Tuesday, 16 March 2010
QAFUK versus QAFUS
I’ve been oddly compelled to watch the entire first season of the American Queer as Folk. I say oddly compelled because the show demonstrates just how badly the original Queer as Folk could have gone.
The US version starts off as an almost perfect carbon copy of the UK version. The same characters, relationships, even the same plotlines. But that's really where the similarities end. Russell T Davies’ show is a great drama which uses the trappings of soap opera to examine some very real relationships and emotions. It has a specific narrative and dramatic focus and an in-depth appreciation and knowledge of all its characters which gives the series its power.
The US Queer as Folk, meanwhile is all soap opera. A gay soap opera that feels like it was written by straight people. In just a few episodes it managed to take everything that was subtle and complex about the original characters and flatten them into silly stereotypes. During the commentary for the second season of Queer as Folk UK (hereafter referred to as QAFUK), Russel; T Davies talks about being commissioned to write 10 extra episodes of QAFUK . He sat down to write them and realised that he couldn’t come up with anything that didn't feel like a soap opera. The story he wanted to tell was about the triangle between Stuart, Vince and Nathan. In two episodes he wrapped it up. Queer as Folk US (hereafter QAFUS) gives a terrifying glimpse into what the show could have become.
Lets take the character of Justin, which is the US version of Nathan. First of all, his age has been increased from 15 to 17. This has several knock on effects. For one, it allows the writers to edge into making him more mature, thus making his relationship with Stuart/Brian much more palatable. It also allows the writers to turn them into a semi-believable couple (after all, there is only about 10 years between them in this new version) and the purposeful maturing of Justin actually turns him into the stronger one of the two. Not only is Justin pretty, but he is SUPER intelligent, and SUPER political and just plain SUPER! He saves Brian from sexual harassment. He sets of a Gay-Straight Alliance in School. He gets into an Ivy League school. Contrast that with Nathan in QAFUK. 15, a walking hormone, not too bright, but not too stupid, just figuring out how to use his body to manipulate and completely in lust with Stuart. The character is so much richer and more interesting, his blunt inarticulateness a major part of his charm. This is even reflected in the differing styles of actors – Randy Harrison is poised, polished and far too knowing. Charlie Hunnam is rougher, less skilled but his teenage directness is perfect for the character and he actually handles some of the subtler stuff with a m,uch more natural grace.
Or lets look at the character of Debbie/Hazel, the fag-hag mother of Michael/Vince. In QAFUK, Hazel is a vibrant, three-dimensional character, brilliantly played by Denise Black. She is broad, stereotypical, and hovers dangerously close to parody at times. But she is also the bright, beating soul of the show. She’s too far down to earth to offer platitudes, and her performance during the after-party scene with Aiden Gillen is a beauty. Contrast that with Debbie, as played by Cagney and Lacey legend Sharon Gless. Not only is she rotten in the role, over-playing it in every way that Black knew to underplay, but the character has been re-concieved as the Font of Wisdom and its a role that routinely kills both the drama and comedy.
QUAFUS obviously wants to be a gay Sex and the City. It has a very similar glossy aesthetic, which feels plastic and fake after the much grittier gloss of the original. But we already had a gay Sex and the City – it was called Sex and the City and despite the four females in the lead, it was about as brilliant a gay sitcom (with far more developed dramatic beats) as you could have asked for. QUAFUK worked because it told a pretty universal emotional story through the prism of its gay characters. QUAFUS is much more interested in the trappings of modern gay life and less interested in how these trappings are seen by gay people. Thats why I thought it felt like a gay drama written by straight people. Its obsessed with what makes gay people different but examines them in the least subtle way.
The perfect example of this is how the issue of HIV and sexual health is handled. In QUAFUK it's in the background, just a general part of the character’s lives without it having to be made a big deal. QUAFUS has to make a big deal of it from the first episode, and repeatedly afterwards. It has a pretty shitty view of HIV issues, which is dealt with in an episode which borders on the offensive.
So does anything work? Well, the men are much hotter, in that very plastic American way. It doesn’t shy away from being explicit which I am glad to see (you definitely see more and more varied flesh in this show). The attempt to develop Lyndsey and Melanie as a couple are welcome (if as ham fisted as everything in the show). Despite the show having a much more arch and sitcommy dialogue, it can be very funny. And Peter Paige is a delight throughout as the ‘camper’ of the friends.
But despite this, the show just isn’t very good. Brian and Michael are pale, flat imitations of Stuart and Vince. The writers lack all of the individuality, warmth and skill that Davies brought to QAFUK. And yet here I am, 17 episodes in and still watching.
Update OK, I forgive QAFUS a little because it just had a scene with Emmet that was a beautiful piss-take on the first meeting in the school dance between Tony and Maria in West Side Story. Hilarious. In fact, the more surreal moments with Emmet work really well (such as the episode where he was stalked by his online profile) and the show might be stronger if it followed those instincts more oftenm