Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bad Television. No apologies.

It's a phenomenon that's plagued many: why do gay movies and shows suck? Sure, there have been exceptions over the years: compelling or at least passably entertaining queer-centric fare. But for every Broken Hearts Club-- which even I can agree is a largely superficial celebration of West Hollywood hedonism-- there's an atrocious mess like Latter Days, a two hour nighttime soap opera that tackles Mormonism and gayness with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when I sat down this week to watch two promo DVDs from Here! Television and found them both severely lacking. The gay-themed cable net is a subscription service that is advertised heavily in New York, especially in gay venues and neighborhoods, with the slogan "Gay Television. No apologies." (Its closest competitor is the 24/7 Logo network, which is comprised of several exceedingly banal original programs, cult movies, and watered down episodes of Queer As Folk.) Its flagship show is Dante's Cove, a supernatural soap set in a mysterious island community. I had already seen an episode of the horrendously bad spin-off, the vampire-themed The Lair; I foolishly hoped that the "original" would be a little better. No such luck. Dante's Cove plays like a poor gay man's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Actually, "poor" might be giving it too much credit. "Severely impoverished, possibly starving" would be more accurate.) It's silly and campy in the worst possible way; the dialogue is atrocious and the plotlines are laughable at best. Tracy Scoggins, who I remember as slutty Cat Grant on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, stars as witch Grace Neville, who's just been returned from some sort of alternate dimension at the episode's start. Grace runs into newcomer Griffen (Jensen Atwood), a suave black guy who comes from "the Treassom Council" (Treassom is the magic that characters on the show practice; just go with it). He tries to get Grace to join the Council, but she's having none of it, athough the lady doth protest too much when it comes to Griffen's blatant flirtation. (A straight man on Dante's Cove?! OMFG!) Meanwhile, Toby (Charlie David) tries not to let it bother him that his ex Kevin (Gregory Michael) is now warlock Ambrosius (William Gregory Lee)'s butt boy. (In the "previously on" montage, we saw some overblown confrontation in which Ambrosius disappeared with Kevin in his arms and Grace's sister Diana sent her to the aforementioned alt world.) Toby's friend Adam (Jon Fleming) carries a torch for him, but he's willing to have the world's fastest hookup with Trevor (Reichen Lehmkuhl, reality douche bag and ex-boyfriend of Lance Bass, making his fifteen minutes last as long as possible). And Brit (Michelle Wolff) and Elena (Jenny Shimizu) are the obligatory lesbian couple, with matching dyke-y haircuts. (Grace walks in on the pair getting it on in her kitchen and freaks out-- it's a long story.) There's other stuff going on, too, including poor Thea Gil from QAF (I met her once and she's nice as pie, as well as too good an actress for this drivel) losing her magic powers to Griffen and wailing "I need Treassom!" But basically, what it all comes down to is this: bad acting, bad writing, and more half-naked man candy then you can shake a stick at. I'd normally be loathe to complain about that last part, but it really is at a ludicrous level; the men lounge around in board shorts like extras from a porno, except the sex scenes are all "butts only" softcorn sequences that are over and done with in record time. (Seriously, do all gays in Dante's Cove prefer quickies?) There's more "Are you close?" dialogue than a cyber sex exchange, and Trevor must have a second tongue to be able to get Adam off so damn fast. The men are all mid-twenties to early-thirties, yet in bed they have all the staying power of a horned-up sixteen year old. Sheesh. By the way, Griffen isn't strictly straight; he hooks up with bartender Marco (Gabriel Romero) and the two enjoy "magic sex," which is like regular sex except with some freaky zapping energy effects. "Once you have magic sex, you'll never go back," Griffen declares, making me wish the writers had just gone for maximum cheese and had him say something like, "Once you go magic you'll never go back-gic!" While Dante's Cove is advertised as "your favorite guilty pleasure" (sorry guys, but that would be The OC), The DL Chronicles is ostensibly a grittier and more realistic series, an anthology focusing on the secret lives of African Americans living on the "down low." It's narrated by writer Chadwick (Damian T. Raven), who's researching a book on this phenomenon and who apparently runs into closeted black guys on a regular basis. In the episode I saw, he literally bumps into Wes (Darren Schnase), a married real estate broker who's hiding a dark secret (golly, what could it be?). How Chadwick knows everything that happens next is never explained; the set-up reminds me of Red Shoe Diaries, except on that show David Duchovny's narrator got letters telling the stories (and the sex scenes were better, too). In any case, we next see Wes coming home to his Latina wife Sarah (Jessica Beshir), who announces that her ne'er-do-well brother Trent (Ty Vincent) will be staying with them for a week while he looks for a job. As soon as smoldering Trent comes down the stairs we know exactly where this is all going. Wes acts visibly uncomfortable while the two exchange bad dialogue; Trent's off-handed comment that "I'm here to service you... I mean, at your service" is particularly telling. (No points for subtlety Here!, folks.) At an awkward couples dinner, Wes sidesteps friends' questions about when he and the wife are going to start a family; back at home, Sarah complains that he never has sex with her anymore. When Trent finds Wes drinking whiskey on the couch-- languidly lifting up his own tank top to scratch his belly-- anyone who's ever seen a gay porn (or any soap opera ever made) will know where this is going. The two have a sex scene that's slightly longer than the ones on Dante's but just as tame; the next day Wes predictably freaks out and rebuffs all further advances. "I'm straight," he growls, while Trent slinks around seductively. (Apparently it doesn't really bother him that he's putting the moves on his sister's husband. Paging Jerry Springer.) Wes has a near panic attack when Sarah tells him she "knows what happened" between him and her brother; of course, she just means Wes telling Trent to leave, and Wes smiles and says that Trent can stay "as long as he wants." That's all the resolution we get on the story. Cut to Chadwick, throwing away Wes' business card while musing that "Some men want ballpoint pens to have erasers, but then find that ink-- is not so easily erased." He's like a gay black Carrie Bradshaw, except that her observations actually made sense. Seriously, what does that comment even mean? And what exactly are the show's creators trying to say about the down low, exactly? That gay black married men will stay married but enjoy flings with Latino boy toys on the side? That gay black writers will make pithy observations about them? That women look good with spider web earrings? (Seriously, I think that was my favorite part of the episode apart from the ink speech.) Both shows led me to the conclusion that while there are provocative and interesting films out there for gay audiences (John Cameron Mitchell's pansexual Shortbus comes to mind), there's also a lot of crap, and we deserve better. I'm convinced that it's possible to make queer entertainment with substance as well as flash, with stories and characters that go beyond stereotypes. (I'm looking at you, Mr. "cavorting in the pool with random naked dudes" Lehmkuhl.) Maybe someday Here! will develop a show that actually respects our brains as well as our libidos; for now, I'll stick to those crazy straight kids over on Gossip Girl.

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