“When I hear ‘bisexual,’ I think, ‘lame slut.’ It’s tacky. It’s gauche. It makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance. It’s not a cool thing to be, and it makes my fucking skin crawl.”
While this speech may sound akin to a homophobic rant, in Desiree Akhavan’s latest show, “The Bisexual,” these words are straight from the horse’s — or, more accurately, the titular bisexual’s — mouth.
Akhavan, who directed the year’s standout queer film, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” again utilizes her perspective as a queer woman by co-creating and directing “The Bisexual,” a TV series that’s as much for LGBTQ+ folks as it is for anyone who has ever struggled to categorize their identity. The show provides a fly-on-the-wall, dramedy look into the life of Leila (Akhavan) — a 30-something American expat in England — as well as into the lives of those around her: her heterosexual novelist roommate Gabe (Brian Gleeson), her best friend Deniz (Saskia Chana), her lesbian friend group and her ex-partner Sadie (Maxine Peake).
The premise appears simple: After breaking up with Sadie, her partner of 10 years, Leila comes to terms with her bisexuality. Akhavan’s Leila serves as an extension of the awkward, charmingly dorky character she introduced in her 2014 debut film “Appropriate Behavior.” But “The Bisexual” provides a narrative undeniably needed and thus far untold that deals with bisexuality from a queer, rather than heterosexual, perspective — one based on the act of having to come out, once again, as an identity that feels “less” queer. Yet the series isn’t meant exclusively for queer audiences — its story is empathetically intended for those messily trying to navigate breakups, identifiers of sexual orientation and societally frowned-upon relationships.
This isn’t your cutesy “Love, Simon” for bisexuals — it’s awkward and messy and calls out the queer community even more than it does straight people. In the wrong hands, “The Bisexual” could have easily been about a heretofore heterosexual woman who tries sleeping with women, played up for the camera’s objectifying eye. But it’s not. “The Bisexual” is about internalized biphobia, externalized biphobia, LGBTQ+ communities and identity categories themselves.
There’s no scene in which Leila’s lesbian community — or even her straight male roommate — reassures her about her identity. Leila’s newfound bisexuality is initially a point of shame, but it’s also what drives her sexual actions post-breakup. She is able to develop more complex relationships, bond with another bisexual person and complicate her sense of self in an electrifying manner.
In the age-old, women-led tradition of self-deprecating humor, the show anticipates its own critiques. While originally only Leila’s sex scenes with men are graphically depicted, she later also has an indulgently filmed sex scene with a woman. Any complaints about underdeveloped characters are assuaged by the season’s standout fifth episode, a nostalgic flashback story that provides the show’s emotional crux. By examining the pasts of each character, their actions over the previous four episodes suddenly become justified, understandable and even — in some instances — heartbreaking.
But the show’s unwillingness to exclusively cater to queer viewers is perhaps its weakness. It hinders itself with its vaguely too-broad scope. While Gabe’s hetero storyline eventually provides some emotional beats, the moments when he’s in front of the camera sans Leila feel largely unnecessary. The time spent on his story could have been used to develop Sadie and Leila’s relationship, which, though interestingly complex, largely lacks motivation. For most of the series, the viewer is left largely unsure of whether they’re meant to root for the couple’s reunion or for both to move on.
Those stumbles aside, the six-part series is easily consumable, and it’s filled with golden nuggets of insight into the queer community that are worth three hours of dedication. At its core, the message of “The Bisexual” is that bisexuals are no less queer. They belong in the LGBTQ+ community — a statement those inside and outside of the community, as well as bisexuals themselves, desperately need to hear.
“The Bisexual” is now streaming on Hulu.
Caroline Smith covers queer media. Contact her at [email protected].