A queer woman acquaintance on Twitter once called The L Word, the most well-known TV series by and about queer women, "the worst show ever made." And not one of her thousands of followers — on a platform known for the argumentative nature of its denizens — disagreed with her. When The L Word first aired, every queer woman I knew was watching. What choice did we have? We couldn't just switch to some better show by and about queer women because none existed. Those days are now behind us: Queer women writing queer women characters for TV are no longer unusual, though shows that rate beyond "not terrible if you skip all the scenes that have straight people in them" remain rare. I hadn't encountered excellent TV by and about queer women until I saw Desiree Akhavan's Channel 4 series The Bisexual, which arrives on Nov. 16.
Akhavan's name may be familiar because The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the film about anti-queer conversion therapy she directed and
Akhavan has stuffed the cast with scene-stealers. The delightful Maxine Peake (who stars in Mike Leigh's upcoming Peterloo and played Hamlet in a recent UK film version) is Leila's ex, Sadie. Knockout model-actress Cassie Clare,
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The Bisexual has elements of farce: Leila, for a while, seems to have sex with everyone she shares a drink with. But like gay comedian Josh Thomas' autobiographical series, Please Like Me (which featured and was, in part, written by Hannah Gadsby) from a couple of years back, its laughs don't keep it from reaching unexpected levels of emotional verisimilitude. In the course of its six episodes, we see how a bad hookup after a breakup can make you want to run back to your ex, how an offhand remark from another hookup can hurt and how you can then hurt that person you don't know well right back. We see that some of the characters have complicated reasons for not being in romantic relationships, rather than being portrayed as TV comedies’ usual sad-sack singles. The Bisexual's depth exposes how lazily and badly written most TV still is.
Part of what sets the show apart is that instead of just being in a sea of straight people, Leila is embedded in the queer community: It's her home culture. The only other current LGBT shows that do the same are Pose, which takes place in 1980s New York and centers on ball culture (like that captured in Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris Is Burning), and, to a lesser degree, Vida, which takes place in a present-day, gentrifying Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles. And like those shows, The Bisexual doesn't follow the all-too-common tradition of queer TV and movies that focus only on white faces: Akhavan is Iranian-American; Chana is British-South Asian (though her character is the daughter of Turkish immigrants)
The Bisexual's characters briefly mention and even watch old episodes of The L Word, but, like my friend's followers on Twitter, they’re under no illusion about its quality. Their shout-outs, though, are both a nice acknowledgment of history and a mark of how far we've come.
The Bisexual premieres November 16 on Hulu.