This landmark series, which originally aired on U.K.’s Channel 4 between 1999 and 2000, follows a group of gay men living in Manchester, England. The series’ primary focus is on the characters Stuart, Vince, and Nathan. Stuart (Aidan Gillen, The Wire), a wealthy, self-centered businessman, goes to bed with a different man every night and is headed for a meltdown. His best friend Vince (Craig Kelly, Titanic), an avid Doctor Who fan and grocery store employee, on the other hand, hasn’t had a shag in six months and contents himself with following Stuart around like a lovesick schoolboy. Adding to the drama, these two long-time friends are rapidly approaching the age of 30, spelling the end of their clubbing lifestyle. Meanwhile, Nathan (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy), a 15-year-old high school student, is making his first appearance on the Manchester scene, embracing his sexuality while attempting to cope with the resultant bullying back at school.
The series was created by Russel T. Davies, who wrote all 10 episodes of the U.K. original and went on to reboot Doctor Who for the BBC in 2005, as well as create Torchwood. And as anyone who’s ever met me knows, I am an enormous fan of Doctor Who. And while I approached Queer as Folk primarily due to the involvement of Russell T. Davies, I was pleasantly surprised to find Doctor Who playing a large part not only in the characterization of Vince, but as a tool employed by Davies in developing the relationship between Stuart and Vince. At one point even, Vince is unable to get a man he met at a club into bed once the man discovers Vince’s extensive Doctor Who video collection. Seeing how integral a role Doctor Who plays in this series, it’s no surprise that Davies would go on to reboot the long-since cancelled science fiction program in 2005.
Stepping away from Doctor Who, let us address here some of the controversy that surrounded Queer as Folk. As with any series that deals in subjects not yet wholly accepted by society at large, there was a fair bit of controversy about the original airing of Queer as Folk. Yet the majority of the issues raised about the series, it seems, were spurred by the events depicted in the first episode alone. Still, it’s worth addressing here by way of transparency.
For starters, the series does depict some underage sex, which is admittedly fairly explicit, though I found it to be very tastefully handled. What’s more, the sex is between the 15 year old Nathan and the 29 year old Stuart. To my mind, this was a virtual non-issue. I was surprised by the incidents, sure, but pleasantly so when I considered the series’ honesty and audacity in presenting the material. After all, many, many people lose their virginity to persons older than themselves, and often when they are underage. At no point does it appear that Davies is condoning such behavior. It’s merely an honest depiction of events that transpire in real life, although the series’ detractors would deny it. Similarly, there were complaints about the characters’ drug use. Similarly, I would respond to that by pointing out that some people use drugs, and some of those people are gay. It’s a fact of life. These characters, by virtue of the personalities prescribed them, just so happen to be among the cross-section of people who use drugs and, again, Russell is approaching the characters honestly in not shying away from it.
There was also some question as to whether the series depicts safe sex. As the series’ producer points out in an interview included on the disc, although the application of condoms is not explicitly depicted (for how could it be on television?), there is no shortage of condoms on the screen. Characters have them and we assume that they use them– or at least I did.
Finally, Davies was accused of depicting only harmful stereotypes of gay characters. But the thing here is, while these characters may indeed represent a number of gay stereotypes, they play into these stereotypes as people rather than as characters. By this I mean that each of them has their own personal reasons for behaving according to a specific stereotype. Let’s take, for example, Stuart. Although Stuart often finds himself completely disgusted with his stereotypical promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse, the lack of faith in him that his behavior has bred amongst his friends and family ultimately proves too discouraging to him to warrant a reformation. Then there’s Vince. Vince portrays himself as the aging, lonely queen who hasn’t had a shag in six months, but is fine with that because he’s been waiting for such a time as the man he loves is ready to settle down. And while he is indeed waiting for Stuart, the bit about his being unable to find a proper shag comes across as something of a front he puts on for Stuart’s sake. Stuart and Vince both have their own personal reasons for playing into stereotypes, just as the other characters have theirs. On one hand, it makes for better drama. On the other, it’s incredibly realistic in that countless people, gay or otherwise– whether consciously or not– play into harmful, social stereotypes every day of their lives.
This last piece of criticism ultimately stems from a dilemma that has plagued queer criticism for decades. The dilemma: is it better to be presented negatively in the media (negative portrayals often referring, as they do here, to multi-faceted human representations) or not be presented at all? In my estimation, mixed representation in the media is often far more important than wholly positive representations (for reasons too lengthy and nuanced to go into here). Plus, a gay person is still a person– flawed as anyone else. As such, painting all gays in a wholly positive light is every bit as irresponsible as saying they all fit into degrading stereotypes– which Davies doesn’t do, I might add. So why should Davies’ characters be depicted as thoroughly wholesome? They are complicated individuals, flawed and full of subtleties that transcend any stereotypes they might play into. In short, they’re human. And depicting gay characters as human to audiences that might just as easily assume a homosexual is some sort of monstrosity is, as I see it, in fact the most responsible and beneficial thing Davies could have done! Furthermore, that the series would achieve immense success and inspire a long-running American remake (as seen on Showtime) makes his achievement all the more commendable.
Now on to the release itself: Queer as Folk Series One, which originally aired as eight, 35-minute episodes, is curiously collected here in four, hour-long installments. While this does make the first series’ episodes more in keeping with the length of the second series’, which originally aired (and is collected here) as two, 50-minute episodes, the repackaging of the first series certainly doesn’t do the flow of the piece any favors. And honestly, that is my only complaint. The set contains a wealth of previously unavailable special features. Included are deleted and extended scenes with commentary (44 min.); U.K. television interviews (15 min.); behind-the-scenes interviews (7 min); trailers; photo galleries; and a terrific retrospective featurette called “What the Folk…?” (46 min.), which contains behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and more. And as if this weren’t enough, the set also comes packaged with a 20-page booklet containing Davies’ reflections on the series, which makes for a terrific read.
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