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Sex and the Steel City

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

So this is Pittsburgh.

Forget Palm Beach County, Fla. Showtime’s new “Queer as Folk” is where guys dangle their chads. It’s here, in this landmark weekly drama based on a smarter, wittier British series, where Ted loves Mikey, Justin and Mikey love Brian, and Brian loves his penis.

No Boy Scout leaders in this bathhouse of a crowd, just relentless cruising and graphically simulated sex, at the expense of character depth, in an assembly line of orgasms ultimately as tedious as it would be if the humpers and thumpers were straight instead of gay.

But they’re not. “Queer as Folk” is Will & Bill.

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A radical concept for U.S. mainstream TV, it dwells (in contrast to NBC’s much tamer comedy, “Will & Grace”) almost entirely on gay men in their late 20s and early 30s, with a lesbian couple surfacing occasionally because Brian has done them a favor by fathering their child in this Steel City series, which is filmed in Toronto.

Although the occasional narrator is dependable Mikey (Hal Sparks), an assistant store manager, the story’s orb of energy is the man he secretly adores in a sexual way. That would be his friend from childhood, Brian (Gale Harold), a butt-pinching, penis-groping young ad exec ever on the make and angry, his fleeting glimmers of humanity eclipsed by narcissism and animalistic lust. Although Brian can spot a closet type at 60 paces, his radar somehow can’t detect the affections of his acknowledged gay pal, Mikey.

Otherwise, the hedonistic Brian is apt to strike about anywhere, from the office where he gives the eye to a stranger with a briefcase and soon is having his way with him inside a men’s room stall, to the hospital room of a comatose friend where he goes at it hot and heavy with a male nurse.

Also in this gay inner circle are flaming Emmett (Peter Paige) and porn-popping Ted (Scott Lowell), who downloads sex while hiding his passion for Mikey, along with pinup photos of his friend. Hardly as timid is newcomer Justin (Randy Harrison), a callow 17-year-old with a crush on Brian so intense that he all but stalks him through the teeming homosexual haunts that these guys frequent night after night.

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“I just saw the face of God,” Justin tells a friend not long after Brian poses before him nude like Michelangelo’s “David” before bedding him down for an evening of vividly adventurous sex in the premiere.

Meanwhile, Justin’s mom is learning that he’s gay, and Mikey’s mother (Sharon Gless), an earthy waitress, is cool with her son’s sexual orientation but is otherwise as deep as spit.

“Queer as Folk” captures little of the wicked humor used by the original to give its characters dimension, nor does it create much sympathy for its ensemble beyond the lesbian couple (Thea Gill and Michelle Clunie) whose parenting ambitions are at times ravaged by Brian’s emotional instability.

The British “Queer as Folk” wisely stepped back from its sexual stereotypes to observe its characters as individuals with universal traits reflecting a broader sensitivity. That is mostly absent from the cocooned first four hours of this version from Ron Cowan and Daniel Lipman, who co-wrote “An Early Frost,” NBC’s pioneering 1985 movie about AIDS, before creating the successful series “Sisters.”

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The performances are uneven. That interesting actor Harold, though, is faultless in hinting that deep within the dangerously seething, volatile Brian is a tenderness that unites him with the rest of the human race. If he lives long enough for it to surface.

In focusing on a tattooed, leather-strutting, aggressively sexual segment of the gay community, this series creates its own danger, that of demonizing all gays as predators who are incapable of controlling their desires. You feel that not only with Brian, but also when high schooler Justin later is isolated in the athletic equipment room with a seemingly straight classmate who is a star jock and ends up masturbating him.

Or maybe it’s just Pittsburgh.

*

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* “Queer as Folk” premieres Sunday night at 10 on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17).


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