I had assumed I would be a very old and stertorous man before rimming got the full-scale dramatic attention it deserved in a major television production. And here I am, a mere thirty-seven, not even clipping my ear hair yet, and the bastion has fallen. Roughly halfway through its first episode, the twenty-two-hour Showtime miniseries Queer as Folk (based on the hit British series of the same name) features full-on ass-licking, and never before has “slippery slope” taken on such a complex meaning.
Best of all, the moment came with built-in glossing for the unenlightened. That’s because the character on the receiving end was a seventeen-year-old sexual neophyte name Justin (Randy Harrison), getting his divin initiation at the hands of twenty-nine-year-old veteran Brian (Gale Harold). Virginal Justin had just confessed he didn’t know anything about this rimming business, at which point Brian obligingly planted his face between Justin’s nether cheeks, causing strange otherworldly groans to erupt from Justin’s throat. A few seconds later, Brian briefly re-emerged to explain: “That’s rimming.”
Can an accompanying coffee-table book be far behind? It may come as a surprise to the Concerned Women for America, but in its most graphic moments, Queer as Folk resembles nothing so much as an anthropological treatise. You can almost hear the National Geographic narrator intoning in your ear: “We begin with never-before-seen footage of the ‘boy bar.’ Our cameras discovered a line of unbuckled men, receiving what appeared to be direct oral stimulation of their sexual organs. Scientists tell us this is common behavior for ingesters of the synthetic substance GHB….”
Even as a documentary portrait, though, Queer as Folk is both circumscribed and compromised. It rigorously excludes every aspect of gay life that falls outside the mating ritual couples, politics, culture yielding the floor to archetypes who essentially reconfirm everything the straight community ever believed about us. The self-flagellating nerd. The brittle, effeminate quipster. The medium-cute narrator, currently feeling very ambivalent about this whole gay-lifestyle business, I mean, there’s gotta be more to life than one-night stands, right? (This particular character was more bearable when he was played by scrumptious Timothy Olyphant in The Broken Hearts Club. Here it’s winsome Hal Sparks, the former host of E!s Talk Soup, who lacks the acting chops to guide his character through tricky emotional transitions.) And to round off our cast, we have the magnetic Lothario, cutting a sexual swath so wide it threatens to swallow up entire cities.
Casting someone as the hottest thing in flat-front pants is enormous pressure to place on any actor, and Gale Harold, like most mortals, isn’t up to the task. He possesses a genuinely sexy mouth and expressive brown eyes and a lean (though not exceptionally buff) body. But his main gambit for expressing charisma is to give off reams of hostile attitude. And we are led to believe that this fuck-me-but-don’t-fuck-with-me pose is so irresistibly attractive that Brian has but to whisper a word in a man’s ear to make him dissolve into a rivulet of lust.
In real life, I tend to think Brian’s the type you would sleep with once either because you were drunk or because you were too exhausted from fending him off and then never go near again. And I’m willing to bet the sex would be lousy. Not in Queer as Folk, though. This guy’s such a performer he can’t walk across Pittsburgh without a stream of lovesick swains following in his wake. He even manages, in the aftermath of a business meeting, to seduce a married father of two, using the following technique: 1) Stand next to man at urinal. 2) Stare pointedly at man’s crotch. 3) Drag man into toilet stall and tear off clothes.
This is only the most flagrant in a long line of unreal sexual moments that pop up throughout Queer as Folk. It’s not the mechanics that are at fault. Everything is diligently enacted and very much out there, in a way that no television program has ever dared. But there’s something missing: the unexpected collisions, the shivery surprises, the strange, dawdling passages that happen in real-life sex. About the only scene I warmed to was the moment when Michael, the narrator, discovers that the guy he’s brought home has an artificially padded ass and crotch. But even this wasn’t convincing because the guy in question was actually crowing about his subterfuge. Surely, if you were desperate enough to create such an illusion in the first place, you wouldn’t forfeit it the moment you started necking. You’d wait until the lights were out and then quickly discard the giveaway articles and hope the other guy didn’t notice the difference. But then, of course, you would no longer be the subject of joke; you’d be a recognizable human being.
Which is the one thing that’s in short supply on Queer as Folk. I can honestly say there wasn’t one character or one moment in the first three hours that I really, truly believed. I recognize, of course, that the show has real cultural importance: It has single-handedly shredded some deeply rooted American taboos, without apology or propitiation. But once the shock of witnessing this assault wears off, there’s not much left for even the most sympathetic observer to nosh on.
In 1953, a movie called The Moon is Blue got itself banned by the Catholic Church and pretty much every bluenose outfit in the world for uttering the word “virgin.” Seen a half-century later, it is what it always was: a lame and awkward farce, a bottle of bubbly with no cork. I suspect a similar fate will befall Queer as Folk (at least in its American incarnation). Shorn of its titillation, it will stand as a slackly paced, indifferently cast exercise in affirmative action. And even from a contemporary standpoint, it tells us nothing about gay men we didn’t know twenty years ago. In fact, it assumes that gay men are exactly the same as they were twenty years ago. It is the least deviant work one could make about a deviant lifestyle.
Louis Bayard and Nerve.com, Inc.