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‘Dracula’ deserves a chance

Bisexual controversy aside, new series is bloody fun

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Dracula, gay news, Washington Blade

The new ‘Dracula’ series is available now on Netflix. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

It’s already become fashionable to bash the new “Dracula” series unleashed on the world with the new year by “Sherlock” creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt.

Co-produced by the BBC and Netflix, the latest incarnation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic became queer news late last year when Gatiss (who is out) teased that its re-imagined title character would have bisexual appetites, immediately piquing the interest of queer horror lovers the world over.

Things began to turn, however, when co-creator Moffatt “clarified” by telling The Times that ‘bisexual” was not exactly the right word to describe the show’s vision of the Count. “He’s bi-homicidal, it’s not the same thing,” he said. “He’s killing them, not dating them.”

Controversy ensued, of course. Online commentators suggested that the BBC had engaged in “queer-baiting” to draw LGBTQ viewers to the show, and some took Gatiss’ additional comments that “horror should be transgressive” to imply that the bisexual overtones themselves were meant to be shocking – an outdated concept in 2020, to be sure.

When the show dropped on Jan. 1 (on BBC One in the UK and Netflix in the U.S.), the “bi-vampire-curious” among us got all our questions answered – and those answers, it seems, were not the ones most of us wanted.

Any real discussion of whether this “Dracula” works is dependent on “spoilers,” thanks to the nature of its narrative conceits, so readers beyond this point should consider themselves warned.

The details of Stoker’s novel are well-known, of course, and this latest renovation remains surprisingly faithful to them, all things considered; but as any follower of Gatiss and Moffatt’s career knows, much of the magic in their work – most notably, their modern-day “Sherlock,” which made Benedict Cumberbatch the household name everybody loved to mispronounce – hinges on the way they shatter an already-familiar story and re-assemble its shards into something that feels entirely fresh.

When it works, it’s breathtakingly enjoyable. For many viewers, it seems, the problem with their “Dracula” is that it just doesn’t.

Comprised of three feature-length episodes, the series begins in much the same way as almost every version of the tale, with the arrival of solicitor Jonathan Harker at the mysterious Romanian castle where Dracula has spent centuries draining his neighbors of their blood. This time, his story is told in flashback, as he relates his harrowing experiences there to a nun at a convent to which he has barely escaped with his life – or so he thinks. The Count, he tells her, had hired him as an agent to set up a relocation to England, in hope of finding meals with more “flavor” than the superstitious and unsophisticated locals are able to provide.

It’s here where we discover that the “bisexual” spin was not altogether wrong; Dracula’s “wooing” of Harker is overtly homoerotic (by which tactic the unfortunate lawyer is not unmoved), and he ultimately refers to the young man as his “favorite bride.” Yet ultimately, it’s all a ploy; like all of Dracula’s attractions, it’s based on blood, not sex, and anyone hoping for a queer vampire love story would be well-advised to look instead to the books of Anne Rice.

By the end of the first installment, we have learned that the situation is both nothing like what we are being told and exactly what we think it looks like, and also that the increasingly hard-edged and interrogative nun is none other than the Gatiss-Moffat reinvention of Dracula’s equally iconic arch-nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing, having been given both a gender-flip and considerably more sass. Up to this point, most viewers seem to have been all in.

It’s with the second episode that audience opinions seem to split. Documenting the Count’s sea voyage to England, it expands the Stoker novel’s six-page account into an Agatha Christie-style “And Then There Were None” scenario (which includes a doomed gay couple within the mix – again, not the supernatural romance we might have wished, but more than a token nod to representation, at least) before unexpectedly having Dracula finally set foot on English soil smack in the middle of modern times. This climactic reveal – along with the presence of a new and doubly-determined Van Helsing (no longer a nun but still female) – sets up a final chapter in which, if social media can be considered a valid gauge, the whole thing falls apart into a disappointing and frustrating mess.

Contemporary setting notwithstanding, many of the book’s characters still put in an appearance, such as the tragic Lucy, whose journey from hopeful bride to walking corpse is here played out by a lovely young social media influencer – who also happens to be a woman of color with gay BFF, adding a few more points for to the diversity scale. It’s the tale’s final twist, however, that has left many viewers feeling cheated, betrayed, or otherwise victimized by the series.

That final revelation will remain unspoiled here. What matters more is that a lot of people seem to really hate it. Like disgruntled “Star Wars” or Marvel fans who take to the internet to campaign against creative choices with which they disagree, so too have “Dracula” purists seem to have embraced the new series as the latest example of how a thing they love has been “ruined.”

It would be hard to argue that the latest offering from Gatiss and Moffatt is a masterpiece. Its cleverness is often too deliberate, its glibness too self-referential, and its horror too perfunctory; and while Dolly Wells is a show-stealing wonder as the durable Van Helsing, Danish actor Claes Bang can’t quite manage the delicate balance between camp and menace that is required to make Dracula the sexy beast we all want to see – though admittedly, he tries his best to shine through the sometimes ridiculous dialogue he’s been given to work with.

Even so, “Dracula” was never high art. It was a purely commercial endeavor for Stoker, and even the iconic 1931 movie version starring Bela Lugosi was a clunky potboiler, even for its day. Every screen retelling has remade the durable tale in the image of the day, from the bloodthirsty horror of Christopher Lee’s popular incarnation to the subversive proto-goth allure of Gary Oldman’s romantic outsider in Francis Coppola’s divisive 1992 adaptation, and the best of them have always made bold choices in order to bring some meaning to the proceedings beyond the archetypal horror that drives the original novel.

Gatiss and Moffatt have done no less, and if the result flies in the face of expectation, it can hardly be helped. Instead of simply telling us a story we already know, they have taken the core of the vampire mystique – the seductive appeal of death itself – and made it the focus of a meditation that happens to also be a lurid, not-to-be-taken-too-seriously guilty pleasure. For those who prefer their classics as-is, that might understandably be a deal-breaker.

Anyone else should be encouraged to give it a chance. It can be a lot of bloody fun, if you let it.

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Check out final season of ‘Grace and Frankie’ — it ends well

Groundbreaking show highlights queer, straight elders

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Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are wrapping their groundbreaking series. (Photo by Melissa Moseley; courtesy Netflix)

They make up a fake Jewish holiday (M’Challah) to avoid seeing their friends, lie to their kids about killing their bunny, obsess over playing John Adams in a (very gay) community theater production of the musical “1776” and create vibrators that glow in the dark. Their children sell their house out from under them and make them wear panic alerts.

These people might well creep you out in real life.

But, thankfully, they’re the funny and engaging characters on “Grace and Frankie,” the series, whose seventh and final season has recently dropped on Netflix.

The  show, starring Lily Tomlin, 82, (Frankie) and Jane Fonda, 84, (Grace) as two hetero elders whose husbands (Martin Sheen, 81 as Robert and Sam Waterston, 81, as Sol) leave them to marry each other, is, deservedly, Netflix’s longest-running series.

In 2019, there were 54.1 million people in the United States over 65, according to a Administration for Community Living of the U.S. Department of Human Services report. Elders, the study says, are expected to make up 2l.6 percent of this country’s population by 2040.

There are nearly three million (2.7 million) LGBTQ people over aged 50 in the U.S. and 1.1 million queer elders 65 and older in this country, according to a 2017 Movement Advancement Project and SAGE report.

Yet aside from “Transparent,” few TV series (broadcast, cable or streaming) have featured, let alone, been centered around, older queers.

“Grace and Frankie” is the rare series that’s focused on the lives of elders (hetero and queer). Unlike some shows that showcase older people, it’s been mostly entertaining, even thought provoking, rather than dull or didactic throughout its run.

Set in San Diego, “Grace and Frankie” throughout its seasons has told the story of how Frankie and Grace have created a life of their own as Robert and Sol have entered a new chapter of their lives as a same-sex couple. 

Frankie, Grace, Robert and Sol, who are in their 70s, are affluent. Robert and Sol are successful divorce lawyers. Grace has run a flourishing cosmetics company. Frankie is a new-agey artist who teaches art to ex-convicts.

When Robert and Sol say that they’re leaving them to wed each other because same-sex marriage has become legal in California, Frankie says she’s done a fundraiser for that.

The beach house where Grace and Frankie live is breathtakingly gorgeous. Yet these characters encounter the indignities and dilemmas of aging from learning about social media to coming out in late life to memory loss to end-of-life decisions.

Grace and Frankie run up against the condescension that older women often face. Yet though these are serious concerns, “Grace and Frankie” hasn’t been a downer. 

In one episode, as I’ve written before in the Blade, Grace and Frankie, though they’re practically jumping in front of his face, can’t get a store’s sales clerk to notice them. Because he’s paying so much attention to a young woman. Frankie gives up and steals a pack of cigarettes. If “you can’t see me,” Frankie says, “you can’t stop me.”

In season two, their friend Babe (Estelle Parsons), who is terminally ill, tells Frankie and Grace that she wants them to help her end her life. Though it’s difficult emotionally for them, the women give their friend Babe a good-bye party that’s joyous without being maudlin.

Robert and Sol deal with Robert being in the early stages of dementia. This narrative is touching, but not sappy. Though you should have a tissue in hand for Robert and Sol’s elevator moment in the show’s finale.

Like many old people, the characters have their ups and downs in relating to their adult children. These off-spring from Brianna (June Diane Raphael), a 21st century Cruella de Vil, to Bud (Baron Vaughn), the often wrong-headed “good son,” would try any elder’s soul. 

The main pleasure of “Grace and Frankie” is watching Tomlin and Fonda. The two forces of nature, friends since their “9 to 5″ days, make you laugh and cry with the BFFs Grace and Frankie.

TV series, like everything, have to end. Check out “Grace and Frankie.” It ends well.

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New trailer gives first glimpse into new ‘Queer as Folk’

The highly-anticipated return looks poised to make some welcome improvements as it reinvents the beloved series for a new era

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Courtesy of PEACOCK

HOLLYWOOD – Depending on who you ask, the soon-to-be-dropped reimagining of “Queer as Folk” could well be the biggest LGBTQ television event – or the biggest mistake – of the year.

The groundbreaking original British version of the series, created and written by Russell T. Davies in 1999 (decades before his recent triumph with “It’s A Sin” introduced him to a new generation of queer viewers), has already had an American adaptation in 2000, and each of these installments has its own legion of fans – many of whom have expressed their qualms (to put it mildly) over the entire idea of a new reboot.

That, however, hasn’t stopped Davies from joining forces with writer/director/creator Stephen Dunn (“Closet Monster”) to executive produce one for Peacock. 

Shade from old-school fans aside, the highly-anticipated return of the franchise looks poised to make some welcome improvements as it reinvents the beloved series for a new era. This time, the story promises to deliver a much more diverse assortment of characters than the group of predominantly white gay men featured by its predecessors, with a story centered on a group of LGBTQ friends in New Orleans as their lives are transformed in the aftermath of a recent tragedy.

The new iteration also scores points by employing queer actors to portray all its queer roles – resulting in an impressive lineup of names on its cast list including Ryan O’Connell (“Special”), Johnny Sibilly (“Pose”), Devin Way (“Grey’s Anatomy’), Jesse James Keitel (“Alex Strangelove”), Fin Argus, Candace Grave, Benito Skinner, and Juliette Lewis, and even Kim Cattrall as a “martini-soaked, high society Southern debutante with trailer park roots.” 

Of his reason for getting on board a new adaptation of his show, Davies says, “I’m very proud of what we achieved in 1999, but in queer years, that was a millennium ago! As a community, we’ve radicalized, explored, opened up, and found new worlds – with new enemies and new allies – and there was so much to be said.

Stephen pitched a brand new version of ‘Queer as Folk’ with so much imagination, insight, and crucially, joy, that I simply couldn’t resist. I thought it was about time the title belonged to a whole new generation. The 2022 show is more diverse, more wild, more free, more angry – everything a queer show should be.”

As for Dunn, he explains, “I wanted to create a new groundbreaking version of this show for this moment. Our new ‘Queer as Folk’ is set in New Orleans — one of the most unique queer communities in North America – and I am immensely proud that the new series is comprised of an electric ensemble of fresh characters that mirror the modern global audience.

If there’s one person who is able to see ‘Queer as Folk’ and feel less alone, or who now feels more supported and seen, our job is done. In the true spirit of the original, our show doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of our community, but above all else, the series is about people who live vibrant, vital, unapologetically queer lives.” 

Jacklyn Moore, who co-wrote the new series with Dunn and Executive Produced alongside him and Davies, adds, “I believe deeply in the power of storytelling to make people feel seen, but all too often I feel as though queer and trans representation in art is limited to extremes. We are either shown as saintly heroes bravely surviving a bigoted society or two-dimensional queer-coded villains that feel airdropped in from some previous era. With ‘Queer as Folk,’ we aimed to depict queer characters who live in the messy middle. People who are complicated. Who are funny and caring and flawed and sometimes selfish, but still worthy of love. Still worthy of narrative. As a trans woman, I’m excited to take steps to move past telling stories that seem to just be arguing for our basic humanity. My hope is that Queer as Folk is one such step.”

We’re sure we speak for the rest of the eagerly-waiting fans when we say that we all hope that, too. We can all find out together when Peacock begins streaming the new “Queer as Folk” on June 9.

Queer as Folk | Official Trailer | Peacock Original

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Omar, Netflix’s Elite, & Queer Palestinian representation

With valid critiques of Elite aside, the show provides a monumental step forward in combating both racism and homophobia

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Elite (2018)/Netflix

By Sa’ed Atshan | ATLANTA – Elite, the Spanish Netflix original series released in 2018, has now become a worldwide sensation. Created by Carlos Montero and Dario Madrona, Elite follows the lives of teenagers and classmates at Las Encinas, a fictional private school for wealthy children from Spain and other countries.

There are several students from lower socio-economic backgrounds on full scholarships, and the series explores their intersecting experiences in the community. Over the course of the five existing seasons, taboos are boldly displayed on screen: from racy sexuality, to rape, abortion, drugs, alcohol, crime, murder, and corruption.

While this may be too much for many viewers, the provocative themes, attractive actors, love triangles, extensive scenes of partying, compelling cinematography, and the psychological thriller aspects of the series have galvanized fans in Europe and beyond. Merely a month after its release, Netflix revealed that Elite was streamed by over 20 million accounts. It has since secured a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has become one of the most successful shows globally. 

Alongside the superficial elements of this show lies a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the central characters’ inner worlds and the profound issues with which they grapple. This includes the salience of class and inequality in society, the power of education for social mobility, immigration, racism, and xenopohobia, the role of law in attaining or evading justice, feminism and the struggle for women’s rights, the prevalence of internalized and external homophobia, the command of technology, social media, and surveillance on our lives, and the effects on young people of having to grow up and mature too quickly. 

I was particularly captivated by the character of Omar, played by a Spanish actor with the same first name: Omar Ayuso. While many of the characters who appear in the earlier seasons do not return, Omar is present for all five seasons thus far, becoming central to the overarching narrative.

His Palestinian background is emphasized in the script and on screen and this is huge for the mainstreaming of Palestinians in Western popular media. Omar’s gayness is also clearly highlighted, bringing queer Palestinian lives to the screen in a formidable manner. 

While Omar Ayuso was not one of the most experienced actors and is not the most talented of the actors in this series, his character undergoes a transformation that is powerful and compels audiences. His dark features are handsome, with a signature unibrow, and his attire becomes more and more colorful and expressive, and his bodily comportment more comfortable, as he grows more secure in his own skin. 

We learn that Omar comes from the Shanaa family and is the son of Palestinian Muslim immigrants to Spain who own a small grocery store outside of Madrid. One of his sisters ran away from home to escape their conservative parents and his other sister, Nadia, is also a central character in Elite.

Omar and Nadia’s father is overbearing. Like their mother, Nadia wears the hijab. The mother is soft-spoken and unassuming in many ways, yet Nadia is a force to be reckoned with who aspires to balance pleasing her family with being true to herself. Nadia is brilliant and academically-driven, earning a scholarship to Las Encinas, even as Omar is distracted initially with drug-dealing and working for his family’s business.

After coming out as gay to himself, his family, and the broader community, he movies out and severs ties with his parents, secures work as a bartender, and receives a scholarship to attend Las Encinas. Omar embraces his sexuality and finds a way to lead a life that feels authentic. 

Elite challenges the Islamophobia of Spanish and Western societies, representing both the homophobia that Omar must endure alongside the racism that he experiences as an Arab in Europe. Spain’s long history with the Moors, the Inquisition, and modern migration from North Africa has made its relationship to the Middle East and Islam quite fraught.

The show does not romanticize Omar’s Palestinian immigrant family and it captures the even more dramatic delinquencies of many Spanish and European families. The audience cannot help but juxtapose how Omar’s parents desperately try to preserve notions of tradition, ethics, and honor from their homeland of Palestine amidst a broader landscape of decadence and moral decay in Western contexts.

Omar disavows elements of both the former and latter, while embracing elements of each, and he emerges as a moral compass in the show. His integrity and compassion are palpable and at one point he articulates an aspiration to become a social worker in the future. 

The love that Omar shares with his serious boyfriend, Ander, is beautifully portrayed as well. Though they certainly grapple with their own set of challenges, the chemistry and soulfuness between them is one of the highlights of the show.

Elite (2018)/Netflix

After Netflix posted a romantic photo of Omar and Ander on their Instagram page, it was met with homophobic comments, and Netflix laudably responded simply with a chain of rainbow emojis. 

With valid critiques of Elite aside, the show provides a monumental step forward in combating both racism and homophobia. Netflix has done the global queer Palestinian community right by developing the character of Omar in this manner. Whether or not he appears in season six is yet to be announced, but even if not, he will have already captured countless hearts and minds.

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Sa’ed Atshan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Emory University and author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020)

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