The Watcher - Queer and loathing

June arrives and the TV turns pink. The cable stations, at least, have gotten keen to this month's celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride, with queer-theme programming popping up all over the pay channels.

The Sundance Channel, most notably, has branded June as "Out Loud" month. The indie-centric cable channel offers a refreshing range of programming, with more than 50 films, shorts and documentaries on gay life. (Don't miss the modern gay classic The Sum of Us, starring a fresh-faced Russell Crowe, June 27 at 9 p.m.)

Cinemax has tuned into the rainbow demographic as well, this month premiering four new documentaries on topics from same-sex parenthood to the AIDS epidemic. The heartfelt Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House follows two outspoken Brooklyn mamas who have been playing house together since the early '70s. He's Having a Baby puts a face on gay adoption, as two would-be dads struggle to become part of the gay-by boom.

Yet, both those cable outlets might be called Johnny-come-latelies when compared to Showtime, which made a dramatic rush into niche marketing in 2000 with the premiere of "Queer As Folk." The American version of the controversial British series certainly broke boundaries with its in-your-face portrayal of a group of gay friends — and its steamy sex scenes. Too bad the show sucked so bad. I'm sad to report, three seasons later, it's only gotten worse.

Showtime probably deserves props for taking an unabashed look at non-hetero characters, but "Queer As Folk" from its start has nearly suffocated on its stereotypes. That can work for comic effect, if used correctly (see: "Will & Grace"). But "Queer" is too often content to let its characters function as cardboard cutouts instead of real, breathing people.

Consider selfish Brian (the talentless Gale Harold), who may be one of the most loathsome yet boring characters ever shown on television. He isn't diabolical enough for us to love to hate him. Instead we, like his dysfunctional friends, just keep coming back for more.

At its core, "Queer As Folk" can't decide what it wants to be. It struggles for verisimilitude and trots out a sedated show horse of modern queer life. Yet, it also toys with over-the-top storylines (Ted running a porn site, a serial killer who targets street hustlers) but never makes the arcs quite compelling enough to make anyone — gay or straight — give a damn.

I say, if you want to be "Melrose Place," then go for it with gusto. Give us deranged drag queens bent on bombing Babylon. Reveal Brian's evil, er, good Doppelganger or Michael's long-lost amnesiac stepsister. Instead, "Queer" settles for the conventional and vaguely sensational, like Ted's ludicrous drug addiction or Justin's crusade against a conservative politician.

The show proves that targeting an underserved market is one thing, but keeping it engaged is an entirely different matter.

The cable channels may have embraced their gay viewers, but the networks remain largely skittish when it comes to queer characters.

Oddly enough, one of the best same-sex subplots we've seen on primetime in recent memory actually took place on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I know, I too often swoon over that chronically underrated show (may it rest in peace), but humor me. Willow's (Alyson Hannigan) romance with Tara (Amber Benson) brought a new sophistication to the subject matter. Hints of Willow's lesbianism emerge in very early episodes, now in syndication on FX (7 p.m. weekdays). Tune in now and you'll see how Tara's demise turned Willow into the meanest dyke in the world.

The lesbo-Willow storyline, perhaps shocking at first, eventually became an accepted and rather pedestrian minor detail on the show. Let's hope that model can be adopted by more networks as time goes on. Who knows — eventually June may not be the only month when TV comes out of the closet.


The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.