'The Bisexual': TV Review
Hulu's inconsistent half-hour dramedy follows the complications in a young woman's life when she leaves her girlfriend to explore men.
Hulu's hit-or-miss dramedy The Bisexual takes place on a curious planet where every inhabitant is overeducated and fashionably unfashionable, sex begins literally one second after a first kiss and the most fascinating aspect of a person's life is submerged deeply inside their own navel. Hailed as "the next Lena Dunham" following the premiere of her 2014 breakout film Appropriate Behavior (back when anything made by a youthful female auteur had to be plagiarizing Girls), creator and star Desiree Akhavan (who also directed this year's The Miseducation of Cameron Post) treads similar territory here as her debut: How does a queer, young brown woman continue to find herself after splitting from a long-term partner?
Akhavan plays Leila — the bisexual of the title — a thirty-something Iranian-American woman who has been living in London for 10 years with her older girlfriend, Sadie (Maxine Peake, irresistible), while building a successful fashion tech business together. When baby-hungry Sadie proposes marriage on a whim, Leila balks, moves out and embarks on a sexual Rumspringa to explore the side of her personality attracted to men.
Yet, despite being plentiful here, sex is almost irrelevant to this show, as every action/reaction is mired in gluey, gummy pathos. For awkward Leila, no good screw goes unpunished: After a needy hookup accidentally insults her, she's manipulated into sex-comforting the guilt-ridden woman; at one point, a spurned lover accuses her of being "an emotional-intimacy whore." Like pretty much all stories about maturing toffs on a sexual walkabout, she discovers free love isn't all that freeing. How fun for us.
Dry-wit Leila is all visual signifiers: Her curly bangs, stream of jumpsuits and occasional crop top screen-printed with a hirsute vulva indicate a type of '90s-flavored retro-cool feminism. And Akhavan is acutely aware of the eyeroll-inducing ultra-boho world she's exploring here — while also naïve to the fact that urban hipsterism is low-hanging comedic fruit. Like with Transparent or Fleabag, the producers think their hyperverbal and neurotically self-cognizant culture of artists, academics and hedonists is far more intriguing than it really is. In one scene, Leila and two of her most skeptical friends attend a performance art show, witnessing a man costumed in gold scales and white feathers writhe until their judgmental confusion gives way to moved tears — the joke here being that the "dumb art" actually managed to con them in the end. Is that supposed to be a metaphor for this show?
The entire conceit of a TV series debating what bisexuality even means in 2018 feels 20 years too late. (I could see Gen Z being indignant at the implied limitations of the title, which feels like a vintage term these days.) But Ahkavan knows this. Leila tries to conceal her relationship with a sweet green-haired man (John Dagleish), knowing it would feel like a betrayal to her ex and lesbian friends. "Everyone under 25 thinks they're queer," she rebuts to an acquaintance who doesn't understand her wistful attachment to gay identity. "When you have to fight for it, you think being gay can become the biggest part of you. I don't know what it's like growing up with the internet. I just get the sense that it's changing your relationship to gender and to sexuality — in a really good way, but in a way that I can't relate to."
The writing may be overly clever, but the cast — a who's who of British television — nails these emotional roller coasters. Ahkavan, more a comedienne than a dramatic actress, is the queen of one-liners so dry you choke on the crumbs. Peake, a standout from Black Mirror's "Metalhead," seduces the audiences with her delicious Lancashire lilt, practically chewing scenery as wounded Sadie. Brian Gleeson plays Leila's has-been novelist roommate, bringing warmth to an unlovable role as a Woody Allen-esque sad-sack straw man with lots of opinions on the Kinsey scale. The most fascinating character, however, is Leila's bestie Deniz (Saskia Chana), an ornery fellow Muslim with a deadpan bass and no patience whatsoever for bullshit. "Only a lesbian would be so full of her own shit that she would say that and believe it to be true," she pushes back on self-deluded Leila. Deniz is the closest thing the show comes to class-based realism. "Stop being so fucking middle class," she retorts when Leila tells her to follow her dreams of leaving the family liquor store to become a chef.
Inconsistently amusing, The Bisexual might have been a tight feature-length film, but the story here does not justify six 30-minute segments. As a friend described in private, the show "really exposes all its packing peanuts." (The best episode of the season, a charming flashback to 2005 that reveals Leila and Sadie's origins, still feels unearned at the end of the day.) "What do you like?" Deniz asks Leila in one of the final episodes. "I have no fucking clue," the bisexual responds. Alright, we get it.
Cast: Desiree Akhavan. Maxine Peake, Brian Gleeson, Saskia Chana, Michèlle Guillot, John Dagleish
Creators: Desiree Akhavan, Rowan Riley
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)