Anthology episodes are difficult to pull off. By their very structure they require a level of disconnection in terms of plot and tone that can create a disjointed hour of television. When done well (paging Mad Men) they can illuminate aspects of the show’s characters in a way that formally veers from how we normally encounter them. I found myself torn about “Problematica” in the way you can only feel when you’re dealing with a collection of interconnected stories; some you love, some you could do without. But by the end, I at least could understand what Stephen Dunn (who directed and co-wrote the episode) was going for. After all, when you have such a solid bench of queer day players, wouldn’t you want to indulge in all genres and watch them thrive?
And so, “Problematica” gives us a dinner party from hell; a touching drag mothering exchange; an open mic date night; a shrooms trip and a button of a story of everyone finding their way home. Let us do lightning round recaps for each (with star ratings for each):
Part I: Hawaiin Punch ***
As soon as Meg “Hi Gay!” Stalter shows up, you know we are in for chaos. But it’s unexpected that we’d get a hilarious hybrid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Boys in the Band, all filtered through the lens of a budding relationship that may or may not survive a friend-blending dinner party.
This may be the purest distillation of COMEDY we’ve gotten so far in the show; there’s a degree of sitcom high jinks here, but any scene that gives me a shoutout to Buffy season six is always going to be fine by me. Also, I do keep wanting to root for Noah and Julian, so there’s that.
Part II: Not Alone ****
“It is darker when you don’t know how to laugh about it.”
That’s the line I will take away not just from this tender section but from the episode altogether. Sure, this all begins with that most recognizable of HIV/AIDS storyline tropes (if a queer person gets tested onscreen but we don’t see the results immediately, you should already know what kind of results they got; think of it as the opposite of Chekhov’s gun), but it so quickly turns into something so much more probing about how a newer generation continues to grapple with HIV/AIDS that I forgive it.
Because, truly, watching Mingus work out in real time (with the help of a would-be drag performance) how they feel about what they know is no longer a death sentence is worth every other moment in the episode. Truly great work by Fin Argus, especially in his rendition of Bowie’s track.
Part III: Maybe Mama ***
The show’s ability to make Shar and Brenda (“Can I say bottoms?”) such a wonderfully unlikely couple is enough to make me paper over a line like “This isn’t Twitter,” which is much more effective when it is exchanged between another unlikely duo (Ruthie and Mingus in the pilot episode). And, to be fair, the writers have been slowly leading us up to that And Just Like That … moment in the bathroom. It was simply when, not an if.
But their pairing stages a conversation between folks who might not relate to one another, something Queer As Folk’s ensemble does so well. And, just as with the sections before, it’s the actors’ ability to inhabit their characters and ground them in authenticity that makes what would otherwise sound like didactic TED Talk moments feel real. Just heightened and stylized for those of us watching at home.
Part IV: Tunnel ****
We’ve seen hints of Dunn’s horror stylings throughout the show. Most obviously in episode one where the Canadian filmmaker deployed his signature magical realism to offer us a vision of a possible future that couldn’t be. But this section’s focus on Brodie’s shroom trip may well be enough to have you craving for another feature film that delves into the horrors within and outside the queer experience.
Giving you everything from David Lynch to Black Swan, “Tunnel” is a tour de force, a labyrinthian trip into Brodie’s psyche that’s as fractured and wounded and terrifying as you’d expect. (I want to have been at the props meeting when someone realized they’d need to produce a giant cup of semen and also come up with a way to create a muppet dog that would be equal parts adorable and slightly askew.)
The conclusion (“I’m sorry you’re so fucked up”) may have left me wanting. But I guess it was a journey of self-discovery that merely helped tee up our final match-up of the night.
Part V: Home ***
There is no place like “home.” But what is home for Brodie? Is it the house he shared with Noah which has now been tainted by Daddius’s ghost and Julian’s presence? Is it Brenda’s house which always seemed to him as a place he needed to escape? Is it Ruthie and Shar’s, the only characters who are actively trying to build a home that will outlast them?
As he struggles to find his place in the world — and a reason to stay in it; isn’t he merely making everyone’s lives worse? — Brodie lands back at Noah’s, only to face the brother he’s apparently always resented. Unlike the Ruthie/Brodie showdown we got last time, this one feels decidedly more literate and maybe just a tad less satisfying.
If the final confrontation between Brodie and Julian feels a little too on the nose (they’re so measured! So insightful! So self-aware!), it at least offers O’Connell a chance to color in Julian’s personality, which tracks given that the Special creator co-wrote the episode with Dunn.
I don’t know that I’d have pegged this duo to be the structuring anchor of “Problematica,” but thinking of these two as queer foils does give the episode, and the show, in turn, a lovely twinned sensibility. Each has dealt with their own othering in different ways, and each has found their own way of turning their past into charming parts of their present. How Brodie will recover from yet again alienating himself from someone he loves is yet to be seen, but we only have one more episode, so let us hope all those ominous shots of knives and sharpened edges don’t presage any more violence in our/his future.
Fun as F - - -
• “Skinny white boys will always be out here fucking!” Armand Fields brings such regal poise to Bussey, both in and out of drag, that I’m ashamed it’s taken me so long to single them out in one of these recaps. But truly, that scene between them and Mingus was just masterful.
• “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” by David Bowie and Kim Cattrall singing “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret? I guess this is a show called QUEER As Folk.
• Mingus may have rocked their Bowie rehearsal/performance in the cavernous relic that is Babylon, but I wanted to see more of their demonic-like take on the singer during Brodie’s trip. They looked fabulous in a way only a Bowie fan attending a horror convention could.
• Ed Begley Jr.! I was just complaining he’d only shown up for one scene, and here he is … in just one other scene! Also, who do we think kept the polaroid of Johnny Sibilly straddling Ryan O’Connell? Do we think it’ll be up for an auction any time soon?