vulture lists

A Guide to Russell T. Davies’s Queer Canon

Photo: Ross Ferguson/HBO Max

“Any sense of queerness, any sense of otherness is still very new as a society,” Russell T. Davies once told BBC Radio 4. “There are things that we said, things that we felt, emotions in our hearts that have not been put onscreen yet, or on the page, or into fiction.” Ever since incorporating a lesbian vicar into Revelations — a forgotten soap opera that briefly graced Britain’s late-night schedules during the mid-’90s — the BAFTA winner has been on a one-man mission to rectify this situation.

Apart from upsetting a few insomniac Middle Englanders, his first overtly gay character may not have made a particularly notable impression. But over the next quarter-century, the force-of-nature showrunner would create some of the most memorable, authentic and groundbreaking LGBTQ+ representations ever to appear on the small screen, as well as the most provocative. And it’s not just the self-appointed moral arbiters of the press that he’s set off, either. Davies’s harshest criticisms have often emerged from his own community, particularly those activists who’ve struggled to see themselves reflected in his work.

Of course, Davies has never been afraid of a little controversy. Don’t forget, this is the man who added a same-sex kiss to Shakespeare, revitalized a dormant sci-fi franchise with the aid of a promiscuous bisexual (and then gave him a resolutely queer spinoff), and introduced the dial-up generation to the previously taboo act of rimming. And all this from the son of two classics-teaching conservatives.

Even Davies’s creative process is intrinsically linked to his experiences as an out and proud man. The season-one finale of interwar period drama The Grand, for example, was written during a drunken outing on Canal Street, the heart of the Manchester Gay Village that also informed his first — and much more explicit — seminal work, Queer as Folk.

Such offerings have undoubtedly helped to shift public attitudes on sexuality. Yet Davies’s recent calls for more LGBTQ+ visibility on Disney+ and in the casting process proves he’s aware that the battle isn’t over. In fact, his new series, an unflinching insight into the AIDS pandemic that has already broken viewing records in the U.K., is his most urgent call-to-arms yet.

With It’s a Sin premiering on HBO today, here’s a look at ten shows that have helped establish Davies as the reigning king of queer TV.

Queer As Folk (1999-2000)

Forget Showtime’s glossier, longer-running adaptation. The original Queer As Folk was the first LGBTQ+ drama to push boundaries that previously felt immovable. Certainly on national TV, anyway. Inspired by a near-fatal accidental overdose, Davies largely ignored all the depressing “bury your gays” tropes that had become de rigueur and instead offered a celebratory insight into the pre-Grindr Manchester gay scene he often frequented. Packed with sex, drugs, and strangely prescient Doctor Who references, QAF is Davies at his purest — filthily funny, emotionally raw, and unapologetically brash. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

Bob and Rose (2001)

Despite toning things down dramatically for this gentler prime-time dramedy, Davies still managed to rack up complaints. Here, it was certain LGBTQ+ activists that objected to his story of a gay man (played by unrelated stand-up comic Alan Davies) falling for someone who just happens to be a woman. Davies was even classed as a traitor to his community for this reverse Chasing Amy scenario, even though it was based on a real-life friend’s relationship. If it ever makes U.S. streaming services (it’s currently only on BritBox UK), you’ll find a charming, unlikely romance which in its nuanced exploration of sexual fluidity was far ahead of its time.

Doctor Who (2005-2010)

Having introduced the concept of casual gay sex to Doctor Who in the 1996 novel Damaged Goods, Davies then got the chance to further queer up the very British sci-fi phenomenon as showrunner for its triumphant mid-’00s reboot. The superfan wasted little time doing so: The word “gay” was uttered for the first time in the series’s 42-year history during its comeback episode. Trans character Lady Cassandra arrived the following week and by the ninth so had the pioneering pansexual, Captain Jack. The Time Lord’s adventures has since made much bigger leaps in LGBTQ+ representation — in 2017 he was even given a lesbian companion. But Davies’s smaller steps undeniably paved the way. (Available on HBO Max.)

Torchwood (2006-2011)

Billed as “Doctor Who for grown-ups” by the slightly patronizing press, the consistently entertaining Torchwood allowed the franchise’s first ever non-heterosexual character to take center stage, and “shag anything with a hole” while doing so. Yet the brazen walking innuendo Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman playing very much to type) wasn’t the only extra-terrestrial hunter to fit within the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Yes, every single key player was written as unashamedly queer, a move which even 15 years on would appear pretty revolutionary for a spinoff from a BBC teatime favorite. The Cardiff Bay shrine to Jack’s ill-fated boyfriend Ianto Jones shows just how much Davies got fans invested. (Available on HBO Max.)

Cucumber (2015)

Excruciating monologues about Ryan Reynolds’s manhood. Uncles filming their teenage nephews going gay-for-pay. Davies’s middle-aged return to Canal Street was a seedy, sour-faced affair that essentially revolved around one man’s apparently unfathomable aversion to anal sex. Succession has proven that insufferable characters can still provide utterly compelling TV, but Cucumber’s parade of one-dimensional narcissists were sadly not even fit to play Boar on the Floor. Davies’s first major misfire does have one saving grace: the gut-punching climax to episode six, which took the idea of life flashing before your eyes to new Eurovision-soundtracked heights. It remains one of his most affecting and beautifully composed scenes. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

Banana (2015)

Thankfully, Davies rediscovered his mojo for Banana, a more youth-oriented companion series to Cucumber that joined the anthology trend with eight diverse half-hour LGBTQ+ tales. The Welshman penned three himself, cleverly subverting the tortured coming-out story before wittily exploring unrequited love with Black Panther’s Letitia Wright and delivering a poignant two-hander centered on illegal immigration. Elsewhere, Davies handed over the screenwriting reins to other gay talent including The End of the F***ing World’s Charlie Covell and one-time Great British Baking Show host Sue Perkins — with the former’s contribution breaking new ground by casting Bethany Black as the first trans actor ever to play a trans character on U.K. television. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016)

Davies changed tack for his return to prime-time BBC, infusing his queer sensibilities into the Shakespeare play that had once opened up his eyes to drama’s possibilities. Little Britain’s Matt Lucas assumed the Bottom role that the screenwriter had played himself in a school production. But it was Eleanor Matsuura’s Hippolyta and Maxine Peake’s Titania that grabbed the headlines thanks to a lesbian kiss that definitely wasn’t in the source material. Unsurprisingly, the forthright Davies had no time for any Bard purists who objected to this addition (“only idiots would have a problem”). Luckily, the sheer joyfulness that exuded from this fresh interpretation meant that few did.

A Very English Scandal (2018)

Davies bagged a bona fide A-lister for this absorbing dramatization of a bizarre chapter in British political history involving failed murder plots, illicit affairs, and dead dogs. Believing that its distinctly gay narrative had previously been guided entirely by straight men, the writer gave both the accused and the accuser a more sympathetic edit than the homophobic tabloids of the 1970s. Meanwhile, career-best performances from Hugh Grant (further leaning into his masterful reinvention as a slippery villain) as disgraced party leader Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as his alleged spurned lover also helped Davies catch Emmy voters’ attention, remarkably for the first time in his career. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

Years and Years (2019)

Years and Years is undeniably Davies’s most audacious project to date, a dystopian decade-spanning sci-fi family drama which envisions a near-future decimated by global warming, unscrupulous career politicians and man’s over-reliance on technology. The joint BBC/HBO production also somehow finds the time to point its lens at the LGBTQ community: The outlawing of homosexuality in Ukraine forms the backdrop of a cross-cultural love triangle that ends in utterly heart-wrenching circumstances, while in its fast-forward to 2024, newly elected President Mike Pence repeals same-sex marriage. As with much of Davies’s speechifying work, Years and Years isn’t exactly subtle. But its nightmarish predictions of where society is heading do seem worryingly believable. (Available on HBO Max.)

It’s a Sin (2021)

Davies freely admits to burying his head in the sand for much of the AIDS epidemic that several friends succumbed to. But It’s a Sin enabled him to come to terms with, and commemorate, this lost generation. The five-parter initially resembles a spiritual prequel to QAF as a gang of misfits parties like it’s 1981 in a rundown flat dubbed the Pink Palace. But as the decade progresses, the hedonism gives way to nerve-wracking check-ups, tearful hospital visits, and the overwhelming fear of a killer disease the government appears all too keen to ignore. The term “must-watch” often gets thrown around but this vital piece of storytelling really should be mandatory viewing. (Available on HBO Max.)

A Guide to Russell T. Davies’s Queer Canon