The sexual badlands and London’s mean streets are the settings for two outstanding new series
Ihave just discovered The Bisexual, recently added by Stan to its burgeoning slate — and terrific it is, too. Created by Desiree Akhavan — who also writes, stars and directs — and Rowan Riley, this rather astringent comedy drama comes at a time when many are questioning the cultural meanings attached to men’s and women’s roles and their sexual identities.
Akhavan is known for her funny, caustic feature film debut Appropriate Behaviour, which put her on the map (and prompted an outbreak of press that quickly cast her as “an Iranian bisexual Lena Dunham”) back in 2014. She also co-wrote and directed the Sundance grand jury prize-winning The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which starred Chloe Grace Moretz as a teenager sent to a gay conversion camp.
Her new six-part half-hour comedy series begins with transplanted New Yorker Leila deciding to leave Sadie, her girlfriend and business partner — they’re co-creators of an app they call “Shazam for clothes” — after she turns down Sadie’s marriage proposal in the toilet of the office they share with their hipster staff.
“We’ve talked about kids and marriage,” Sadie (played brilliantly by Maxine Peake) says, incredulous. “We’ve talked about it abstractly,” Leila says. “We’ve also talked about euthanasia.” She wants a break before they can move forward, she says. But there’s more to it, of course. Leila, who has only ever been with women in the bedroom, feels that she has never really explored her sexuality and that just maybe it’s time to have a shot at heterosexuality. Or possible even bisexuality — if such a thing is really possible. Leila suspects bisexuality is “a myth created by ad executives to create flavoured vodka”. There’s also her ideological worry that bi-curious girls are merely “sex tourists”.
Forsaking her rather entitled, comfortable life with Sadie, she, a little indirectly, moves in with a “stranger off the internet”, neurotic novelist Gabe (Brian Gleeson), a bearded straight British bloke whose only other female “flatmate” was his mum. He once, a long time ago, wrote a novel called Testicular, now completely forgotten. He’s rather opinionated and his flat is a mess.
Working as a university lecturer, he’s having it off — loudly, it must be said — with his 22year-old student. It’s in his dorky company that Leila must begin to tentatively explore relationships with men. Gabe has no experience whatsoever of lesbians and Leila has hardly ever hung out with heteros, and from the start their insular worlds awkwardly intersect as he helps her navigate her new dating life while Leila introduces him to the queer scene.
The dynamic between Leila and her lesbian friends seems authentic and never alienating and is caustically funny, like the series itself, an unapologetic take on the “last taboo”, as its creator calls bisexuality — and the destructive stereotypes and misapprehensions about it that persist in the queer community. (Bisexual invisibility and biphobia are often referred to as the LGBT community’s “dirty little secrets”.) Then there’s sex itself. “Sex is complicated,” Leila admits. “You strategise how you’re gonna get it. And then you anticipate it. Then, once it’s finally happening, don’t you wish you could fast forward?”
The series is the first to be centred on a bisexual character and Akhavan understands why the idea has been unexamined so long. “All it means is that gender isn’t a qualifier for you, but for both entirely gay and entirely straight people it can be hard to wrap your brain around what it means to be neither.” People misunder- stand bisexuality, she says, assuming that if you can’t choose a gender, you can’t commit to either. It’s a confusion ripe for comic evaluation and exploration.
Akhavan’s approach is characterised by a quirky, confronting wit, closely observed detail gleaned from her experiences navigating the sexual badlands, a pronounced absorption in the sheer messiness of sexual experience — the sex scenes are irresistibly hysterical — and a sense of being disconcerted, not quite in the moment.
“I’ve always had a difficult time identifying with anything,” she recently told journalist Sarah Carson.
“I’m the child of immigrants, I was raised in New York, I live in England, my parents are from Iran, I’ve never quite felt American, never felt Iranian. I’ve been openly bisexual but when I’m in a lesbian relationship, I always feel not gay enough, when I’m in a straight relationship, I always feel not straight enough. My life has been determined by being somewhere in between, and not quite belonging to any of the heavily organised communities that I was raised in.” Well, she now fully belongs to us with this quite beguiling little comedy. In Bulletproof, another new show that has just begun on Fox Showcase, we venture out into London’s mean streets in a cinematic crime series that mixes drama, action and comedy in a new take on the police buddy genre. No, not the white-white version of the genre, or the more recent black-white iteration, but the blackblack innovation; a new wrinkle in this very small piece of creative fabric.
Noel Clarke plays Bishop and Ashley Walters is Pike, two London cops who play by their own rules and get results as they violently track down hardened criminals in the East End. Yes, the show rather predicably and knowingly adheres to genre conventions, but this observance pays off.
It was created by director Nick Love, responsible for the slick remake of The Sweeney starring Ray Winstone, and his fluent direction obeys all the rules with no directorial neuroses getting in the way of the actors (who probably direct themselves), or in the way of the action (as London’s freeways are turned into Swiss cheese). Love pokes some droll fun at cop-show conventions and infuses many well-made action sequences with moments of amusing silliness.
Bishop and Pike’s unilateral approach to law and order may see heads shaking among their by-the-book colleagues but in the first episode an informant is run down before their eyes, leaving a baby back in her flat, and they’re soon on the hunt for a gang of Serbian car thieves who are armed with heavy-calibre machineguns and running luxury vehicles into Europe.
The episodes are self-contained, a rather conventional story-of-the-week format in this new age of heavily serialised storytelling. Walters and Clarke came up with the original concept and have cited Michael Bay’s Bad Boys as an early inspiration. It’s pleasing to see two young actors allowed the opportunity to emerge from supporting roles and successfully create their own winning vehicle, especially one that positions black men as leads (even if the show has been in the pipeline for almost a decade awaiting a more enlightened approach to casting diversity).
And if the plot is a bit flimsy, what does compute is the chemistry. Clarke and Walters click: they hum, they purr, they squabble from the first scene where we find them sparring rather torridly in a boxing ring. And it’s through their bond that our bond to the series arrives. This is a series where the emotional is worked out more neatly than the narrative point of view and it’s been a huge hit in Britain, going straight to a second season. streaming on Stan. Wednesday, 7.30pm, Fox Showcase.
Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters in British police buddy series Bulletproof
Brian Gleeson and Desiree Akhavan in comedy drama The Bisexual