Out of the box

It's been a banner year in TV land for those who are amorously inclined toward people of the same gender.

To wit: NBC's lavender-tinged odd couple "Will & Grace" have not only parked their butts in the Nielsen top 10 on a regular basis, but the show copped an unexpected statuette for Best Comedy at the Emmy Awards in September. A richly deserving Vanessa Redgrave scored at the Emmys too, with her portrayal of a "widowed" lesbian in the HBO girls-who-love-girls trilogy "If These Walls Could Talk 2." Machiavellian mastermind Richard Hatch won $1 million by outmaneuvering a passel of slimmer, purportedly straighter contestants on CBS's summer reality series "Survivor." A stunning dearth of sponsors and viewers sent popular radio host and mouthy gay-rights opponent Laura Schlessinger and her syndicated talk show packing (or at least banished to late-night oblivion in most major markets, including this one). And Showtime chomped at the bit to remake the controversial British series "Queer as Folk," a program that only a year ago Entertainment Weekly described as "the best show you'll never see."

Small-screen ubiquity is one of our culture's best barometers for determining when a phenomenon has gone totally mainstream. Now, only a few years into the post-Ellen era, the climate is pretty hospitable for shows with a queer-centric worldview. Two new shows hope to take advantage of this sea change: One is the Americanized version of "Queer as Folk," an hourlong drama about a close-knit group of prowling gay guys that debuted Sunday, Dec. 3, on Showtime; the other is the assembly-line Fox sitcom "Normal, Ohio," about a recently out, divorced dad (John Goodman) returning home to renew bonds with his reluctant family.

With movies such as this year's "Dirty Pictures" and "Common Ground," 1999's "Execution of Justice," and the 1998 miniseries "More Tales of the City," the pay channel Showtime seems determined to carve a niche for itself as a provider of gay-themed programming. And with "Queer as Folk," it apparently hopes to attract new subscribers, just as adult-themed shows such as "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" have done for competing premium channel HBO.

As a result, most of the buzz surrounding the program has to do with how the new version compares with its incredibly explicit British counterpart. But this is a moot concern, mainly because (1) "Queer as Folk's" viewers are likely to be amenable to the show's content, given that they pay to subscribe to the network that produced it and expect a certain amount of explicit programming, and (2) the new QAF was obviously developed with the American audience in mind. Still, as graphic as it is regarding its discussion and depiction of gay sex, it's not likely to push the envelope quite as far as the BBC version. The new "QAF" (airing at 10 p.m. Sundays) doesn't have too much in the way of its counterpart's gritty pessimism or any male frontal nudity, which apparently have been deemed, for whatever reason, too hot for us.

At any rate, the buzz about "QAF's" sexual frankness might be a bit of a red herring. I suspect Showtime is touting "QAF's" explicitness to not only attract an audience that appreciates this kind of freedom and cultural expression, but to distract from the quality of the program. As it stands, "QAF" is watchable -- but not transcendent -- television, which is disappointing given the relative carte blanche the producers had in developing the show.

This "QAF" is set in Pittsburgh (the British series was set in working-class Manchester) to illustrate, I suppose, that man-loving men aren't exclusively a San Francisco treat. But the depiction of Pittsburgh as a throbbing, glitzy gay mecca on par with the Castro seems implausible, and the fact that Toronto stands in as a shooting locale adds insult to injury.

Within this glamorously festive Rust Belt enclave resides a group of friends who troll the gyms and the clubs for booty. The most interesting character among them is Brian (Gale Harold), a predatory, promiscuous advertising executive whose dark charisma seems to inspire the inexplicable devotion of everyone around him, despite his jeering nastiness and nihilism. In the first episode, Brian brought home a prep-school neophyte, Justin (Randy Harrison), who becomes the one-night stand from hell, the one who just won't go away. Justin compensates for Brian's rejection by infiltrating every aspect of his life -- making friends with his friends, hanging out at his haunts, hitting on his prospects, and even forming a relationship with a pair of lesbian moms for whom Brian fathered a child. Justin is supposed to represent the refreshing point of view of someone new to the gay experience, but because the character comes off as being a pesky little twit (Harrison's reactions are limited to batting his expressionless button eyes and smirking frequently), the device backfires. Still, "Queer as Folk" is subtly addictive television, if only because boyfriend-stealing cutie-pie Brian stirs up so much drama.

Strangely, "Normal, Ohio" (8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, on Fox), which debuted in October, is really a more ambitious program, albeit a less successful one. What the Fox sitcom has in common with "QAF" is its depiction of gay life in a middle-American setting. What it doesn't have in common with "QAF" is noteworthy: The protagonist isn't some lithe, comely Dapper Dan but instead wears plaid flannel shirts, speaks in a boisterous, thundering voice, likes football and beer, and looks like John Goodman, who played pretty much the same role -- albeit as a heterosexual -- on "Roseanne." "Normal, Ohio" seems intent on portraying Goodman's Butch as being as far from stereotypically gay as possible, but based on the evidence so far, his sexual orientation appears doomed to be forever bandied about (most tiresomely by Butch's annoying parents) but never actually put on display.

The sitcom's supporting characters have potential, including "Ellen's" Joely Fisher as Butch's kinda-slutty single-mom sister, and Mo Gaffney as his still-bitter ex-wife. But Goodman's performance -- as someone who, despite the fact that his personal circumstances have changed, still makes a good-faith effort to honor his relationships while not apologizing in any way for who he is -- really holds the show together. Goodman seems to instinctively know where the program's heart and focus should be. Too bad "Normal, Ohio's" writers, busy churning out the same ol' unfunny sitcom dross, are operating under a different notion.

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