Edge-less but whipsmart
OPENING with a crash course in how not to interview a lesbian power couple and ending with an equally eye-watering demonstration of how not to spring a late-night surprise on your ex, episode one of The Bisexual was more about hesitations, flounderings and mis-steps than it was sureness and confidence. Which is exactly how its creator and star Desiree Akhavan wanted it.
Akhavan is the Iranian-American director of acclaimed 2018 film The Miseducation Of Cameron Post but for this six-part comedy drama she has swapped her native New York for some hip enclave of London. From the haircuts, I’d say Hackney.
Akhavan plays Leila, who we first meet in the trendy office she shares with business partner and longtime girlfriend Sadie (the wonderful Maxine Peake, in hipster glasses and angular hipster work clothes). Taking a quiet moment after an excruciating press interview about their start-up, described as Shazam for clothes, Sadie asks Leila to marry her and have a child. Akhavan telescopes what happens next – the recriminations, the tears, the late-night conversations that end up going nowhere – into a single, tight scene and the upshot is that Leila and Sadie decide to “have a break”. Which means seeing other people. Which, for Leila, means seeing men. She is, you see, the bisexual of the title, despite having spent her entire life identifying as lesbian.
Enter the rest of the cast, notably Deniz (Saskia Chana), Leila’s brusque, say-it-like-it-is friend, and Gabe (Brian Gleeson), the Irish writer Leila moves in with. He had a book out in 2005 but hasn’t been published since. Deniz and Gabe have both been given hard shells, Deniz because she’s funnier that way and Gabe because he needs it: thanks to his lascivious curiosity about London’s lesbian scene, he’ll tag along with Leila no matter how rude she is to him. And she it at times very rude.
She’s also very funny. Like a bisexual version of Lena Dunham or Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Akhavan plonks herself centre-stage and lets loose her neuroses, prejudices, doubts and worries to wreak quiet havoc on the characters around her. Like Dunham in Girls and Waller-Bridge in Fleabag she also celebrates her character’s sexual agency but doesn’t flinch from showing its darkly funny side (even when the joke is on her) or the dents to her self-confidence and sense of self-worth which can result from it. She is superficial and self-absorbed but also vulnerable. It’s a combination that works, though not everything else does. Akhavan has described bisexuality as “the last taboo”. Really? Last time I looked the B that denotes it was snuggled comfortingly between G and T in the family of letters making up the now-familiar LGBTQ acronym. But if her claims for the show’s edginess are misplaced, she doesn’t put a foot wrong anywhere else: this is a whip-smart comedy of manners with a cast and a sensibility which is refreshingly diverse.
Brian Gleeson as Gabe and Desiree Akhavan as Leila.