"It's amazing how you always manage to work anal intercourse into the conversation," Debbie, the colorful waitress-with-a-heart-of-gold and suffocatingly supportive mother of one of the central characters on Showtime's Queer as Folk (premiering December 3), says to her son and his friends. Indeed, the first few of the 22 episodes of the show--an American adaptation of last year's controversial hit British series--feature references not just to anal intercourse, but also to rimming, nipple play, "dykes going down on each other," the protein content of semen, a porn movie called Schindler's Fist, Internet strippers, "a guy with Brazilian beach parasites in his ass," tops and bottoms, erections, and butt plugs. It features simulations of backroom sex, steam room sex, bathroom stall sex, shower sex, hospital sex, locker room sex, and bedroom sex; male-male hand jobs and blow jobs abound, and there's even some lesbian sex.

Queer is clearly Showtime's "shocking-er than thou" answer to HBO's popular series Sex and the City: sexually explicit, and centering around four friends, each a different type. Michael, the nice-boy romantic who works at a Big Q Mart and likes comic books, and Emmett, the proudly queeny character who works in men's retail, have a sword fight with two massive dildos. Ted, the insecure accountant who has accidentally overdosed on the drug GHB given to him by a bar pickup, awakes from a coma to find Brian, the slutty, narcissistic advertising executive, screwing a male nurse in the next bed. Seventeen-year-old Justin--to avert pedophilia discussions, Showtime made him two years older than the British character on which he was based--has much sex with 29-year-old Brian, and also with a supposedly straight boy at school and a stranger in an art museum rest room. "I like dick," he announces at family therapy. "I want to get fucked by dick. I want to suck dick. I like sucking dick, and I'm good at it, too." Less enthusiastic about such activities, the Pittsburgh Steelers and companies like Prada, Versace, and Old Navy have refused to have their products mentioned or displayed on the show.

But Showtime plainly expects to draw a curious, transgression-loving straight audience, as well as the gay market that the network has been aggressively courting at gay pride marches, film festivals, and clubs, and via direct mail and party kits sent to gay and lesbian student organizations (which include such giveaways as muscle T-shirts and boxer shorts).

Some will complain that such fare reinstates the discrediting stereotype that gay men are all sex fiends. But until now, television's recent market-driven love affair with gays and lesbians--from Ellen to Will & Grace to the awful new Normal, Ohio, with John Goodman as a beer-guzzling gay man returning to the straight Midwest--has required that gay characters prove their respectability by being desexed goody-goodies or jokes. They have been allowed only as visitors to a straight world rather than inhabitants of a gay one. On Queer as Folk, straight people are the visitors--literally, in a scene at the Pittsburgh Gay and Lesbian Community Center--and the gay folks get to be sexual. That is, strangely, a kind of progress.

Of course, it's a very particular subset of gay men being depicted here--young, white, urban, attractive men who spend much of their free time with other gay men at the gym and bars, often pursuing, having, and talking about sex--and Queer does not pretend it's any more than that. (The only gay people of color in the first episodes of the show are in photographs on the wall at a Gay and Lesbian Center art sale, and although a lesbian couple plays a prominent role, nearly all the women in the program, including the lesbians, are defined as mothers.) Although some gay and straight people may wish otherwise, such worlds exist; and now that representations of gay people are considerably expanded, the risk of taking a look seems much diminished. They turn out to be interesting, disturbing places, often fun and always with a terrific soundtrack.

Like its British predecessor, the American Queer just takes you into one such world, which both is and isn't about sex, and allows its characters three dimensions, not all of them likable. These are complicated but not tormented lives, in which the men are closeted in some settings and not in others, defiant on one day and ashamed on another, drugged-out on one night and holding a baby the next morning. They sometimes make fools of themselves, they make subtle racist and unsubtle sexist comments, they sabotage one another, and they take care of each other. In occasional, jumpy, out-of-time sequences, Queer as Folk even does visual justice to the disorientation that so often attends the trip outside of heterosexual rules: Michael's fantasy memory of teenage sex-play in his boyhood bedroom; Justin's fearful, excited first steps on Pittsburgh's gay strip; his mother's difficult visit to the Gay and Lesbian Center, where she imagines her son and Brian having taunting sex in front of her.

Oddly, for all that transgression, the Americanized Queer as Folk sometimes feels like a gay after-school special. The guys say Oprah-like things to each other--such as "You're worth so much more than you realize," and "You're the only one you need." When his friends suggest that he is too "obvious," Emmett gives a lengthy, pro-sissy sermon about how he'd rather his "flame burn bright than be a puny little pilot light." Michael and Emmett, having discovered Ted's secret crush on Michael, agree that "there's a lot of things we don't know about each other" and begin to swap intimacies. In a made-for-TV hospital scene, Ted's mother tells him, "I worry that you're alone" and "... how proud I am that you're my son." Debbie, Michael's mother, tells the mother of the newly out Justin that "the thing he's most afraid of, even more than his dad finding out and beating the shit out of him, is that you will stop loving him"; and not long after, Justin's mother is chasing after him, calling, "I'm still your mother, and you're still my son, and I still love you!"

Deprived as gay people generally have been of such tidy, feel-good moments--on television, as in life--they are nice to see and hear, even if woodenly acted. Yet their presence is one clue that the aren't-we-racy stance of Queer as Folk in fact hides a much more complex relationship to sex than either shock or celebration. The real business of Queer as Folk, it turns out, is tracing the confusion of its gay male characters about how sex and love might fit together, how someone might learn to give and receive more than temporary affirmation and pleasure--a universal theme, for sure, but in Queer's more insightful moments, one visible with specifically gay twists. In part because sexual freedom is exactly what was and is denied them, in part because sexual heat can medicate self-doubt, in part because they are less beholden to the monogamy norms of heterosexuals, gay-male subcultures have often made sexual contacts their centerpiece.

And the Queer guys are demonstrably discontent. They enjoy the gilded go-go booth, heads spinning from the sex-and-drugs culture they've embraced. But the more sex takes over, the less connected they become. It is no accident that Brian--the actor portraying him has called him "the ultimate antihero"--is the meanest and most selfish character, the most antilove, antifamily, and antiresponsibility, and also the most sexual. "I don't believe in love, I believe in fucking," he says at one point. "You get in and out with a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of bullshit." He lets down his friends continually, and always because he is off having sex. Ted wants sexual affirmation so badly that he nearly dies getting it. When Michael meets a dreamy chiropractor, he tries to end their first date by offering sex, which turns off the slightly older, relationship-oriented doctor; Michael takes himself to a bar and drowns his sorrows in hot sex with a handsome stranger, and as the man moves down toward his crotch, the camera closes in on Michael's face: blank, detached.

That scene, like many other sexual episodes in this series, is crosscut with a scene of domesticity--in this case, of Brian at the lesbians' house. If Queer as Folk is radically celebratory about the sexual joy men take in one another, it is ultimately quite critical in its assessment of the role of sex in the gay world it depicts and conservative in its narrative push back toward the family. These Peter Pans are assisted in their maturation process by the various women on the show--hence, perhaps, the heavy presence of women as mothers. (The lesbians, in fact, are themselves refreshingly sexual, and more fully developed characters than in the British original, but their role is largely to domesticate Brian, who discovers hints of a responsible life through his relationship to their baby.) "With all due respect for our lesbian characters," as openly gay co-executive producer Daniel Lipman recently told The Advocate, "the show is about boys becoming men and assuming responsibility." Buried in that framework is the familiar, controversial implication that many gay men are developmentally stunted and narcissistic. But the producers are kept honest by an affection for their characters, by a commitment to a version of family that includes but transcends biological ties, and, ironically, by a dedication to on-screen sex.

It remains a major breakthrough for television to show lesbians and gay men tied to their cobbled-together communities and their chosen families rather than plucked from them--to show them as messy people rather than as cardboard cutouts. In an era of simplified, neutered, airbrushed television images of gay men and lesbians, it is a breakthrough for television just to assert that some gay people indeed have sex. But it is in the representation of these particular gay men's complicated relationship to sex--as an expression of self-loving and self-loathing, empty and irresistible, a cry of freedom and of pain and a source of great laughs--that Queer as Folk makes its mark. ยค