Through Two Peepers in Tune with the Times

TV or not TV

Ever since Ellen DeGeneres stepped gingerly from the closet, the depiction of homosexuals on network television has advanced from the wink-wink-nudge-nudge stage to somewhat more frank portrayals. But even these new examples are generally relegated to comedies like "Will & Grace" because it's easier to laugh at gays than take them seriously.

The place for honest, unvarnished treatment of gay life, it seems, is Showtime, whose "No Limits" slogan actually means something. Jerry Offsay, president of programming for Showtime Networks, says it really comes down to greenlighting good material, not targeting a particular issue or audience.

"From any of those brand elements the network had previously." Still, on Offsay's watch the cable channel has aired sensitive, open-minded fare like "The Twilight of the Golds," "Common Ground" and "Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City." And its fall/winter slate includes the sort of gutsy programming that would never get past the drawing board at the networks.

Most likely to offend someone's sensibilities is "Queer as Folk," an American version of what might be England's most controversial series in years. Centering on the everyday lives of seven homosexual men and women, "Queer as Folk" is a mature, randy and often explicit exploration of the gay experience.

The original English series, which has appeared in the United States on the BBC America cable channel, is set in Manchester. The Showtime version moves the setting to Pittsburgh to retain the same working-class feel. Executive producer Ron Cowen plans to be faithful in all other aspects of the series, as well.

"We're not tempering anything," he said. "It's going to be just as explicit, just as graphic, just as honest and just as funny as the English series. The mandate we made ourselves was to either match the level of honesty of that show or, hopefully, even go beyond what they did."

Even though it's on premium cable, producer Tony Jonas expects the series to raise eyebrows. "I have to believe there's going to be a great deal of shock because it's just something you haven't seen," he said. "What we are planning to do is something that is frank and honest and unapologetic -- something that will be shocking, but shockingly good." Showtime also will air "Holiday Heart," a television adaptation of Cheryl L. West's play about an aging drag queen and his fatherly relationship with the young daughter of a drug-addicted woman. Ving Rhames and Alfre Woodard star in the film, which pointedly asks the question: What makes a family?

Woodard, who plays the drug-using mom, thinks the film has a universality that will surprise. "You don't expect to go in having something reflect your own life in any way and actually have the protagonist be the person that's reflecting something about you," she said. "Your heart is going to be touched."

"Unabashed crime junkie" Dick Wolf, creator of "Law & Order," will syndicate a real-life version of his long-running cops-and-courts series this fall. Brian Dennehy will host the five-days-a-week show, titled "Arrest & Trial" and designed to run in the 7 o'clock hour just before prime time. Wolf says it will focus on actual crimes, mostly murders, starting with the police investigation and arrest, and ending with the trial and verdict.

Not a fan of reality shows like "Survivor" and "Big Brother," Wolf says "Arrest & Trial" appeals to him "because it can go on the same way 'Law & Order' has gone on for years, and be continuously interesting." Judd Apatow is a reasonably happy man. Though his series "Freaks and Geeks" was canceled by NBC, the original 18 episodes have found a new home at Fox Family Channel and will begin airing in proper sequence on Aug. 29.

No new episodes will be made, but Apatow and co-creator Paul Feig are just happy that viewers will have the chance to see the well-crafted paean to high school life in the '80s as they intended it to be seen. "We always assumed we would be a one-season show," Apatow said, "so we designed the show like it was an 18-hour miniseries." Unfortunately, NBC aired episodes out of order and frequently pre-empted the series, so any possibility of maintaining continuity was out the window.

Apatow says he's not bitter. "If you refuse to work for anyone who is annoying in this business," he said, "you won't work." But he is troubled by the current mania to find the one show -- la "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" and "Survivor" -- that will change a network's fortunes.

"It's a terrible trend for shows like 'Freaks and Geeks' because we are never going to change television," Apatow said. "In fact, I was thinking as I go in to pitch new shows for next season that my pitch (to the networks) is: 'Let me make the show that makes you feel less dirty about the other s--- you're putting on the air.'



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