BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will and Grace and If These Walls Could Talk II both won Emmys. CBS has 2 gay themed shows in the pipeline and so many sitcoms have gay characters it's no longer newsworthy. Gay TV is staking its claim, declared entertainment weekly. On the other hand the viewing public didn't buy John Goodman as a gay middle American in Normal, Ohio and Ellen DeGeneres's career hasn't exactly rebounded since her sitcom died. Now comes Showtime's Queer as Folk. It's not a comedy or even a dramedy. What it is, is frankly, seriously sexual; so much so that one critic said it reminded him of nothing so much as a National Geographic Special or one of those Mutual of Omaha shows. On the Media's Rex Doane reports.
MAN: Thirty years ago David Frost called television a medium in which viewers could be entertained in their living room by people they wouldn't have in their home. But even a visionary like Frost could not have anticipated a program like Queer as Folk.
MAN: Are you a top or a bottom. [MUSIC]
MAN: Boundary-pushing, provocative, bold -- those weren't the words of Queer as Folk's critics. They were taken from Showtime's own promotional campaign.
ANNOUNCER: The series Queer as Folk. The question: is America ready? WO
MAN: I don't know if America's ever ready. For anything. Until somebody does it.
ANNOUNCER: Creating programming with controversial subject matter. And Showtime has been committed to pushing the boundaries with gay-oriented programs since the '80s with the show Brothers to Armistead Maupin's....
MAN: Showtime wanted Queer as Folk to be its Sopranos. The reality is far from that. But it is Showtime's highest-rated original program ever, and it has been picked up for a second season. What it hasn't achieved is a universal critical praise of the British mini-series that it was based on. It has also lost some of its depth and complexity. What's been left from the Transatlantic transfer is the super-charged homo-eroticism that is the primary and most distinguishing aspect of the show.
MAN: I think what's most important about a show like Queer as Folk is that here we're not looking for the Queer Who Came to Dinner, because that's already - that's already sort of an acceptable part of liberal society.
MAN: Richard Goldstein is an executive editor of the Village Voice and has written about gays in the media for the past 20 years.
MAN: We're looking at that element of gay life that is outside the liberal pale -- that is - still exists in a rich and unspoken form in, in, in the gay world, and it's, it's the integration of that material into ordinary discourse that probably represents the truest measure of, of liberation.
MAN: The element of gay life that Goldstein speaks of is sex, and there's plenty of it in Queer as Folk. So much so that some in the gay community are concerned. Steven Capsuto is the author of alternate channels - a history of gay images in television and radio.
MAN: Whether a show like Queer as Folk is, is good news for the gay community is something that can be debated. Certainly on, on the one hand it reinforces every negative stereotype -- you have these characters who are these - you know - club queens who are extremely promiscuous and use drugs and in the first episode you have a 29 year old character bedding a high school student, so on a certain level I, I think it's potentially dangerous.
MAN: That slice of unapologetic reality from the gay subculture's outer regions is exactly what appealed to Peter Paige [sp?] who plays the ever so out Emmett [sp?] on Queer as Folk.
MAN: The truth is, I don't care what straight people think about me. I'm interested in seeing a show that reflects some resemblance to my own life, and I see that in Queer as Folk. I know those guys. Those guys exist. There are plenty of effeminate gay men out there! It's just true! And whether or not you're proud of that or attracted to that or drawn to that or that's what you want to see out in the world, they exist! And to pretend they don't because there have been negative portrayals of them in the past -- Emmett's a kick-ass guy!
MAN: In a scene from the second episode, Emmett supports that claim. It is a signature moment for Paige's character and for the series itself.
MAN: Well-- I could be a, a, a real man if I wanted to! You know? Just-- lower my voice, stop gesturing with my hands - make sure my face is expressionless; never, never use words like, like fabulous! or, divine! Talk about-- [LAUGHTER] I don't know - [DEEP VOICE] nailing bitches and RBI's! But I'd rather my flame burn bright than be some puny little pilot light.
MAN: That proclamation alone represents a significant advance in the way in which homosexuality is portrayed on television; advance is not necessarily reflected in real life says the Village Voice's Richard Goldstein, though some people may confuse the two.
MAN: Because people easily confuse the images in entertainment with the nature of life, and people think that if something appears on television, it's going to be on their doorstep the very next day.
MAN: Which wouldn't be very boundary-pushing at all if the gays at America's doorstep were all like the wacky and wise-cracking Will from Will and Grace. [LAUGHTER]
MAN: And 3 -- we don't talk about things that we don't want to know about. WO
MAN: So you admit there's a problem!
MAN: No, I don't! See how that works? [LAUGHTER]
MAN: The overwhelming popularity of Will and Grace is just part of what seems like a nationwide embrace of openly gay characters on such network shows as Friends, Dawson's Creek, ER and Spin City. But the acceptance of these prime time friendly faces amounts to little more than what Richard Goldstein asserts is fantasy tolerance.
MAN: I think when people look at these shows and they see these characters, they might have the idea that that really is how gay people live -that they're - that they're - they are completely integrated and that there really is no difference except for a certain inflection - a certain sort of humor and, and a certain capacity for double entendre.
MAN: By signalling that gay characters can do more than deliver punch lines and that homosexuality does in fact include sexuality, Queer as Folk has broken new ground in that grand social testing zone known as American television. It's tempting to read into the hits and flops that the success of Will and Grace means that gays have arrived or that the failure of Normal, Ohio means that America is just not ready. But the mono-success of a show like Queer as Folk suggests a different possibility. It's that on American TV today, a homosexual theme is neither clever strategy or a guarantee obstacle. It's just another premise, the success or failure of which will depend on acting, writing and time slot, just like everything else. For On the Media in New York, I'm Rex Doane.