Will “Earthlings” be the Lesbian “Queer as Folk”?

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Production has begun on Earthlings, the lesbian ensemble series ordered by Showtime, and while there has been only a little information released so far, it is enough to raise some interesting questions.

The premise of the pilot is as follows (summarized here by Chicago’s gay newspaper, The Windy City Times):

Having just graduated from the University of Chicago, Jenny moves out to L.A. to be with her boyfriend Tim and begin her professional writing career. Normally on top of things, her life is turned upside down when she attends a party hosted by Tim’s neighbors, Bette and Tina, a lesbian couple who are looking to take the step into parenthood after seven years of dating. A brief encounter at the party suddenly has Jenny thrust into a lesbian community and a whole new world.

Unlike Queer as Folk, which cast mostly unknown actors, Earthlings appears to have had no problem attracting both well-known and semi-known actors to the cast. This may be because the success and acceptance of Queer as Folk has helped pave the way for Earthlings, or because there are so few decent parts for women in Hollywood, or because it is just more acceptable for women to play lesbian and bisexual characters (or some kind of combination of all three).

The actors who have signed on so far include:

Mia Kirshner (Jenny) has most recently played a series of bisexual characters in the movies Exotica, Not Another Teen Movie, and New Best Friend, and in the television series 24 (she has also played heterosexual women in several other films, like Anna Karenina). If Earthlings takes off, Kirshner as the lead is likely to become a big star.

Jennifer Beals (Bette) had the starring role in 1983’s Flashdance, and has appeared in several smaller films since then, with an excellent turn in the 2001 Jennifer Jason Leigh indie flick The Anniversary Party. If Earthlings succeeds, it could be a big come-back vehicle for Beals, since her character figures prominently in the story as Jenny’s next-door neighbor who (along with her partner Tina, played by Laurel Holloman) introduces Jenny to the whole new world.

Laurel Holloman (Tina) is probably best known in the gay community for her role as lesbian Randy Dean in the cute 1995 movie The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. She had small parts in films like Boogie Nights, The Myth of Fingerprints, and Prefontaine, but has been unable to capitalize on these to garner bigger parts. Like Kirshner and Beals, this series could prove the vehicle she needs to break out of small-roles.

Pam Grier (Kit) is best known from her roles as Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown in the 1974 and 1997 movies of the same names. She has also had a series of smaller roles in movies like In Too Deep and Ghost of Mars, but her career has struggled a bit since then.

Karina Lombard (Marina) made her screen debut in The Doors, and then had a few small but interesting parts in The Firm, Legends of the Fall and Last Man Standing (and, unfortunately, Kull the Conqueror). She is the cast member with perhaps the most diverse background, being a mix of Lakota, Russian, and Swiss, born in Tahiti but raised in Barcelona, and fluent in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. While it isn’t yet clear how large of a role she will have in Earthlings, her career can only benefit from it.

Kate Moennig (Shane) played cross-dressing Jacqueline/Jake on the summer of 2000 WB teen series Young Americans, and most recently had a role in the 2001 Kevin Spacey film The Shipping News. Prior to this, she did mostly theatre productions.

Leisha Hailey (Alice) was formerly a member of the all-women band The Murmers, and only sometimes an actor. She had a memorable screen debut as the pink-haired, rocker lesbian Lucy in 1997’s All Over Me, and also stars in the yet-to-be-released indie film The Snowflake Parade. Off-screen, she was k.d. lang’s girlfriend for a few years. In Earthlings, her character is slated to be the only bisexual woman in the group.

Erin Daniels had one guest appearance on a Law and Order episode in 1990, and then seems to have taken a hiatus from acting until 1997, when she began doing more television guest appearances again. Her big-screen debut came in the recently released Robin Williams film One Hour Photo, and she also has a role in the upcoming horror film House of 1,000 Corpses.

Scott Bairstow (Party of Five) has been cast as Jenny’s boyfriend Tim.

While the ensemble boasts some excellent actors (three of whom have played lesbian or bisexual characters before), it is disappointing that the cast is so…well, white. Given that the story is set in LA, would it kill them to at least include one Latina lesbian? Or an Asian American lesbian?

Clearly the Showtime folks haven’t learned from Queer as Folk, which has been criticized by many in the gay community for its lack of diversity (among other things). Or perhaps the criticism has just been drowned out by the show’s resounding financial success, which has taught them exactly the opposite: deliver white people, and they will come.

Also sounding eerily reminiscent of Queer as Folk is the focus on the lesbian couple’s decision to have a child. As interesting as that situation can be, God forbid we have a whole show around Melanie and Lindsay!

It’s not that the lesbians in Queer as Folk aren’t realistic (I think we all know women like Melanie and Lindsay), but their constant baby-and-relationship focus is both sexist, tired, and (more importantly to the producers), just doesn’t make for interesting television week after week.

To be fair, Queer as Folk has started to broaden the lesbian storylines recently. But between Queer as Folk, the lesbians on Friends, the recent storyline on ER, and all the TV movies about lesbians having children and/or losing them to homophobic relatives, you’d think that parenting is the only thing lesbians care about.

The lesbians in Earthlings don’t need to go to the other extreme and swing from the chandeliers like the guys on Queer as Folk (at least not every week), but there is a lot of territory to explore in-between: careers, friendships, moral dilemmas, financial struggles, extended family issues. And of course, sex and romance, and all that goes with it.

It will also be interesting to see how the show addresses the issue of bisexuality, which should clearly at least be discussed in light of Jenny’s boyfriend. But television has historically been very reluctant to touch bisexuality, and since it is also a somewhat controversial subject within the lesbian community, it would be easy for Earthlings to avoid it altogether if it wants to play it safe.

This would be dishonest, however, and undermine the credibility of the series from the beginning – not to mention create gaps in the storyline which only make sense in the context of bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation and not just a five-second stop-over on the way to coming out as a lesbian.

That the Earthlings pilot was written by a lesbian (Ilene Chaiken), however, and also directed by one (Rose Troche), gives us reason to hope that the lesbian characters in Earthlings won’t be as one-dimensional as they are in Queer as Folk. Troche’s debut film Go Fish was intentionally diverse in its cast, and addressed the issue of bi-phobio within the lesbian community head-on, so it is possible that Troche will try to craft Earthlings in the same way — if not immediately, then at least after the series has been established.

Troche has also directed an episode of the HBO series Six Feet Under, and Chaiken won a Golden Globe for her script of the Showtime movie Dirty Pictures.

The pilot also has yet to finish production, so anything could happen — they could diversify the cast. They could decide to shift the focus away from the lesbian-parenting storyline. They could make the characters as interesting and multi-dimensional as most lesbians are in real life.

While they’re at it, I hope they also decide to change the name. Earthlings sounds like just another sci-fi show out there competing for ratings, and certainly doesn’t seem very relevant to the subject matter — or frankly, even very interesting.

At least the title’s not Queer as Lesbian Folk, though. Only time will tell whether that’s true about the series itself.

April 2003 Update: Earthlings has been retitled The L Word and Eric Mabius has replaced Scott Bairstow as Tim.