It's always sad when a trendsetter retires. "Queer as Folk," the five-season-long Showtime series, will come to an end on Aug. 7. Since December 2000, the soapy drama -- a remake of a British show that ran for 10 episodes -- has illustrated the ups and downs in the lives of a group of gay men in Pittsburgh, along with their families and friends. A lot has happened to Brian, Michael, Justin, Emmett and Ted over the show's 83 episodes, now forever preserved for cultural historians on DVD. In fact, as with any good soap opera, way too much has happened: The characters are like five gay Zeligs who have reflected nearly every political, sexual and social trend over the last five years.
To list just a few plot developments played out by the main "Queer as Folk" trio: Brian (Gale Harold), the obnoxious but charming sex god, single-handedly brought down the mayoral campaign of an evil homophobe and, last season, fought testicular cancer. Michael (Hal Sparks), Brian's comic-book-loving sidekick, took in a foster son, fathered a child with lesbian friends, married his HIV-positive boyfriend in Canada and, recently, survived a bombing of a club (by an evil homophobe). Justin (Randy Harrison), with whom Brian began a scorching, forbidden affair when Justin was a high school senior, has become a heralded artist despite the brain damage he suffered after being gay-bashed in the first season's finale, an injury that caused his drawing hand to cramp. Pittsburgh, we hardly knew you.
Yet the most poignant narrative that unfolded over the course of "Queer as Folk's" life span may be the story of the show's evolution itself -- its attempts to navigate a popular culture in which the place of gay men has swerved and veered precipitously over just half a decade. If the show could never seem to silence either its straight or its gay critics, that may be partly because "Queer as Folk" struggled under the impossible weight of trying to represent the range of gay experience, from parenting to crystal meth addiction. But it's also because the show took on the peculiar burden of using gay sexuality as its flashpoint, a stance that started out as a defiant, even joyful aesthetic choice and ended up making "Queer as Folk" arguably the most politically engaged drama on television.
"The thing you need to know is, it's all about sex." That's the first line of the first episode of "Queer as Folk," as delivered in voice-over by Michael. Sex was the narrative's starting point for a reason -- Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen, the show's executive producers, who are also partners in life, saw the opportunity to remake the brazen British series as a watershed for gay people. In a recent telephone interview with the show runners, Lipman recalled that they made one demand of Showtime before taking the job: "We had to either match or go beyond what the British did in terms of the sexuality of the characters," he said.
Showtime agreed, and Cowen and Lipman took full advantage of that carnal carte blanche from the beginning: In Episode 1, Brian's deflowering of Justin is explicitly rendered. "We felt that was a very political statement," Cowen said, "because as a gay person, I grew up seeing straight people in movies, in R-rated movies, making out, having sex, but I never saw gay people doing it. I said to Dan, 'Well, it's our turn.' "
Boy, oh, boy was it their turn. But the show's vigorous sexuality, along with its portrayal of recreational drug use, elicited a negative reaction from parts of its target audience that has persisted, to the surprise of Cowen and Lipman. "The response we've gotten and continue to get from certain elements of the gay community is just startling to me," said Lipman.
It's clearly a sore topic with both men. "We're either gay-bashed by gay people or we're totally ignored by the gay press," said Cowen. "This is so boring, I'm sorry, I'm just blabbing here." Urged to go on, Cowen continued: "Younger gay people seem to love the show; they don't have a problem with it. It's middle-aged gay men who seem to have a big issue with this show. They don't want other people knowing what they've done."
And then Cowen said: "But if they didn't do it, the middle-aged gay men, then how come so many of them died of AIDS in the '80s? How did that happen?"
Lipman agreed. "Of course they did it," he said.
There's no question that the representation of gay men and lesbians has changed vastly in the five years since "Queer as Folk" began. For women, anyone with eyes knows that it's Sapphic city out there, on broadcast and cable television. Among men, if the pioneering "Queer as Folk" hasn't been the show that's feted, then what has? "People are used to the 'Queer Eye' guys," said Lipman.