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They're here, they're queer, and they make Sex and the City look like a demure tea party. Showtime's quintessentially American Queer As Folk--based on the British miniseries--pours on copious amounts of hot and steamy sex. This slick (and slickly entertaining) series shares the same basic concept as its British counterpart--centering on a group of gay friends living in a primarily industrial city--but after that, all bets are off. Whereas the British version focused on the gritty, realistic drama of its characters, the American QAF is a glossy, fun soap opera that occasionally tackles big issues but never lets you forget that life at times can be a party, and you shouldn't be one of those poor suckers starving to death. A good part of the show's charm lies in its cast--boy-next-door Michael (Hal Sparks), ruthlessly seductive rake Brian (Gale Harold), out-and-proud Emmett (Peter Paige), wallflower Ted (Scott Lowell), and nubile teen Justin (Randy Harrison)--who grew from standard gay prototypes to intriguing characters by the first season's end. And while some subplots didn't work (such as Emmett's farfetched foray into gay-conversion therapy), others were quietly affecting, including Brian's coping with his father's death. Some may object to the show's relentless fixation on sex (and gay men--there are just two lesbian characters), but this is a series that in its own polished way is both engrossingly fun and truly groundbreaking. It's liberating to watch an American TV series in which the straight world is only peripheral. Let's hear it for the boys! --Mark Englehart
They're still out and proud, and in their second season the boys (and girls) of Queer as Folk continued to break ground as the most gay-friendly show on television (sorry, Will and Grace). Some plot lines were a little over the top, others truly heartfelt, but they were never less than entertaining, even during their All My Children moments. Season two opened in the aftermath of the gay-bashing of Justin (Randy Harrison), the young artist who wondered if he'd ever be able to paint or draw again, and went on to face a variety of issues and plotlines as diverse as its characters. Some were timely (Michael negotiating a relationship with new HIV-positive boyfriend Ben), some romantic (lesbians Lindsay and Melanie tying the knot), some new to the show (Emmett embarks on a relationship with a--gasp!--older gentleman), and some, well, far-fetched (how many of you had to wrestle, like Ted did, with starting your own pornographic web site?).
While the writing tended to flail about a bit, thankfully coalescing by the season's end, the show continued to be anchored by stellar actors, especially Peter Paige's Emmett, who grew the most during the second season; Michelle Clunie's Melanie, the alternately wry and sweet lesbian who became the show's secret weapon; and, as always, Gale Harold's Brian, the lothario with a heart of tarnished gold. Frustrating, fascinating, exasperating one moment and charming the next, Brian perfectly summed up the guilty pleasures of Queer as Folk, where humanity peeks out every now and then from behind the curtain of fabulous comedy and drama. --Mark Englehart
Season ThreeDrama ruled in a big way on the third season of Queer as Folk, as the gay men and women of Pittsburgh rode a roller coaster of emotional and personal upheavals that would make a regular soap-opera cast blanch. Budding comic book artist Justin (Randy Harrison) finally left longtime lover Brian for a chance at ecstasy--and not a bit of agony-–with a charming violin player. Emmett (Peter Paige) finally came face-to-face with his affection for friend Ted (Scott Lowell), only to have Ted's growing drug habit get in the way of their happiness. Lesbians Melanie (Michelle Clunie) and Lindsay (Thea Gill) decided to have another baby, whose father would be... Michael (Hal Sparks), whose nesting with hunky Ben (Robert Gant) is rudely interrupted by runaway Hunter (Harris Allan). And as for Brian (Gale Harold), the man everybody wants but can't ever have? Just when it seems he's gone to work for the enemy--a homophobic mayoral candidate-–it turns out he might be the savior the Pittsburgh gay community never knew it needed.
Snaps to the makers of QAF for trying to bring their characters into the grown-up world – Michael, Emmett, and Ted started their own businesses; Justin finally cut loose from Brian-–but too many melodramatic plot twists and turns impeded a lot of the character development this show worked hard at during its first two seasons. Still, most of the cast was topnotch, including Harrison, whose Justin finally came into his own, and the always dependable Harold, who made Brian a fascinating creature through all his steamy travails and over-the-top encounters. --Mark Englehart
Season FourThe fourth season of Queer as Folk finds Brian, now broke and unemployed, attempting to rebuild his life. Michael returns to Pittsburgh to fight for custody of Hunter with Ben. Justin joins a vigilante group where he discovers his buried anger. Also, as Ted progresses into his sobriety, Emmett deals with the fallout from their breakup. And Melanie and Lindsay await the birth of their second child.
Gay has rarely been so glamorous as in the American version of Queer as Folk. But the show's success rests on more than hard bodies and glossy, picture-perfect sex (though there's an abundance of that); this series gave its characters a multidimensional richness that rivals more high-profile programs like Six Feet Under or The Sopranos, while tackling an impressive breadth of social and political issues without ever (well, almost never) feeling preachy. The fifth and final season lays out its themes with authority: Alpha-gay Brian (Gale Howard) buys and revamps the sex club Babylon, declaring promiscuity and independence as a gay birthright, while Brian's oldest friend Michael (Hal Sparks, Talk Soup) embraces domesticity with his partner Ben (Robert Gant); the flamboyant Emmett (Peter Paige) finds success as a tv personality, only to find his persona may trap him in a stereotype; and Ted (Scott Lowell) grapples with body prejudices within the gay community. Meanwhile, the crumbling relationship of Mel (Michelle Clunie) and Lindsay (Thea Gill) takes a more troubling turn when Michael demands more rights as the father of their daughter.
Most tv series would take a topic like this last legal wrangle and stretch it over an entire season, but Queer as Folk is more ambitious; the writers recognize that the resolution of one problem is rarely the end of the story, that muddy consequences can be as dramatically compelling as head-to-head conflict. This aggressive and effective plotting, combined with the show's willingness to explore the complexities of every issue--be it assimilation or the coming out of a celebrity--results in an increasing emotional power as the series steamrolls towards its final episode. Some subplots can be silly (Brian has a ridiculous stud-off with a new hot guy in town), the dialogue can sometimes veer from wit to camp cliches, and the omnipresence of sculpted, muscular physiques is absurd and even a little alienating for some viewers, but Queer as Folk's strengths--the compassion and intelligence of the writers, the commitment and nuance of the acting--make this show a true television landmark and a pleasure to watch. And then, of course, there's all that graphic and lovingly photographed sex. Rosie O'Donnell and Cyndi Lauper make guest appearances, and Sharon Gless (Cagney & Lacey) continues her much-loved performance as Michael's mother, Debbie. --Bret Fetzer