Any pilot episode that lovingly glides over a table stocked with lube, dildos, baby wipes, and anal beads was always going to be in my wheelhouse. Then again, with a title like Queer As Folk, not to mention the legacy of one of the steamiest LGBTQ series to grace the small screen in the U.S., I shouldn’t have been as surprised to find Stephen Dunn’s reimagining of Russell T. Davies’s seminal U.K.-show-and-then-U.S.-reboot so quickly and effortlessly paying homage while revamping it for a 21st-century audience.
But maybe we shouldn’t start at the beginning. Maybe we should start at the end. You know what I’m talking about: the shooting at Babylon, which fractures and fragments the New Orleans queer world Dunn & Co. were beautifully sketching out for us. Because it was that moment (or, rather, the moment right before it) where I fell head over heels with this show. I mean, you can’t orchestrate a drag performance inspired by Fairuza Balk in The Craft and then not immediately find me prostrated at your knees asking you for more. But then, of course, just as Mingus (the utterly captivating Fin Argus) is bringing the house down with his Grimes number (“Kill V. Maim,” obviously) Queer As Folk dives headfirst into decidedly tragic territory. A moment of pure unadulterated queer joy is struck silent by a string of bullets from an unseen shooter.
The shooting is the fulcrum of the episode. What we get before it feels like necessary exposition (this is who Brodie is; this is who Noah is; same for Ruthie and Shar and the rest of this sprawling ensemble), and the moment we think we’ve nailed them down. The moment you stop thinking Wait, so ARE Brodie and Mingus the Brian and Justin of the show; like, isn’t Noah more of a Brian to begin with? and begin to live in the world Dunn has created (part comedy of errors and part thorny melodrama), that’s when you get the rug pulled out from under you. Because the people we’ve just met — the couple whose bid for motherhood will finally come through; the fading high-schooler who finds strength in playing with gender; heck, even the sassy wheelchair user who’s not above leveraging his disability out at the bar for free drinks — will never be the same.
In that sense, making the shooting the pivotal moment of your pilot episode is a wild gamble. Mostly because it requires you to establish the normalcy that precedes it with quick efficiency and forces you to then make the requisite character shifts that will come in due time with a necessary gentleness lest they come off as inauthentic. Thankfully, Dunn has created such fully rounded characters that none of us has to worry.
Plus, the casting alone helps ground us in each of these lives; Devin Way’s Brodie, for instance, is a walking arched eyebrow (with a killer ass) whose selfishness is as endearing as it is enraging; meanwhile, Jesse James Keitel helps us understand why Ruthie would aim to flee her life if only for a night (she’s a knotted contradiction whose domesticity at home all but pushes her out the door). Add in O’Connell’s wry take on Julian, Argus’s devil-may-care sensibility in giving life to the wily Mingus, and you have a solid ensemble that welcomes you with open arms into this world.
This first episode allows them to shine, giving them moments and lines that help you identify just who they are. The script is full of such specific dialogue tics and mannerisms that, no matter how you feel about each one of these queer folks, you painfully identify them as fully realized creatures; the first interaction between Ruthie and Mingus, where the skirt-wearing high schooler Twitter speaks at their teacher to avoid getting an F on an assignment, is a thing of beauty.
But the gamble with what we might otherwise dub a “timely topic” (nearly every day there is either/both gun and anti-LGBTQ violence, so maybe that label feels needlessly confusing) does make the show feel urgent in a way reboots and remakes and reimagining seldom can.
This is why I wanted to start with the end. Because the shooting is not the end. Or, rather, it is since Dunn has us return to the moment when Brodie, clearly fearing for Mingus’s life, lunges at them on stage and takes a bullet for the wily young thing he’d just hooked up with. But rather than have us relive that horrible scenario, Dunn imagines for his characters a different outcome: he gives us a “what if?” moment. As Tula’s “Wicked Game” plays in the background (“What a wicked thing to do to let me dream of you”), we see what the night at Babylon would’ve looked like if nothing of note had happened. It’s a heartbreaking series of vignettes at the bar that show us Mingus, Brodie, Ruthie, and the rest of the NOLA crowd having the night they should’ve had (The night they deserve). Tinged with a halo of a fantasy sequence (which, just like the drag performance, should serve as a great reminder to see the visual stylings Dunn brought to his feature film, Closet Monster), the ending is a promise. This show may begin with a bang, but it will not be defined by it. It will not define its community by it. Instead, it’s what will help show and characters light up for us, revealing both the darkness and the light the queer community contains within itself, like a piece of glitter falling on the dance floor.
Fun as F- - -
• “And here I thought you were an ally” is such a perfect Brodie line, especially the supercilious way Devin Way delivers it. He knows he’s being a dick and yet also finds his entitlement so central to his persona that he can’t help but earnestly believe he’s in the right to throw such allyship in the face of his arguably very problematic hook up.
• I can already tell I’m going to be obsessed with every one of the spaces featured in this series. Mostly because any set designer who nabs a few Cachorro Lozano paintings to adorn the space of a well-off, queer, sex-positive lawyer living in NOLA knows exactly what they’re doing. (Also, that infinity guest room, impractical as it may well be as a living space, is very alluring: just think of the mirror thirst traps!)
• Let us all begin our collective Queer As Folk (heretofore also known as our Pride 2022) playlist, which is kicked off in this episode with the likes of Big Freedia (“Mm Mm Good”), Le Tigre (“Deceptacon”), Robin S. (“Show Me Love”), and BROCKHAMPTON (“Boogie”), among others.
• I would have gladly spent this entire recap singing the praises of both Kim Cattrall and Juliette Lewis but figured I’ll have enough time over the remaining episodes to wax poetic about how the two ground their mom characters in such delightfully askew ways that I need to waste all those words on them today. But know this: Every choice Lewis makes as Judy (“May Fairuza be with you”) and every accented inflection Cattrall gives Branda (“Oh Brodie, you’re bleeding … on my $5,000 Moroccan rug!”) is DIVINE, and I want more more more of them, please.