Review: The New 'Queer As Folk' Finds New Hues in the Rainbow

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday June 9, 2022

'Queer as Folk'
'Queer as Folk'  (Source:Peacock)

Russell T. Davies' 1999 British TV series "Queer as Folk," which originally aired on the UK's Channel 4, blazed new trails for queer representation on television, and pushed plenty of buttons while doing so. The story of a group of LGBTQ+ friends living in Manchester, England, the series made international stars out of Aidan Gillen (who played the unapologetic, sexually confident Stuart) and Charlie Hunnam (who played Nathan, the teenager who Stuart picked up in episode one — to his regret, as Nathan became hung up on him).

American cable channel Showtime brought the series to the States not long after, in a version set in Pittsburgh. Like the ten-episode UK original, the U.S. version focused on a group of LGBTQ+ friends. In this iteration, sexy, confident Brian (Gale Harold) led the pack. The Showtime version, like the original, delved into uncomfortable topics around sexuality and identity (and, unlike Davies' original, addressed the subject of HIV). The fact that the Showtime version ran for five seasons meant there was time to look at more issues: Hate crimes, political malice, police harassment, and domestic terrorism targeting the LGBTQ+ community were all part of the mix.

There's a new "QAF" now, streaming on Peacock, developed and executive produced by Stephen Dunn and featuring Davies as an executive producer. The new series is set in New Orleans, and while it bills itself as based on Davies' original creation, it does not similarly acknowledge the Showtime version — which is odd, since it takes plenty from that show's DNA. (It even pokes some fun at the Showtime version's opening credits scene, with a similar go-go boy-inspired montage playing on a TV in the very first scene.)

Once again the show centers largely on a swaggering, confident gay playboy — make that "fuckboi," since this is a very 2022 production. This time, however, our main character — first among equals, in a sense — is not a highly successful executive; he's a med school dropout, and, despite his considerable smarts, he's kind of a fuckup. His name is Brodie (Devin Way), and he's returning to New Orleans after some time away (about nine months, we'd guess), having more or less abandoned his fiance, Noah (Johnny Sibilly). In Brodie's absence, Noah has found love once more... with Brodie's best friend, Daddius (Chris Renfro), a drug-using party boy who's lovingly referred to on at least one occasion as "a piece of shit."

Everyone else has moved on, too... or not. Brodie's other best friend, Ruthie (Jesse James Keitel), and her partner, Shar (CG), are about to have twins (thanks to a donation from Brodie, that is). Meantime, Brodie's mother, Brenda (Kim Cattrall) and father Winston (Ed Begley, Jr.) are just as unhappily married as ever, while his older brother, Julian (Ryan O'Connell, also a writer and co-executive producer for the show) is in dire need of a life.

To this mix add Mingus (Fin Argus), an out high school student and aspiring drag artist, and their mother, Judy (Juliette Lewis), who is supportive but not very good with boundaries. We also meet Bussey (Armand Fields), a drag queen who rules at local gay club Babylon, and Marvin (Eric Graise), who uses a wheelchair to get around and his razor-sharp tongue to clear a path no matter what the obstacles might be. In this diverse cast of characters you pretty much have everything you need to guarantee the first season's eight-episode run will be full of humor, community, drama, and social commentary.

But Dunn goes an extra, and sure to be controversial, mile: In this updated version of "QAF," there's a mass shooting. This is, after all, not just a 2022 production, it's a 2022 production depicting gay life in an America that's gone so crazy for guns and various stripes of nutball vigilantism that, regrettably, you can — as Dunn has set out to do — build a TV show around the aftermath of a Pulse nightclub-like tragedy.

The new show isn't about violence and bloodshed, but rather the way violence affects our community in ways large and small. A prime example is how this modern "QAF" has the teenager, Mingus, and the sexually confident main character, Brodie, establish a connection not through hooking up, but through Brodie tackling Mingus as the gunman opens fire, thus saving the teen's life. (Brodie takes a bullet while he's at it.)

Whether it's PTSD or something more romantic, it's this act that sears itself into Mingus' heart; in one of the season's most compelling moments there's an interlude, set to a cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," that shows us how things might have been for the show's main characters if the shooting had never happened. Even in this moment of heartbreak and wishful thinking, Mingus and Brodie find their way to each other... and, as they do, in a sudden twist, bullets whizz through the air, puncturing the walls of the club. It's a prelude to Mingus' later admission that his falling in love with Brodie has made "the worst fucking night of my life" also not the worst fucking night of his life. It's a hideous paradox, and one with no easy answers; it's hard, and brave, even to pose the question, and it's one of the ways in which this new show proves its emotional power.

Not that commitment-phobic Brodie is equipped to process Mingus' feelings, or even his own; in the shooting's aftermath, Brodie suffers from a PTSD-related blackout, unable to recall what happened. Even as snippets start coming back (and triggering panic attacks), Brodie remains incapable of authentic connection with most other people. It's a problem that starts to wear at his closest relationships, with some predictable — though also bombshell surprise — results.

Another commitment-phobe is Ruthie, who slipped off to party with Brodie at the club on the night of the shooting, and lied to Shar about it. The lie comes out when Ruthie ends up at the hospital after the gunman's rampage — not because she was wounded, but because Shar has gone into labor. Ruthie's deceit is a huge red flag of what's to come, as Shar throws themself into the task of parenting body and soul, while Ruthie finds more occasions to go partying and tell more fibs.

Dunn asks questions about the assaults our community endures — not just with guns, but the social assaults that drive online trolling, real-world harassment, and, in a larger sense, the wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation we see consuming half the state governments in America. (If there's a Season Two, Dunn could do worse than to tackle this problem with as much determination and creativity as he and his writers tackle the mass shooting.)

But Dunn also turns his gaze inward, letting his characters be selfish, self-centered, irresponsible, and resentful. In one of the series' best visual allegories, Brodie takes refuge, for a time, in his ex's "infinity room," a retreat in which all the walls are mirrored. It seems the perfect starting point for a narcissist's emotional journey.

All of that makes for reliable sources for dramatic tension, even if some of the storylines feel a little tired. Still, when Dunn and the other writers lean into the material, they come up with jolting discoveries. One of the best episodes of the season, co-written by O'Connell, delves into how gay culture can be discriminating not only along racial lines or according to looks and age, but also along ableist lines. (This is something O'Connell also explored, to comic effect, in his Netflix series "Special.") Another of the season's best installments, "Bleep," gives us insight into a transgender character's journey of transformation. (The reason for the title is inventive, pointed, and — at a crucial moment — deeply shocking.)

The show's mix of shopworn and surprising extends to the characters. This is a large and diverse group, but some of them feel more than a little like archetypes, or tropes ("archetropes?"). Whether they're sassy drag queens, intrusive mothers, self-important tragedy mongers using an attack on a marginalized community for self-aggrandizement, or hot sex workers with hearts of gold, we've seen these characters before. And yet: Still another of the season's best episodes offers five vignettes that focus, with keen attention and sharp writing, on various characters discovering troves of juicy, compelling stuff. (In particular, a mushroom trip helps illustrate, both to us and to himself, why Brodie seems so shallow and self-centered.)

Dunn has gone back to the source for some of the show's most reliable components; he's also taken the trouble to find new hues in our rainbow stories to pull into his project. The results are mixed (a couple of the episodes verge on dull), but this new "Queer As Folk" will speak to the folk of today in ways that the earlier versions (groundbreaking as they were; sweetly and nostalgically beloved as they still are) probably no longer could. The two precedents made us laugh, and made us feel seen, but also had a way of making us uncomfortable. Dunn's "QAF" proudly follows suit.

"Queer As Folk" premieres June 9 on Peacock.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.