Peacock’s ‘Queer as Folk’: TV Review

The catalyzing event in Peacock’s new Queer as Folk is a horrific act of violence. Midway through the first episode, an unnamed shooter enters a New Orleans gay club called Babylon and opens fire on the crowd of partiers. Most of our main characters are among them, and for the rest of the eight-episode season, they’ll grapple with their lingering guilt and grief, with the unthinkable ways their lives changed that night, with the holes it left in the center of their community.

Yet despite the heavy premise, the series as a whole is surprisingly light on its feet. Sure, here and there are painful excavations of trauma or equally tear-jerking moments of defiant joy. But for the most part, the series allows its characters to be every bit as messy or silly or sexy or serious after the shooting as they were before. And its refusal to define their lives through that tragedy feels like a gift, not only to the characters but also to an audience who has heard far too many news stories just like this one, or maybe even brushed up against some similar horror themselves.

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Stephen Dunn’s Queer as Folk is billed as a “reimagining” of Russell T. Davies’ groundbreaking gay drama from the turn of the millennium, and fans of the original will spot the occasional Easter egg or pick up on echoes of certain characters or plot points. But no prior knowledge of the earlier series (nor of the American version that followed shortly after on Showtime) is required to follow this one. The premiere episode wastes no time sketching out New Orleans’ vibrant queer nightlife scene, centering on charismatic but somewhat self-absorbed prodigal son Brodie (Devin Way).

For about half an hour, we trail Brodie as he zigzags across the city to reconnect with his old friends and make new ones. Roughly a dozen major characters are introduced in that time, each representing another knotty strand in his tangle of interpersonal connections. That’s before the shooting, and also the birth of twins to Brodie’s BFF Ruthie (Jessie James Keitel) and her partner Shar (CG) on the same night. Between the sheer amount of information being conveyed in that first episode and the stark tonal shifts necessitated by the plot, it can all feel unwieldy, even overwhelming.

Thankfully, the show settles into a more comfortable groove by its second or third episode, once all that necessary laying of groundwork is out of the way. The expansiveness of Queer as Folk‘s cast comes with a few drawbacks. Some of the recurring characters, like no-nonsense drag queen Bussey (Armand Fields), end up feeling like accessories in other people’s stories, and we can only hope they’ll lead more stories of their own in future seasons. And even more prominent characters like Mingus (Fin Argus), this Queer as Folk‘s resident lovelorn teen, are better developed in some areas than others. (The series assigns them two high school friends without a single distinctive personality trait between them.) But its diversity does allow the show to explore a wide array of storylines from a multitude of perspectives.

Mind you, a sizable chunk of them comprise the usual soapy drama about who’s hooking up or lying about it or secretly in love (and many of those involve Brodie’s ex Noah, played soulfully by Hacks‘ Johnny Sibilly). This affection for chaotic personalities means we’re rarely more than half an episode away from a blowout argument or an ill-advised kiss, letting Queer as Folk scratch the same predictable but satisfying itch as any primetime drama about attractive, charismatic people who spend too much time drinking together.

But there are storylines as well about Ruthie, a trans woman, struggling with a changing sex drive that challenges her sense of self. And about Mingus working through their contradictory feelings about returning to drag after their first performance was interrupted by the shooting. And about the particular challenges faced on the gay dating scene by disabled men like Julian (a very sweet Ryan O’Connell, also a writer and co-executive producer), who has cerebral palsy, or Marvin (Eric Graise in a prickly but touching performance), a bilateral amputee.

Both Queer as Folk and its characters are downright allergic to anything that might be deemed tragedy porn, inspiration porn or a teachable moment. The gang brush off strangers who think they’re just “so brave” for surviving, reject their loved ones’ concerned nudges toward therapy and roll their eyes at “Babylon, Babyl-Strong” events held by an annoying acquaintance who, they snicker between them, gives off “Mayor Pete fake gay vibes, but like, evil.”

Instead, their idea of memorializing the dead involves throwing wild parties that offer the chance to, as Bussey puts it, “remember our friends not as symbols but for the messy adults we knew and loved.” Queer as Folk‘s candid approach to sex scenes — this is a series that opens with two men enthusiastically fucking as hardbodies gyrate on a TV nearby, and cheerfully takes up any opportunity to admire a cute butt, a toned chest or even the occasional schlong — feels like a reflection of that same unapologetic spirit.

But if sappiness or shyness aren’t really the show’s thing, sensitivity is. In contrast to its frank depictions of desire or drugs, this Queer as Folk makes a point of averting its eyes from traumatizing material. The shooting in the first episode is less seen than suggested — we get alarmed facial expressions and cocking-gun sound effects, but are largely spared lingering shots of bloody action or mutilated bodies. In an episode tracing Ruthie and Brodie’s friendship back to their teen years, every mention of Ruthie’s deadname is bleeped out. Such choices feel like a quiet but firm declaration of the series’ values: pro-sex, pro-empathy, anti-violence, anti-transphobia.

The premiere episode ends on a fantasy. In a slow-motion montage lit in a rosy glow and scattered with confetti, we wind through glimpses of that fateful first evening as it should have gone: Mingus celebrating their first drag performance, Brodie and Marvin cheering from the crowd, Ruthie and Shar cuddling over their newborns, Noah making out with his date Daddius (Chris Renfro) along the wall. It’s a sharp, poignant summary of what was stolen the night the shooter entered Babylon. The rest of Queer as Folk, in its loving embrace of these flawed, complicated, occasionally exasperating but ultimately endearing individuals, becomes a reminder of everything that wasn’t.

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