It's Here, It's Queer. Get Used To It

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Halloween may be a gay high holy day in Greenwich Village, but it was business as usual on the Toronto set of "Queer as Folk." OK, almost as usual. Amid various cross-dressers and naughty priests, there was a crew guy outfitted in a spangly cowboy outfit, an assistant director dressed like Cher and actresses Thea Gill and Michelle Clunie — fresh from filming a lesbian love scene — tricked out as "Texas hookers" with red feather boas. Then there was the pumpkin-carving contest, including one jolly squash accessorized with a... well, put it this way: it's not a banana, and the pumpkin is happy to see you.

"It's all about sex," says gay-boy-next-door Michael (Hal Sparks) in QAF's two-hour pilot (Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m., starting Dec. 3). That is an exaggeration, but just barely. This adaptation of the controversial 1999 British cult hit series about a group of young gay friends is also about challenging gay and straight shibboleths, about relationships and responsibility.

But mostly it's about sex. The adrenaline-charged opening begins in a pheromone-drenched disco on Pittsburgh's gay mecca, Liberty Avenue, then hurtles at 200 beats a minute into an outré lust scene between 29-year-old rake Brian (Gale Harold) and Justin (Randy Harrison), a kid of 17 — count 'em, 17 — years. No conveniently arranged sheets, no angst, no kisses shot from the back: In 10 hot minutes, QAF opens the closet of gay TV sexuality and chucks in a neon stick of dynamite.

"There are more gay characters on TV now, but they're mostly clowns or eunuchs," says Ron Cowen, who executive produces the show and cowrote the pilot with his life partner, Daniel Lipman. The two have battled the networks to get gay characters on the air since they wrote the Emmy-winning "An Early Frost," the first TV movie about AIDS, back in 1985. When they created NBC's "Sisters" in 1991, says Lipman, they tried unsuccessfully to make one of the leads gay. So they were attracted by the British QAF's "unapologetic" attitude — about things like drug use in the gay community and the fact that gay teens, like straight ones, get horny, sometimes for older men. "I don't look at Justin as a child," Lipman says. "He's the predator, not Brian."

The British series was the brainchild of Russell T. Davies, who based it on the lives of his friends in gritty Manchester. (The title comes from the saying "There's naught so queer as folk" — there's nothing as strange as people.) Davies took heat from conservatives and from gays, who called it defamatory and unrealistic. "It's realistic for men who live like that," he argues. "It's not realistic for everyone." Cowen calls such criticism "internalized homophobia."

QAF's controversial pedigree intrigued Showtime, which is gunning for pay-cable giant HBO (which, like TIME, is owned by Time Warner). Showtime sees QAF as its "Sopranos," or at least part of a suite of niche-targeted shows — including "Resurrection Blvd." (Hispanics) and "Soul Food" (African Americans) — that will add up to a "Sopranos." The network set up a new subscription number — 1-800-COMING-OUT — and distributed "premiere party kits" to gay and lesbian college groups. (Though one hopes any self-respecting homosexual would take a pass on party tips from a TV company.)

But Showtime had a hard time recruiting actors from big agencies, fearful of their clients' being typecast as gay. ("Yeah, I can see how that hurt Billy Crystal's career," sneers Showtime president of programming Jerry Offsay, referring to Crystal's groundbreaking role in "Soap" in 1977.) Several fashion designers (of all industries!) even refused to have their products placed in the series. The producers eventually cast almost all unknowns, with the exception of Sparks, a former "Talk Soup" host on E! who concedes he had "some long talks" with his agent, and "Cagney & Lacey"'s Sharon Gless, who pleaded for the part of Debbie, Michael's earthy, almost smotheringly accepting mother.

The unavoidable focus on QAF's sex shouldn't obscure its nuanced picture of gay life. The central characters — Brian, Michael, Emmett (Peter Paige) and Ted (Scott Lowell) — are, like the women of "Sex and the City," a cross section of urban types. Most of them were born after the 1969 Stonewall protests launched the modern gay-rights movement, giving them the choice to stand out or assimilate, flame or simmer. All of them, pushing or just past 30, face the tyranny of age in the "Logan's Run"-like club scene. And Brian, an irresistible, bed-hopping Peter Pan, is suddenly beset with unwanted responsibility: for his new son (he donated sperm to the lesbians); for Justin, his lovestruck, naive pursuer; and for a friend who names Brian his living-will executor, entrusting him to pull the plug because "you're a heartless s___."

The first several episodes, solid and often impressive, borrow heavily from the British QAF, though this version is more of an ensemble. Its style is pleasingly candy-colored and frenetic, even if after a few too many whooshing camera moves, you will think you're watching The Gaytrix. QAF is too funny and fresh to get maudlin, thanks especially to the surprisingly versatile Sparks, whose Michael, a romantic with an unrequited crush on Brian, is the de facto liaison to the straight world: "He's so accessible," says Sparks, "he almost forgets he's gay." Harold's preening-sexpot performance can be stiff (not just in that way) and is hampered by scripts that try too hard to psychologize Brian and make him "relatable." But half his job is to smolder, and he does in scenes like the one with Justin. Says Clunie: "Housewives in Peoria are going to see that and say, 'That's not bad!'"

That may be too optimistic, though there's one sop to mass mores here: the guys use a condom. Still, make no mistake. The sex on QAF is anything but safe.