Lucy Mangan Our sexually fluid society is thirsty for a taboo-breaking drama about sexuality – but this isn’t it
Superficially, at least, a comedy-drama entitled The Bisexual – about the trials and tribulations of a woman who comes out of a 10-year lesbian relationship and finds herself being drawn peniswards – is a comedydrama whose time has come. As a society, we are interrogating gender, biology, queerness and the fluidity of all these things and more. Why, we are even learning to cope with a female Doctor Who! And, sex – or the promise of it with any combination of genitalia – always sells.
Alas – for The Bisexual, at least – whatever conducive conditions currently pertain, what also persists is the human desire to be entertained. It is here that this sixpart comedy-drama (created by Desiree Akhavan, who also plays Leila, the p-experimenter) stumbles, because it is neither comic nor dramatic.
The episode opens with the power couple Sadie (played in a handful of mostly expositive scenes in the opener by the mighty Maxine Peake) and Leila. They are being interviewed by a semi-cretinous journalist (yes, yes, insert jokes about tautologies here; we are a democracy) as they prepare to launch a new business project, but it becomes clear from their divergent answers to the journalist’s questions about how they met (“That is not true. That is Sadie being an asshole and shitting on a nice memory”) and plans for a family (“Of course!” “We talked about it abstractly. We also talked about euthanasia”) that all may not be well in thirtysomething gay paradise.
This is confirmed when, during a break in the interview, Sadie asks Leila to marry her and Leila responds by asking for a couple of months’ apart instead.
Leila moves out of their shared home and – for some unfathomable reason, given that there is everything to suggest she is perfectly well-off and nothing to suggest that she is friendless or desperate – into a shithole Gumtree flatshare with a stranger who soon turns out to be a shithole himself. Her new flatmate is Gabe, a self-centred novelist living off the glories of one decadeold successful book, Testicular. He is now a university lecturer who is, to the surprise of no one in the whole world, banging one of his students, Francisca.
On a night out at a gay bar with her friends, to which Leila inexplicably brings her bellend flatmate, he proves his bell-endry by trying to initiate a conversation about Blue Is the Warmest Colour. The crushing silence that greets this is sadly one of the best moments of the 30 slowly ticking minutes of this episode.
Leila, meanwhile, takes a shine to the coat-check manboy. They go back to his place and are about to shag when she reveals that he will be her first man. He gets cold – well, let’s say feet – and the deal is off. Upset, Leila inveigles Gabe and her best friend Deniz into breaking into her old flat so she can prepare it for a proposal to Sadie. Who is, of course, asleep in bed with a new woman; the uber-cool secretary from their office, because that is a boss move that binds all demographics.
There are a handful of moments – apart from the crushing silence greeting Gabe – that work. Coat-check boy’s “Can you pass me my charger?” to Leila as she leaves his flat is every one-night stand (or near as, in their case) distilled to its disaffected essence. I would base a whole spinoff series around Francisca for her contemplative analysis over Gabe’s sexual performance alone: “Because of your book, I thought you would be different. But you do not fuck like you write. It is interesting.”
But for all its promise to be a pioneering exploration of bisexuality as, according to Akhavan, “the last taboo”, and of how sex and who we choose to have it with can shed light on the prejudice that lives inside even those who pride themselves on being the wokest of the woke, it is a bleak, affectless and suffocatingly joyless affair. Cynicism and detachment is the prevailing mood and one of the main elements of every role so far. Furthermore, while of course characters do not have to be likable to work, they do have to redeem themselves with some degree of wit or interest. Air, light and shade are what everything needs to survive.
Cynicism is the prevailing mood ... Desiree Akhavan in The Bisexual
For all its promise, it is a suffocatingly joyless affair