Spoilers ahead for Season 1 of “Queer as Folk”
This weekend, I started watching the new “Queer as Folk” reboot. As a guilty fan of the original show, I was excited to see my favorite characters and dated early ’00s situations get revised in a modern context: but more importantly, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew there was going to be an arc involving the Pulse shooting (or something heavily based on it) and that the cast was going to be diverse enough to include intersections of POC, trans, nonbinary, and disabled identities, as opposed to the lily-white Showtime version.
The series kept its promises, for the most part. The new show is full of diverse characters and conversations, and it strives to present a more realistic sense of what it means to be queer in the context of today, a time when we don’t have to fight tooth and nail against anti-Prop 8 measures or homophobic assumptions about what it means to be living with HIV.
That said, we have other things to fight against. One show can hardly encompass the needs, desires, fears, and realities of an entire community. That is not, and has never been “Queer as Folk’s” job. But there was one element of the show that was conspicuously missing from the vibrant, glittery undertaking of the reboot. And unfortunately for me, it’s the most important aspect.
One show can hardly encompass the needs, desires, fears, and realities of an entire community. That is not, and has never been “Queer as Folk’s” job.
In the show’s pilot, we’re introduced to Brodie (Devin Way), a young gay man on the verge of dropping out of med school to return to his hometown of New Orleans, where all his old friends (and queer community) are still living. Without a place to stay, he drops into his ex Noah’s (Johnny Sibily) apartment, hoping the two can rekindle their flame: despite Brodie having left town right after the death of Noah’s mother some years earlier. He also catches up with Ruthie, his childhood best friend and one-time lover, who is now expecting twins with her partner Shar. He ends the night at the legendary gay club Babylon, where he meets and is hit on by Marvin (Eric Graise) and sees teen Mingus’s drag performance before the night gets interrupted by an Omar Mateen-esque spree shooter.
It’s a lot, and the following episodes do their best to try and do justice to everyone’s specific trauma journey regarding the shooting. Ruthie finds she can’t cum anymore, while Noah and Brodie grieve their mutual friend Daddius, who was one of the 9 casualties at Babylon—and who Noah was secretly fucking. The group of friends makes fun of mainstream gays and attempts at applying flashy rainbow capitalist salves to the gruesome wounds of being publicly and homophobically targeted. Eventually, Brodie and his also-gay brother Julian (Ryan O’Connell) move into Noah’s huge apartment and decide to start their own party to reclaim some of the joy lost that night at Babylon. The party is called Ghost Fag, and it’s basically a version of every party you’ve ever seen in any gay show in history. Brodie walks through the bisexually-lit space, saying a brief “hi” to everyone there, who he’s on a first-name basis with. He makes speeches about gay resistance. He fucks his ex. The party even hosts a “crip club” night specifically for disabled queers to get it on. Everything is inclusive and lovely and as it should be, but something’s missing.
Loneliness. That’s what’s missing.
The original reboot was far from perfect: everyone was thin, white, middle-class, able-bodied, and thoroughly obnoxious. But there was one character in the first “Queer as Folk” who served a different purpose. He wasn’t there to hook up with lots of hot guys, and he wasn’t there to underscore how great it is to be a proud out-gay person. He was closeted at work–where he eventually gets fired for being gay, and he was closeted to his mother, who visits him in the hospital when he almost dies of a GHB overdose, and he was constantly mocked by his friends for taking everything too seriously, for being too self-hating, for being a drag.
If you’ve seen the original series, you’ll know who I’m talking about. It’s Ted Schmidt, the pushing-40, unloveable, desperately underconfident accountant who is always griping about how this community will never actually love or accept him for the way he looks. Ted was the wet blanket of the show, but he served an extremely important function: he voiced the complaints of all of the people who find themselves extremely lonely, unwanted, and consistently rejected from this community.
You know, people like me.
Now I’m not saying that the new show isn’t doing a good job or hasn’t accomplished what it set out to do. It succeeds as an update, a reclamation of the old material, and a chance to show what we can do when we actually take the notes the culture is giving us about presenting an expansive vision of queer community. But what it doesn’t do—at least, not in the 6 episodes I’ve seen—is present us with a Daria-like character who exists to critique the things that still suck about queer culture. As in: the cliquishness, the obsession with looking traditionally hot, thin, and able-boded, the fixation on sex as a way of communicating and forming community. The sense of feeling left out as you age out of your 20s and into the undesirable period of your 30s or (god forbid!) 40s.
The fact that this community does leave people behind (for a variety of reasons) is something that shouldn’t be glossed over. Yes, we can dream of a better world–we can dream of an equal world, where rainbow capitalism doesn’t exist and neither does the presumed hierarchy of fuckable bodies at any gay club or party. But the world we live in is cruel and lonely, and being in the queer community seems to underscore that. At least, it feels that way for me.
It’s not just because I’m asexual, or because I’m anti-social, or because I’ve never felt included, desired, or cared about in or by this community. It’s because it feels disingenuous to pretend that we’re all besties deep down. “You think we’re supposed to be friends just because we’re both disabled?” Marvin says to Noah after he implies that he and Julian (the other disabled lead) “should” have things in common. The same could be said for any of these people: Ruthie and Shar are having babies when all their other friends are still out clubbing. Brodie was in med school before dropping out to host parties. Noah is a lawyer, and everybody else seems to be blissfully unburdened by having a job. So what do they actually have in common besides being queer? And is that really enough?
In the original “Queer as Folk,” Ted constantly laments the fact that he’s not beautiful. That he’s not seen as desirable by a group of people who are only interested in fucking and not in connecting. He’s belittled and bullied by Brian, his ostensible friend, and told to just “get over it” by his more conventionally-attractive pals. When he gets addicted to crystal in Season 3, it’s a problem that never goes away. Ted’s meth arc is a realistic depiction of what it’s like to be in recovery: the ups and downs and lapses and failed relationships and the tormented, painful struggle just to get back into the good graces of your friends and ex-lovers, who have seen you at your worst and who you know will always, somewhere in the back of their minds, judge you for it.
The fact that this community does leave people behind (for a variety of reasons) is something that shouldn’t be glossed over.
Noah’s meth problem in the new series is, by contrast, remarkably aesthetic and fun-looking. And while there’s less shame in the culture today about dealing with addiction, there’s still a note of “I almost fucked up my life but now I’m over it” that rings false. And if you’re about to point to Ryan O’Connell’s character as the true “Ted” stand-in of the series, sure. But let’s not forget that Julian is hit on by the ultra-hot Noah pretty quickly. He’s not left dangling and unwanted the way Ted was. He’s given a magical hot boyfriend who serves to boost his self-confidence and jumpstart his gay awakening in earnest. This is the same role Brodie plays for his younger hook-up Mingus, who, like Justin before him, magically wanders into the gay neighborhood on his first out and finds the hookup that will become his forever mate.
I don’t know: it’s just not realistic. And sure, a show like “Queer as Folk” doesn’t have to be. It’s another kind of fantasy, and maybe fantasy is what a beleaguered, exhausted queer community truly needs this Pride month. But there’s a darker side to all of it, and I just wish that newer queer shows could be a bit more honest about that.
Loneliness within this community often feels like rejection: like you’re not allowed to be queer if you’re not beautiful, or not sculpted, or not fucking and partying all the time. A lot of people feel it every day, myself included. And I think that part of the experience deserves to be seen onscreen as well. I’m waiting for the day when somebody has the balls to make a show about a real, lonely, unattractive, sad queer person. Not in the cop-out way of “Work in Progress,” where said person gets a magical hot boyfriend by episode 2, and not in the bullsh*t way of Julian’s arc on the new “Queer as Folk,” where his low self-confidence can be magically fucked away.
When are we going to see gay loneliness as it actually is–in a show that understands how it actually feels? ♦