a gay team of creative people who have a lot of "industry" experience. Their conundrum is painting a portrait of a community united only through their sexual tendencies. Because when you boil it down, the only thing that really binds a person to the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender community is who you sleep with. It's not gender, it's not politics, and it's not heritage or culture. It is the only group where membership is based on sexual tastes, and Queer as Folk have therefore made sex the centerpiece of their show. It seems like the easy way out. Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season is jam-packed with plenty of sex and sexual dialogue. They've really relied solely on one aspect to tie them to the community, and always pretend their tendency to show a lot of flesh is important and groundbreaking drama with "no limits." It reminds me a lot of Black Exploitation films like Cleopatra Jones, but (obviously) aimed at a different minority. It's a show strictly for gay men, and the occasional lesbian or straight woman, who all tune in purely for the titillation.
There seems to be a theme in these episodes that revolves around dealing with repercussions of the actions of the characters in the previous three seasons. The problem is they don't seem to have learned all that much. There's a lot of Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season that could have been explored in the first or second season just as easily. The plot where Lindsey has an affair with a man while Melanie is pregnant is exactly the same place where the girls were in season one, when Melanie cheated on Lindsey right after she gave birth. Let's face it—Melanie's pregnancy in and of itself is a recycled plot from the first episode. Justin facing his gay basher recalls season two, but this time feels too violent to be a healthy closure. Brian shutting out Justin emotionally has been a running theme since the first episode; frankly, this element has worn out its welcome in a big way. Ted rekindles his relationship with Blake in yet another shout out to season one, but this time the tables are turned. Ted's the junkie, and Blake is the drug counselor. Seems very silly that Blake sleeps with Ted (it's strictly forbidden in a 12-Step Program), but again, the producers will sacrifice any logic to get a sex scene in. It seems like the show just runs around in circles constantly, and the characters are stagnant. The brilliance of the UK series was how all the characters came full circle; then they stopped making the show. Showtime seems content with making these characters go around the same lap an infinite number of times.
It's a real shame when you look at the cast. Every single one of them is capable of doing just about anything. It's a testimony to them that the show has held up and held on as well as it has, even with all the recycled and silly plot machinations. I have no favorites—they are all great in their own way. The writing may bog them down, especially Gale Harold as Brian, who is obviously directed to act "sexy, cool, and remote" so often that he comes off like a pretty piece of balsa wood. And poor Hal Sparks as Michael is always having to channel his inner puppy dog, since they give him little else to do but pout and beg for anything his character wants or needs. And need I remind anyone that Sharon Gless is as good as it gets? Too bad they make her cuss every other word (which sounds so goofy it's unreal), and keep her trapped in that hideous red wig that does nothing for her but undermine anyone's taking her character seriously. Still, I would argue the cast has been a likable group from the get-go. They are why I still tune in, despite the misgivings I have about the content and quality of the stories. I love them all, and like to see them jump the hurdles thrown at them.
So why is the damn thing so watchable? For all my protest I will give up my soap box long enough to admit I've watched this show since episode one, and will be there until the bitter end. I ripped through Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season with wild, gay abandon in a couple of days. Sure, it seems like just a place marker until a better show about the GLBT community comes along (and I'd argue The L Word is beating the snot out of it with hot sex scenes and real character arcs that make sense). Let's face it, it's a show that delivers a surprising amount of gloss and sex. Who would pass that up? And I do like trying to guess where they will go with all of this. The loopy developments are always out of left field, but that's also fun in some sadistic way. I just like being a conscientious dissenter who is also a fan. I'm such a hypocrite sometimes.
I'd say this set is a must for fans, and worth at least a rental if you're curious. And this time out, Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season is a ground breaker simply because it contains the show's first heterosexual sex scenes. So now everyone can get it on the action, no matter what side of the fence you fall on—or even if you straddle that puppy. And the show remains one of the best looking productions on television, with one of the best soundtracks ever. Imagine that. All those gay producers, and we end up with something that looks and sounds good with a lot of sex. Sex and style is what they offer, and always deliver. It's the Pamela Anderson approach to television (if Pam was a gay man with huge pecs). Never mind the plot, what's it look like?
Queer as Folk is broadcast in high definition widescreen, so the transfers for Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season are handsome and well done. There is some minor edge enhancement now and then, and maybe a wash of grain in a scene or two. But on the whole, it looks like a million bucks. Some things they have always gotten right with the series are the awesome production values, the great cinematography, and the kick-ass soundtrack. You can chose either a stereo or a 5.1 surround mix to watch the shows. The full surround mix is dangerous, because the music really kicks in hard, and you could blow a speaker or two every time the boys hit Babylon. This show looks like film, and it's a wonderful treatment of television on DVD I wish all networks could replicate. Hats off and rainbow flags held high for a great looking set of episodes. My only gripe is the presence of some odd layer changes. Often the DVD will change layers when a character is talking or music is playing, and it's painfully obvious. Learn to do this in a blackout like any other well-produced DVD would do.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The bad news about this set? It seems Showtime is taking the show's falling ratings pretty hard. Previous seasons of Queer as Folk were produced with deluxe packaging and tons of show-related extras. Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season is housed in a standard slipcase holder with five DVDs. The extras provided have little to do with the show. We get glimpses of the cast members' other projects (they are preparing to move on after the fifth and last season wraps), such as Peter Paige's directorial debut Say Uncle, and real-life lovers Gale Harold and Michelle Clunie's latest project The Unseen. We get about five minutes behind the scenes of the "Babylon Tour"—a promotional series of stops that invade gay clubs across America to turn them into Babylon for one night. It's not anything crucial to the show, and is just a chance to show shirtless men prancing around to a techno beat (any self-respecting homo could catch this any night of the week on their own). We have some text-based extras like biographies and "The Wardrobe Closet." There's a standard photo gallery with compulsory dance music playing in the background. And the oddest extra? A commercial for Atlantis Cruises, where they tell you how to register for a chance to win a vacation on-board one of their trips to the Gayribbean, or possibly a favorite lesbian destination to go whale watching. Truly, it's just a way to get your e-mail so they can market to you, since gay people are way too secretive to be on easily-bought mailing lists.
Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season is just what you'd expect—gorgeous transfers, silly plots, cute actors in plenty of sex scenes, and a thumping cool surround soundtrack. Queer as Folk certainly hasn't become any more grounded in reality; it's still a fluffy piece of exploitation for the gay community. It's eminently watchable, like any soap opera, but we'll have to wait for another show to see any kind of political or socially relevant statements made. Showtime seems to have skimped on the packaging and the extras this go-round, but at least the sound and picture remain high quality. If I'm going to be looking at all these butts, I want a clear view, and full speakers to deliver the panting.
Guilty of being purely sexual, but still fun in some ways. It's hardly the ground-breaker it proclaims itself to be, but you'll get plenty of banging for your buck with Queer as Folk: The Complete Fourth Season. Stripped-down packaging and slim extras still don't diminish the perverse pleasure of watching these people get it on one more time. More high-minded gay men will feel a little insulted, but hopefully they tuned out long ago.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Behind the Babylon Tour / Los Angeles
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