“Is that OK for me to say?” Kim Cattrall would sometimes ask director Stephen Dunn on the set of Queer As Folk. “It is okay,” he would tell her — because that is the point. “This is a messy show.”
When Queer As Folk debuted (the U.K. original on Channel 4 in 1999 and the American version on Showtime in 2000, both created by Russell T. Davies), it was immediately hailed as groundbreaking. Here was an ensemble cast made of up LGBTQ characters, living and thriving out loud in a world that made them the axis. Its mere existence felt subversive to a mainstream culture only a few years after Ellen Degeneres came out on her series Ellen — and her show was canceled a year later. Queer As Folk was unapologetic in presenting queerness without sanitization. The American version, for instance, featured the very first sex scene between two men shown on American television — and in the pilot episode, no less.
The new Queer As Folk premieres June 9 on Peacock, and creator Stephen Dunn bills it as a reimagining as opposed to a reboot or a revival (more on that later). Dunn recalls watching the U.K. version at 12 years old in his parents’ basement with the volume muted. “I was really fast-forwarding between the sex scenes,” he admits. “It was so shocking to me … but it was also my sexual awakening.” (This is a popular refrain among many 30-something homosexuals — that and Danny from The Real World: New Orleans.) Perhaps more enlightening: It was his first exposure to a queer community. Dunn grew up in Newfoundland on an island community where there were no out queer people. But he didn’t watch the show in full at the time, as he was too terrified at seeing something that felt so close to him but also so foreign.
He’d revisit the series throughout his life, each time gleaning more. “I loved how unapologetic it was and how unafraid the show was to have messy characters,” Dunn says of the U.K. version —“the one I’m obsessed with,” he adds. “We’ve seen such a strong influx of queer representation since, and I think that the original really paved the way for a lot of those characters to exist.” Still, he admits, in its wake some 20 years later, it remains rare to have a full ensemble of queer people. As a result, there can be a burden of representation in feeling like the too-often token queer character needs to represent all queerness for queer people or is expected to position queer people in a positive light in response to decades of depiction through the limits of a cis-het lens. In Dunn’s QAF, he wants flaws, selfishness, bad decisions — the same things that drew him to the original series. He wants Tony Soprano or Don Draper — but queer. Still, he admits that getting a green light on a show that features toxic queers is challenging.
And thus, the team relied on the recognition of the original to help get them off the ground. The title alone will draw viewers, many of whom, like Dunn, have vivid memories of its predecessors. But this is not a continuation of either original series. “I needed to depart from the original to tell an authentic, current story,” he says, recognizing the original series’s focus on the lives of a group of white gay men. I can’t help but be reminded of And Just Like That, the “next chapter” of Sex and the City, which also purposefully sought to better represent the diversity of the city it was set in — or, in QAF’s case, the community.
Dunn admits that it’s an immense responsibility to take on a title like this and reimagine it, especially given the expectations of what the show is and could be. Thankfully, Davies sought out Dunn and encouraged him to make it his own. “He wanted to continue the legacy of the spirit of the show by giving me the opportunity to tell new stories and give power to new characters, some of which have rarely ever been seen on TV.”
That’s not to say there aren’t Easter eggs for fans of the original series. The pilot episode, “Babylon,” for instance, is an homage to the name of the nightclub club in the 2000 American series, a club that is a mainstay in the reimagining as well. There’s the car blowing up. There’s the Wrangler. The Grindr profiles. Even wine bottle labels and the names of stores. Dunn calls them the bed that’s growing the seeds for this version to create new stories.
Queer As Folk shares something else with the aforementioned Sex and the City (which Dunn calls a sister show): Kim Cattrall. Dunn wrote the role of Brenda, the mother of the series’s main protagonist, Brodie (Grey’s Anatomy’s Devin Way) and Julian (Special’s Ryan O’Connell), specifically for Cattrall. Her involvement was pivotal in helping establish this as a show by queers for everyone. “I hope it shows audiences that a show that centers queer stories doesn’t only have to be for queer audiences.”
But Cattrall is hardly relegated to a side character. Without giving too much away, I’ll defer to Cattrall herself. “I had my first nonbinary love scene,” she told Variety in a recent interview. (A plot point that, by coincidence only, mirrors that of Cynthia Nixon’s character on And Just Like That.) Cattrall’s arc centers around the idea that we are constantly discovering new facets of our identity and who we think we are, or, in some instances, ridding ourselves of an identity we no longer ascribe to or never were at all.
Cattrall might be among the most familiar names in the cast, but this ensemble is stacked with queer actors, from mainstays like Johnny Sibilly (Pose, Hacks) to relative newcomers like Jesse James Keitel (Big Sky). It’s one of the few series that prioritized not only telling queer stories but also telling them with queer actors. “It was not hard to cast incredible queer actors,” Dunn says. “There are so many who are out there and ready to work.” (I’m reminded of Russell T. Davies’ recent comments admonishing straight actors who play gay parts, often to award’s acclaim: “I want the likes of Colin Firth to be ashamed of their actions,” he told the New York Times.) In that sense, this reimagining diverges from its source material, which had many straight or, at the time, closeted actors in its cast. Does that make this new version better? Not necessarily. But does it make it more in line with today’s dialogues about authentic representation? Absolutely.
There’s one other subject we broach during our interview, one that causes Dunn a series of pauses and tears that well in his eyes. He tells me he’s sorry repeatedly, though he need not. I ask about the years of gestation since this project was first announced in 2018. Recognizing the long road to seeing this show through production, I ask what he’s most proud of.
“I set the show in New Orleans because of Chi Chi DeVayne,” he says of his close friend and the former RuPaul’s Drag Race competitor who lost her battle with scleroderma in August 2020. He wrote the role of Bussey for her, a role that was later recast with Armand Fields. “I’m really proud that we got to make it. We were supposed to go a year before, but COVID shut us down. Michelle Harmon, our production designer, knew how important Chi Chi was to me, and so she named one of the buildings DeVayne’s Grocer, so Chi Chi’s name is engraved in stone on the footsteps of the main location. I guess that’s what I’m most proud of. She’s not here … but she is a little bit.”
Now she’s here forever.
If you enjoyed this story, check out Evan Ross Katz’s interview with “Real World: New Orleans” star Danny Roberts!
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