I can vividly remember sitting on the floor of my university flatmate Lisa’s bedroom, along with all of our other flatmates (London rents were never cheap), on Tuesday, February 23rd 1999, gathered around the television tuned into Channel 4 to watch the first episode of the much-anticipated Queer As Folk. We were surprised, delighted, confronted, and loved every moment of it. Completely hooked, the rest of the series became weekly Tuesday evening appointment viewing. I also got my first boyfriend, a hunky but tender demolition man, as a result of the show. After meeting him on the dancefloor at Heaven later that year, he told me that the reason he’d broken off his engagement with a woman and come out as gay was a direct result of watching Queer As Folk. Stories like that were ubiquitous at the time. But the reaction from the community wasn’t all positive. With such rare screen portrayals of queer life back then, a series like this bursting into our lives was expected by some to represent us all. And as we were still emerging from the height of the AIDS crisis, and the virulent homophobia that came with it, some wanted any representation to be respectable and positive (more in the Will & Grace mold, which had premiered in the US the year before). But Russell T Davies wasn’t interested in that, he wanted to introduce us to multilayered, nuanced characters with messy lives that embraced their sexuality but weren’t defined by it. It was also a show that felt fuelled by the anger of being subjected to that homophobia (state sanctioned in Section 28), as well as urge to live our lives with joy, openly and truthfully. Finally one of us had the platform to centre queer stories and the result was an exhilarating and intoxicating one.
It’s a series that meant a lot to me back then—as I’d turned 21 and was finally coming out to everyone in my life—and by association so did the far more soapy, longer-running US version that followed. I long cherished my DVD boxsets of both series. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling a little thrill, combined with intense trepidation, when I heard the news that Closet Monster director Stephen Dunn was going to make a present-day, New Orleans-set reimagined Queer As Folk. All eight episodes of the first season of which debut on Peacock tomorrow, Thursday, June 9th. It turns out there was no need for any concern, the legacy of Queer As Folk is in skilled and artistic hands with Dunn.
Wisely acknowledging It’s A Sin creator Davies’ mastery as a storyteller, Dunn has taken aspects of Davies’ lead characters, along with echoes of structure and plot points, into his new series, which those familiar with the original with recognize, along with some nods to the previous US version. He’s done so though, in a way that feels invigoratingly fresh. The urgency of this series comes from a new place in a new era, when around 21% of Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ. The Queer As Folk universe has been expanded from one dominated by cis white able-bodied gay men, and a sidelined lesbian couple, to a richly diverse extended chosen family. With such nuanced, well-drawn characters, and a phenomenal ensemble cast, this is diversity that never for a second feels contrived. Along the way, Dunn and his team of writers and directors, have created moments that I’ve never seen on screen before, certainly not in the mainstream.
While the soundtrack features the unmistakably infectious sound of New Orleans’ own Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia, composer Jasha Klebe’s addictively propulsive, percussive, ballroom-inspired opening and closing credit theme music demands that the episodes falling in between live up to that energy and impact, and they invariably do. One element of the original series that got people talking, and sponsors dropping out of supporting the UK broadcast, were the sex scenes. Dunn opens his series with some hot and steamy sequences, that don’t feel held back in anyway without feeling like they’re designed to shock, instead they introduce us to the full, authentic lives of these characters, with a bang, or two.
As the show opens, the Stuart-ish Brodie (Devin Way), quits medical school and blows back into town like a queer hurricane, bringing drama with him to the doorsteps of his parents Brenda (Kim Cattrall) and Winston (Ed Begley Jr.), and his Buffy-loving brother Julian (Ryan O’Connell); his school teacher best friend Ruthie (Jesse James Keitel)—much to the disapproval of her musician partner Shar (CG)—and his ex-boyfriend Noah (Johnny Sibilly), who has struck up a secret relationship with Brodie’s friend Daddius (Chris Renfro) while he’s been away. Before long Brodie has become involved with high schooler Mingus (Fin Argus), who is just beginning to explore their sexuality and embrace their gender identity. With the support of their mother Judy (Juliette Lewis), Mingus is preparing for their fabulous The Craft-inspired drag debut on stage at Babylon nightclub.
As has been well-documented in the run up to the show’s premiere, tragedy strikes in the first episode. An event that feels harrowingly real, with echoes of the Pulse massacre, and also like a metaphor for the anti-LGBTQ+ hate that aspires to quench the flames of our queer joy. The kind of hate that’s rearing its ugly head in the legislation targeting our community and their families that’s sweeping across the country right now. The fallout from what happens at Babylon is movingly handled as it brings the community together in defiance. It’s also tinged with an initially slightly jarring and uncomfortable tone of dark comedy, reminiscent of Heathers, as influencer Jack Cole Jordan (Benito Skinner) takes it upon himself to speak on behalf of those affected by what happened and benefit from their grief and suffering. It’s a strand of the plot that captures the kind of hollow virtue signaling we see on our social media feeds, as well as a news cycle that dwells on one tragedy before quickly decamping to the next. Meanwhile, Babylon drag queen Bussey (Armand Fields), is the antithesis of Jack; a warm and nurturing, but fiercely maternal figure who represents the best of the local queer community.
With Babylon now shuttered, Brodie decides to stay in town and open up his own regular club night to help reunite the community, Ghost Fag—Dunn’s series relentlessly reclaims the words “fag” and “faggot” throughout—in the palatial open-plan home of successful lawyer Noah. Underscoring that delivering authentically told diverse stories isn’t merely about representation or box-ticking, but can be refreshingly and thrillingly exciting for every audience member, is episode 4 entitled “Fck Disabled People”. Continuing the centering of disabled characters that he began with his Netflix series Special, actor, writer and executive producer, Ryan O’Connell has crafted one of the season’s best episodes as Ghost fag hosts a “crip” sex party. An episode that illustrates and celebrates, incase anyone was under any illusions, that disabled people can be queer, smart, sexy, sexual, slutty, funny, and of course make vibrant, nuanced and engaging television characters. Sex-positive wheelchair user Marvin (Eric Graise) is particularly enthusiastic about the night, that also features a guest star turn from actor and deaf activist Nyle DiMarco as Leo, and an appearance by disability awareness consultant, adult performer, and social media star Andrew Gurza. Graise is one of the breakout stars of this series, making the most of every moment he’s on screen, bringing a bitter, jaded vibe combined with a vulnerability that lurks beneath Marvin’s brittle surface. He strikes up a complex, touching relationship with sex worker Ali (Sachin Bhatt), summing up the kind of rarely seen on TV relationship dynamics that this series delivers. If there’s a season two I hope we get to see even more of Marvin.
Another highlight of the season, is the beautifully-crafted episode seven, “Bleep”. Among the finest pieces of television I’ve seen in recent years, it’s a thrilling trans reclaiming of a pre-transition narrative that takes us back to the early years of Brodie and Ruthie’s friendship, enriching our understanding of both of them. Written by series executive producer Jaclyn Moore along with Sarah Link, and directed by Ingrid Jungermann, the episode breathtakingly weaves between the past and present, leading to a powerful climax, with exceptional work by Way and Keitel who bring so much to the series throughout. Soon after we first meet Ruthie she jokes to Brodie that’s she both “trans and toxic, that’s intersectionality, bitch!” It’s a line that captures Queer As Folk’s approach to drawing humans that don’t have to be perfect just because they happen to be LGBTQ+ characters on a TV series.
Having made an impact on major series in smaller roles, like Pray Tell’s boyfriend in Pose and Marcus’ boyfriend in Hacks, Johnny Sibilly has finally been given a lead role and embraces very moment of it, bringing a beautiful emotional depth to Noah. With his father pressuring him to succeed, he’s flawed yet loveable, someone trying hard to be good at adulting.
Cattrall is a delight as trailer trash turned Southern belle socialite. As Brenda, Cattrall is funny and poignant, we can feel her whole lifetime etched out in her performance, as her hunger for something new, something more emerges. Her rendition of Maybe This Time from Cabaret is one of the standout scenes of the season.
Juliette Lewis brings so much passion to her character too (with echoes of Nathan’s mum Janice) as a mother who loves her queer child fiercely. Although she isn’t the most conventional parent, she’s there for Mingus when they need her, as well as when they think they don’t, but really do. Argus brings a compelling charisma to Mingus that means we easily forgive and empathize with them as they lash out at their mother, as well as an endearing inexperienced awkwardness as they’re discovering themselves and trying to navigate a potential relationship. Among the great performances, there’s a fun guest role in one episode from Megan “Hi gay!” Stalter as Julian’s friend from the mall (where he used to spend a lot of time cruising the bathrooms).
23 years on from the premiere of Davies’ original series, Dunn has taken that anger, urgency, queer joy, and darn good storytelling, and delivered more than simply a pumping remix, but an inspired, visually stunning, genuine reimagining, infusing Queer As Folk with a punk spirit and an exhilarating collection of new characters and stories. Without taking anything away from Davies’ series, Dunn has improved upon it by expanding its world to include many of the identities that make up our community in 2022, while crucially making universal human experiences, not the identities themselves, the heart of the show. It’s a continually fun, moving, gripping ride and one of the most exciting shows on television.
By James Kleinmann
All eight episodes of Queer As Folk debut on Peacock on Thursday, June 9th 2022.
Queer as Folk will be available to stream in the UK from 1st July on StarzPlay through Amazon Prime Video, with two new episodes dropping weekly.