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Eye candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker: Peter Paige, Hal Sparks, Scott Lowell

Eye candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker: Peter Paige, Hal Sparks, Scott Lowell

Queer as Folk is the gayest show of all time. Grabbing a Japanese boyfriend, one character gushes, "Katsuo gives 'Pacific rim' a whole new meaning." Which has to be a TV first--at least among stations that you don't subscribe to by the hour. The E-buzzed zooms and pans pay homoerotic tribute to the male body. The simulated sex is hotter than the simulated sex on Showtime's het productions, the fabulousness never feels self-hating, and the insiderdom (the ubiquity of porn, for instance) captures a recognizable slice of reality.

Adapted from a hit British miniseries whose cult demanded a sequel, Queer as Folk (9:00 p.m. Sundays; Showtime) follows four thirtyish Pittsburgh men as they fall into and out of love (or just bed), camouflage themselves at work, and ponder a future of sagging butts and libidos. We visit this world through the eyes of Michael Novotny (Hal Sparks), a likable chain-store assistant manager who also serves as Boswell for his teen crush, hunky Brian (Gale Harold), a rampaging libido whose gaydar snaps his neck erect like a bird of prey's whenever he spots a conquest. Camp queen Emmett (Peter Paige) and nebbishy Ted (Scott Lowell), who nurtures his own silent crush on Michael, complete the array, complemented by the lesbian couple Brian artificially inseminated, Michael's PFLAG-flying mom (a zestfully overacting Sharon Gless), and teen hottie Justin (Randy Harrison, looks 15 but is 23), a boy-band cutie who loses his virginity to Brian on the first episode but refuses to remain a one-night stand. Brian, not taking this well, snarls, "So, Dawson, how are things down at the creek?" when next spying his would-be lover.

Narcissistic Brian consumes most of the emotional energy: Michael recalls their teenage almost-sex over a Patrick Swayze photo; the lesbian couple alternately cherishes and snarls at him; even Ted gives him power of attorney (which comes into play when too much GHB from a hot boy puts Ted in a coma). Presumably Brian represents the emotional train wreck that mars everyone's romantic history. Yet despite shadings of self-hate beneath the self-love, Brian remains more a type than a person, and it's hard to root for him, or his penis, in the long run.

Justin, whose love triangle with Michael and Brian promises further story, also has a natural narrative arc in front of him. But I want more Michael. He's a philosopher of gay-bar life with the doleful eyes of a born observer, tracking Brian's rises and falls with the sure knowledge that he will serve as security blanket but never as bedmate. As a result of this watchful quality, Michael gets some of the best lines. Defending Web sex, he muses, "Who ever got anal warts in a chat room?"

So is Queer as Folk too gay or not gay enough? Can breeder boys like me enjoy it, or should we be turned off, if only in solidarity with gay separatism? Some viewers have complained that the pecs 'n' poppers atmosphere slights the complexity of gay life and confirms the stereotypes of bigots. Women don't get much airtime and straights appear as brewski-quaffing lugs or cheerily homophobic shrews. Which adds up to the Sex and the City predicament: How much credit do you get for opening up warts-and-all bedroom talk without blushing?

Quite a bit here: In the midst of a ferocious campaign of heterosexual retrenchment--in the recent elections, antigay measures passed handily in Nebraska and Nevada and were barely defeated in Maine and Oregon--any show that dares to dress its characters in GOT LUBE? T-shirts deserves more than a pat on the back. As the first program to proudly reinstate the "sexual" in "homosexuality," Queer as Folk marks a significant step forward for American culture even if it never does anything more than graph the hydraulic curve of Brian's tumescence.