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Queer As Folk
The Complete First Season
Collector's Edition

review by Anthony D.

 

Running Time: 1320 minutes

Starring: Hal Sparks, Gale Harold, Sharon Gless, Michelle Clunie, Randy Harrison, Peter Paige

Written by: Ron Cowen & Daniel Lipman

Directed by: John Greyson, Alex Chapple, Alex DeCarlo, Russell Mulcahy

 

Studio: Showtime Entertainment

Retail Price: $119.98

Features: Episode Summaries, "Next On" Televison Promotional Spots, On Screen Commentaries, Deleted Scenes, Outtakes, Biographies & Interviews, Season Two Sneak Peek, Photo Gallery, Soundtrack Promotional Spot, DVD-ROM

Specs: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Surround, Spanish Mono, English Closed Captions, Chapter Search

Released: January 8th, 2002

 

 

Showtime's highly rated series "Queer as Folk" has made a bow onto DVD in a delightful boxed set, containing the entire twenty-episodes of its initial season. Thanks to cable, "Queer as Folk" can venture into the subculture of gay life in a modern American metropolis with candor and sexual activities which would make both Will and Grace blush. Fair warning: "Queer as Folk" is NOT A FAMILY SHOW (unless of course, your family seems to be made up of questionable maiden aunts and bachelor uncles). "Queer as Folk," adapted from a hit British television series, may be about "family" but is not for all family members with its graphic depiction of drug-taking, accurate profanities and above all, bedroom and backroom behavior. What this boils down to, in family-friendly terms, is: plenty of fair flesh is on display (both male and female), the dreaded F-word is distributed regularly and many controlled substances are frequently swallowed or inhaled.

There is a lot to like about "Queer as Folk," first and foremost is its utterly believable writing. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best written show on television, and I'm including the erstwhile talents at NBC who pen "The West Wing," "Law & Order," as well as "Will and Grace." While "Will and Grace" more often than not is a "fairy tale" which sugar-coats its urban New York veneer to a Utopian point of view; "Queer as Folk" boldly and brashly embraces the gay milieu, not being afraid to get down and dirty. The characters of "Queer as Folk" never venture into caricature, nor into standard stereotypical, limp-wristed, lisping monsters, which in and of itself is quite an acheivement.

If only the entire cast of the series were up to the demands of the scripting. The series' limited budget, as well as its subject matter, certainly couldn't assuage A-list actors to partake in the profits (one look at the Anglicized "I'm not gay" attitude of "Vanilla Sky" amply demonstrates the homophobia inherent in American "stars"); several well-chosen new faces are more than willing to go beyond the gloss and demonstrate that acting involves a lot of courage. Gale Harrold has the uneasy task of making the amoral character of Brian Kinney, ad executive deluxe, into something with depth and no regrets. Brian is the nearly twenty-nine, relationship-negating Adonis of the quintet of gay men whose lives are intertwined throughout the series.

This is a character who is relatively free of likable traits, and yet in the capable hands of the stunningly handsome Harrold, becomes a man whose often hurtful (to himself and others) behavior is something to behold. Brian is captivating in his looks, his attitude and his lifestyle: he refuses to love, refuses to commit; trying to prove to himself that hedonism is the only way to go through life.

The motley crew surrounding Brian are his lifelong best friend Michael Novotny, who harbors an unrequited sexual need; Emmett Honeycutt, the show-queenly, drag donning, yet never too-far-over-the-top prissy who'll try anything once; and Ted Schmidt, ordinary account whose longing for love leads to inevitable tragedy. These four intertwined lives are the fulcrum on which the series is built with mixed results. Peter Paige perfectly fits into the dresses and attitude of Emmett without resorting to the "anything for a laugh"attitude copped by a certain member of "Will and Grace's' ensemble. Scott Lowell effectively inhabits the soulful Ted, whose feathers never seem to ruffle until tragedies strike. But it is former "Talk Soup" host Hal Sparks whose performance rarely rises above an "aw, shucks-gosh-golly" wide-eyed wonder. Sadly, Michael is also given the most subtextual behavior, and with a real actor in Michael's shoes, the character would be much more memorable. It is into the tightly-woven fold that Justin, a seventeen year old high schooler, appears.

Justin stakes his claim on Brian, and stalker-like works his way into Brian's bed. As portrayed by the blonde Randy Harrison, however, this kid just won't take "no" for an answer. In a real world, this kid - with his Calvin Kline ads looks - certainly doesn't need to take on Brian, when he could have any man he wants. Leave it to television soap opera conventions for him to pine away for the one man on the scene incapable of giving Justin what he really needs. The relationship between this youth and a man ten years his senior feels like a half-step the writers have taken to add some shock value to the series; what they failed to realize is that all the emotional highs and lows that Justin goes through on his quest to conquer Brian, are immature antics far worthier of a younger man-child. In the original British series, the prototypes for the Justin character was indeed a fifteen year old; it would seem that someone, somewhere felt that American audiences would not embrace this sort of relationship, thus negating almost any audience empathy for the lovestruck teenager. The fate of the Brian and Justin's one-sided relationship, consequently is left hanging as the series reaches its season finale. Once again, relying on conventional soap opera devices (most of the last episode looks a lot like a plot line on "As the World Turns") one character's life is left in the balance.

Given the varying degrees of acting involved in "Queer as Folk," there is one performer who brings emotional range and years of brilliant television acting to the fold. Gravel-voiced Sharon Gless may have added pounds to her frame, she was the thinner one of "Cagney and Lacy," but her talent has only increased. Gless plays Michael's mother, a diner waitress who embraces all things gay, her son and her AIDS-infected brother share her house, becoming the earthy, earth mother to this rag-tag team of gay party boys. In short, Gless is the glue which holds the show together, and if there is a minor problem with her character, it's that she is so up-front and open about her son's homosexuality, so militant in her views for gay rights and so "out there" in the public eye (The Liberty Diner is second only to Babylon as Pittsburgh's hot spot), that it would be difficult in this microcosm for anyone with vision to know that Michael Novotny is G-A-Y. Yet the fact is often brought up that Michael sexuality is unknown in his workplace: a WalMart type store, which would frown upon his homosexuality. Ever since the early episodes when one of Michael's female co-workers acts upon her attraction to Michael, this little bit of Debbie's character has stymied me. No matter, Sharon Gless is always worth watching, and her character is every bit as memorable as her early television work.

"Queer as Folk" is not for everyone. I still find it hard to imagine what the Christian Right thinks of a series which, unlike a top-rated Must See TV show, presents a very honest, very sexual portrayal of an alternative lifestyle. The mind boggles to picture folk in the Bible Belt sitting back with a few brews to tune into Showtime for "Queer as Folk." Those, however, whose minds are open, will ultimately realize that the title, taken from a British saying, quite literally means that "People are People." We all have our foibles which make us human, and if we can see even a portion of ourselves in the characters of "Queer as Folk," then the series has been successful.

 

 

Though being far from reference quality, "Queer as Folk" presents itself quite nicely with an anamorphically enhanced transfer. Like other television series, "Queer as Folk" on DVD is infinitely better looking than during its broadcast television run. Scenes set in the fictional (science-fictional if you happen to be a Pittsburgh resident) club, Babylon alternate nicely between the flashy throbbing disco lighting and the dark recesses of sexual backrooms. It is a minor miracle that these scenes are as splendidly conveyed as they are: black levels are rarely interrupted with noise. Any grain which pops up is clearly intentional on individual directors' wishes. "Queer as Folk" is everything one would expect it to be: bright, shiny, colorful; check out any of the costumes either Emmett or Debbie dons to experience the wide rainbow of accurate hues. Solid blacks and perfectly defined fleshtones make for a generally pristine print, framed at a simple 1.78:1 aspect ratio.

 

As lovely as the picture is, one's expectations for the soundtrack should be high, but, alas, the sound just doesn't deliver. "Queer as Folk" should rock, with its solid song selection; from bands new and old, and a pounding bass is certainly called for. As it is, "Queer as Folk" rarely envelops the viewer. Dialogue is more than adequately presented, but the entire soundtrack seems to be spread across the front soundstage. All in all, it's at most an adequate presentation of television material, nothing comparable to what Fox has drummed up for "The X-Files."

 

Showtime Entertainment has certainly delivered on its promise of a "Collector's Edition," with a six-disc set, encased in a glossy keep-case library box: the discs themselves in a psychedelic-colored, Day-Glo influenced foldover sleeve; each disc color-coded to match its background. Truly cool and totally appropriate. Each single disc's menu screen contains an invaluable "Disc Index" which lists each episode (though they are not titled) with its running time. Each episode's individual screen gives a brief, accurate synopsis of that particular episode, as well as offering the chapter indexes. Included with the episode discs, are the promotional trailers for the following episode, slyly named "next on;" some of these trailers are presented full-frame, while others are in the original aspect ratio.

Three individual episodes (Nos. 1, 11 and 18) are given special edition stand alone running commentaries by cast, producers and writers. The episodes are presented full-frame with video commentary presented on the screen's left side. Though the talking head interviews sometimes seem to be non-specific (Thea Gill and Michelle Clunie are shown talking about the first script reading during the series' 18th episode), more often than not, the comments are illuminating. Hal Sparks actually comes off better in these interview segments than as his character. Plenty of interesting tales to be told, and this is the perfect cast to be sharing their thoughts. The interviews themselves can be easily accessed through the "special edition" episodes' Scene Access menus. These three episodes constitute the advertised "three hours of exclusive bonus footage;" although the sixth disc has its share of features as well.

Hal Sparks introduces the Deleted Scenes from the set of the show's Liberty Diner. While the footage itself is raw, the Sparks segments are presented in vibrant video. Nine scenes and scene extensions are represented, including a more lengthy Brian and Justin pairing and a character driven scene between Dr. Dave and Michael which sadly felt the editor's scissors.

Close to five minutes of very funny Outtakes are not introduced, but feature bawling babies, wrong costumes, the usual missed lines and the truly hysterical (but not printable) line muff from Gale Harrold talking about "back-stabbing breeders from Ohio."

In place of the usual Actor Filmographies, "Queer as Folk" presents Meet the Folk, a delightful mix of text and video. Not only are the actors given fine biographical sketches, but the characters themselves are given VANITY FAIR-styled questionnaires: on Emmett: "Earliest Ambition: To be faaaaabulous!," and who'd have thought that Melanie was once a "biker chick?" It's all done in good taste, with a decidedly queer sensibility. Each character also has a video clip of their actor discussing their personal take on the character. Nifty feature which will hopefully find its way onto more mainstream releases.

Five minutes of techno music forms the back-up beat to the "Queer as Folk" Photo Gallery, giving this feature the feel of a music video. The "exhale slowly" Season One trailer as well as the lengthy trailer for "Queer as Folk's" second season round out an exceptional assortment of goodies. As Emmett would say, "It's faaaabulous!"

 

 

For what it's worth, my problems with "Queer as Folk" are more with its promotional side than with its actual presentation. "Groundbreaking" is an awfully big word to be tossing around, and yet this seems to be the adjective of choice for "Queer as Folk's" creators and its critics. Have these people ever heard of a show that premiered five years ago on a rival cable channel? There's this little thing that Tom Fontana and Barry Levenson whipped up called, "OZ," which has shown infinitely much more male flesh than "Queer as Folk;" "OZ" has also presented a subculture of gay life on cable television without ever resorting to the politically correct stance that "Queer as Folk" cowardly places before each episode: "'Queer as Folk' is a celebration of the lives and passions of a group of gay friends. It is not meant to reflect all of gay society." I thought that disclaimers like that went out with William Friedkin's "Cruising;" a 1980 dark excursion into the underbelly of gay life in Manhattan's Greenwich Village's leather scene. If "Queer as Folk" were half as brave as its creators claim it to be, I'd advise dropping that disclaimer rather quickly. Does rival channel HBO have a disclaimer in front of "Sex and the City" stating that its heroines are not representative of all single women in New York City? Groundbreaking, possibly in that "Queer as Folk" actually uses words like "rimming" and accompanies that with a short visual cue to enforce the meaning. "Queer as Folk" is not groundbreaking in its representative sextet of sexual partners: ABC's "thirtysomething" gave us a group of whiny naval-gazing yuppies for several glorious years in decades past. It is that series which "Queer as Folk" most reminds me of, and one can easily imagine the creative team viewing "thirtysomething" as a template for the series. Think of "Queer as Folk" as the "thirtysomething" for the new millenium.

That said, "Queer as Folk" is an above average cable series worthy of the effort Showtime has put into its Collector's Edition." Even priced at slightly over one hundred dollars, those dollars will be well spent. Though at times, most notably in the later episodes, "Queer as Folk" sways toward soap opera, well-executed soap opera, that still manages to be grounded in the real world by a mostly capable cast: had Sharon Gless not been cast as Debbie, there's little doubt that the series could never have found its anchor. Keep your mind open and the delightful box set that is "Queer as Folk" will undoubtedly provide you with hours upon hours of alternative entertainment.