Too 'Queer' or Not 'Queer' Enough?

Late last month, the pay-cable network Showtime had ample reason to be excited. It was about to launch "Queer as Folk," which it hopes will become its first so-called signature series, i.e., what "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" have been to the longtime king of pay-cable-land, HBO.

If you've missed the hype over "QAF," which is adapted from a British program of the same name, you should know that it, in the words of Us magazine's Tom Conroy, is "the first American television show to address the sexual lives of gay men frankly and nonjudgmentally...You can feel the series' creators racing over the unclaimed territory with the exhilaration of Sooners in Oklahoma."

"Unclaimed territory" indeed. In today's ever-expanding television universe it is becoming increasingly difficult to find commercial success with broad-market programming. Instead the move is to niche-marketing, to carve out and conquer a little piece of the pie here, a little there. Those slices are turning into slivers when you're producing a show based on raunchy homosexual adventurism.

Showtime surely was counting on favorable press attention for "QAF." After all, television critics are overwhelmingly liberal on sexual topics. Many haven't disappointed. Some were almost blasé as they gave their readers a description of the vomitous material to be expected. Wrote Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times: "The hedonistic Brian is apt to strike about anywhere, from the office where he gives the eye to a stranger with a briefcase and soon is having his way with him inside a men's room stall, to the hospital room of a comatose friend where he goes at it hot and heavy with a male nurse...High schooler isolated in the athletic equipment room with a seemingly straight classmate who...ends up masturbating him."

Caryn James of the New York Times was non-judgmental: "This series is intended to jolt a mainstream audience...[The] sex scenes [are] so intimate that the squirm factor for most viewers will be high." And Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly was positively giddy: "Bravo to everyone involved for the refreshing eroticism of the sex in this production."

Then there was Tom Shales of the Washington Post, perhaps the most influential TV critic in the nation. On November 30, three days before "QAF" premiered, did Shales attack Showtime for airing this sewage? Heavens, no. Instead, he blasted "nervous network executives" for submitting the first several episodes to the Motion Picture Association of America, a move which resulted in Showtime making more than twenty brief edits. In other words, "QAF" is not raunchy enough.

Jerry Offsay, head of programming for Showtime, explained that the network has a policy of not running NC-17-rated movies and it wanted "QAF" to be "compatible" with that standard. Shales showed no mercy for that blatantly hypocritical attitude. "Some people are going to be yelling about a bowdlerized 'Queer as Folk,'" he wrote, "and they won't be yelling 'fire.' They'll more likely be yelling 'rip-off.'"

But give Shales only one-handed applause for exposing Showtime's conniving ways. He closed his column by showing his own militant colors on this issue, quoting from the first episode, in which a character says, "There are only two kinds of straight people in the world: the ones that hate you to your face - and the ones that hate you behind your back." For Shales to endorse the preposterous notion that the world is made up only of homosexuals and hateful homophobes is shameful.

By the way, Shales eventually admitted, in his December 2 review of "QAF," that "even with trims made, the show is still going to shock some people silly."

Shales is normally a fine critic and not predictable by any means. To his considerable credit, he has on many occasions lamented the near-disappearance of broadcast television's family hour. In the case of "QAF," however, his extremism in the pursuit of purity was indeed a vice - not to mention a little embarrassing.

The portrayal of gay sexual behavior in the British "QAF" was criticized there both by conservatives (for being "little short of pornographic," wrote one) and homosexual-rights groups (for reinforcing stereotypes). The executive producers of the U.S. version, Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, have been lovers for more than a quarter-century. But even that lifestyle is going to be old-fashioned for "QAF," which not only condones but even glamorizes promiscuity.

Last year the executive in charge of the British "QAF" explained why: Randy, younger gays made for more compelling television viewing than would an older homosexual couple. "It wouldn't have been that exciting to show them doing things like cooking for each other," he remarked to the New York Times.

At the rate we're going someone is going to decide that there's also a market for that, too. Mark my words.