Nothing like it ever happened before
on television, and if the anti-obscenity zealots on the FCC
get their way, nothing like it will ever happen again.
"Queer as Folk" has offered the
rawest view ever of a certain swath of young urban gay life:
an 83-episode extravaganza that began with a 29-year-old man
running his tongue farther down the backside of a 17-year-old
boy than any tongue had ever traveled on American television.
Then came the fucking, the meth, underage hustling, wild lesbian
lovemaking, occasional gay-bashing and a foul-mouthed waitress
(Sharon Gless), who introduced herself by urging her customers
to eat at least "some of your protein off your plate."
Late last month it all came to an end forever,
as the final scene of the Showtime series was filmed at eight
o'clock on a chilly Toronto morning. That night, after everyone
had gone home for a nap, there was an intimate cast dinner for
20 in a private dinning room in one of Toronto's many underground
malls, followed by a wild dancing-wrap party for two hundred
the next night at Ultra, a Toronto discotheque. Although the
fifth season won't air until May 22, the 83rd and final episode
of the revolutionary series is now safely in the can, and cast
members are already starting their lives over in Los Angeles,
New York or British Columbia.
Five years ago, I was the first reporter
on the set. The piece I wrote for New York magazine dubbed the
program "The Queerest Show on Earth" (the moniker
stuck), and the article told of the nervousness among its producers
over whether Showtime would replicate all of the edginess of
the British original created by Russell T. Davies. (In the end,
the network never flinched.) Almost all the actors were press
virgins then -- most of them little-known thespians who had
never given an interview in their lives. After I wrote my story,
I bonded with several of them, especially Michelle Clunie, who
played one of the bombshell lesbians, and her splendid boyfriend,
the actor Stewart Bick. So when Michelle invited me back for
the final wrap, how could I resist?
I was eager to be part of the long good-bye
to a show that did more than any other to bring gay life into
the American living room. While big-city critics sometimes panned
it, it did more to demystify gay men and lesbians in small towns
across America than anything that came before it. And it produced
a constant stream of fan letters from gay teenagers, many of
whom reported that only after forcing their parents to watch
it were they able to come out to them.
It also branded Showtime as something other
than an HBO also-ran and paved the way for "The L Word,"
which was green-lighted during "QAF's" first season.
In the era of Bush and DeLay, the question
is whether pay cable will ever again do anything with this much
gay sex -- and this much honesty about gay sex.
At the moment, having just flown in from
my New York City home, I was more interested in a good meal
and some companionship. Friday night I dined with Michelle and
her fellow "lesbian," Thea Gill, at Dimmi, a cozy
Italian restaurant. Then I dragged them to Church Street, the
main gay drag they had mostly avoided during their five years
in Toronto, where the show was shot, though it was set in Pittsburgh.
Fans mobbed them everywhere, especially at Woody's, the grand-daddy
of Toronto gay bars. The two actresses -- who have done almost
everything two girls can do together with their clothes off,
in front of a movie camera -- were in the throes of separation
Although they only play lesbians on television
(Thea has been married for 12 years to Brian Richmond, the noted
Canadian dramaturge and stage director), they developed an emotional
intimacy that sometimes mimicked a romantic relationship. "I've
been saying good-bye for the last two weeks," Thea told
me over a glass of red wine. "It was difficult doing the
last love scene with Michelle -- holding Michelle for the last
time; I felt it was the most real we'd ever been. I'm going
to miss 'Lindsay' [Thea's character]; part of me is kind of
dying with her. Michelle and I are lifelong friends now. Gale
[Harold] has been like a bit of a guardian angel for me, a brother
to all of us really. They're all my best buddies -- all in different
For everyone involved, from crew to cast,
the show was more than a glamorous job: It became a mission.
Michelle will "miss the family; I'll miss going there and
feeling so ridiculously safe on that set -- as comfortable as
we feel in our living room. Dan [Lipman] and Ron [Cowen] [the
executive producers and principal writers] are not your typical
producers. They're sweethearts, and I think vicariously they
had children through 'Queer as Folk.'"
The next night, at the cast dinner, Michelle,
Thea and I darted into a side room next door -- and the two
of them spontaneously broke out in an amazing a capella duette
of "Me and Bobby McGee." That was my favorite moment
of the whole weekend -- when I was their audience of one.
The boys were equally impressive. Randy Harrison,
the blond "Justin" whom Michelle calls "wise
beyond his years," was just 22 and right out of college
when I first met him -- and he used my first piece about the
show in New York magazine to come out publicly. Peter Paige
-- "Emmett" -- was the only other openly gay cast
member among the original cast members, although Gale Harold
-- "Brian" -- is the most gay-friendly straight man
I have ever met.
Randy was grateful for the experience: "Under
no other circumstance besides this bizarre job would I have
had a chance to learn from such extraordinarily artistic and
intelligent people," he said.
But after he demanded (and got) a final hug
from Sharon Gless, he was ready to move on: "If you sign
a five-year contract, no matter how idyllic the situation, after
a few years it's going to feel like a prison ... and it's difficult
to feel like a puppet whose literal body is used to make other
people a lot more money than you, while the negative repercussions
of 'your body as product' continue to invade your privacy, your
home and mildly corrode your life." Randy hopes to find
sanity, improbably enough, in New York City, where he has just
moved into in a new apartment with his boyfriend -- the journalist
Gale Harold, who played Justin's lover, Brian,
also felt relieved: "It's good to be done. But it's a little
bittersweet to be leaving Canada -- and its more benevolent
Scott Lowell, who played "Ted,"
found the last weeks especially trying -- he spent "night
after night ending each night weeping" as he said good-bye
to different members of the crew. Dean Armstrong, whose character,
"Blake," almost killed Ted in the first season with
a drug overdose, was particularly upset at Scott's real-life
disappearance: "I was talking with Scott on the phone and
he was packing up -- and my heart sank into my stomach,"
Lowell comes out of the show with two big
additions to his life: his girlfriend, Claire Sakaki, a Toronto
theater producer whom he met on a blind date set up by Peter
Paige, and a new house he bought last summer in the Hollywood
Hills. As for the public impact of his character, Lowell finds
himself getting hit on almost equally by men and women in the
street: "I think everyone just wants to take me to the
The youngest actor on the show is 20-year-old
Harris Allan, who played an HIV-positive hustler named Hunter,
adopted by "Michael" (Hal Sparks) and "Ben"
(Robert Gant). The fan mail that made him the happiest included
a note he got from a gay boy who said the show enabled him to
come out to his parents, and compliments from former hustlers
who found his performance utterly convincing. When he started
the show at 17, some of his high school classmates were uncomfortable
with the show's explicit content, "but they came around
for sure." He is the only cast member who has moved back
into his parents' house, with his older brother, in downtown
Vancouver. (His mother is also his manager.)
Co-producer Ron Cowen is proud the show lasted
for 83 episodes -- longer than "The Sopranos" or even
"Sex in the City." "I think we've said everything
we wanted to say, about HIV and AIDS; the crystal meth addictions;
discrimination; a political climate that's becoming far more
conservative and oppressive; gay parenthood; the conflict in
the community between the assimilationists and those who want
to continue a queer lifestyle, whom Brian represents. I think
there's a huge conflict between those two elements right now."
Dan Lipman, Ron's partner in life -- and
work -- agreed: "I think we've kept the edge, we've kept
the sexuality up; we've kept the tone very much in tact -- the
characters are very edgy. The one amazing thing about the experience
is that Showtime, through two regimes, has never censored a
story or censored a character; they've given us carte blanche
for five years. That is a remarkable thing."
After the cast dinner, six of us piled into
a Cadillac Brougham stretch, (the chauffeur identified it as
a 1994 model, but Gale and I were sure it was from '85, judging
from the taillights) and headed for Ted's Collision on College
-- "a real bar bar," as Michelle put it. Fortunately,
Toronto bars close at 2 a.m., which gave us all just enough
time to recover in time for the next night's final, final wrap.
The following evening I met Michelle at her
apartment. There were packing boxes everywhere, but there were
also 12 ice cubes and one bottle of Chivas Regal. When Thea
joined us at 8 p.m. so we could go to the final gathering together,
Michelle insisted on dressing her all over again -- to make
sure she looked as sexy as possible for her farewells. She draped
Thea in a wine-colored Gucci knockoff top (with a large hole
exposing her navel) and a necklace with a butterfly made of
Swarovski crystals. Michelle gave Thea both of them. "I
said keep them -- or the next time I'll see you we'll trade
Then it was off to five more hours of dancing
and drinking with 200 members of the cast and crew and their
significant others. As the DJ cranked up "Sympathy for
the Devil," Michelle and Thea began to jitterbug. Everyone
crowded around to get a final photo of the golden couple. Until
"QAF," Thea had always been slightly afraid of expressing
herself through her body. But tonight that feeling was finally
gone for good. "I actually learned to fucking dance at
that party!" Thea said. "I've never had that sensation
before. I feel like my body has freed up!"
The show itself had liberated a whole segment
of American life, and the world of television will never be
quite the same again.