‘The Bisexual’ creates a sharp yet incomplete portrait of identity

While the miniseries explores sexuality and adulthood with raw, personal wit, it’s too brief to tell a cohesive story.

This review contains spoilers for “The Bisexual.”

Desiree Akhavan has made a name for herself by telling queer women’s stories on a scrupulous indie stage. In answer to many male-helmed LGBTQ films in which main female characters (if there are any) are fetishized and defined in relation to their sexualities, she’s crafted witty, moving stories that are bolstered by her own experiences as a bisexual Iranian-American woman.

However, during promotion for her debut film, “Appropriate Behaviour,” Akhavan felt strangely uncomfortable when constantly described in relation to her sexuality. To explore this feeling, she co-wrote, directed and starred in “The Bisexual,” a six-episode Hulu dramedy that marks her clever, if inconsistent, foray into television.

The miniseries revolves around Leila (Akhavan), a thirty-something living in London. On the surface, it seems like her life is coming together perfectly — she spends her days working on a tech startup with her long-term girlfriend Sadie (Maxine Peake), and is regularly surrounded by a throng of hyper-cognizant creatives within the city’s queer, bohemian scene.

But when Sadie expresses her desire to get married and start a family, Leila balks and decides to take a break. She leaves the couple’s stylish apartment behind and gets a straight male roommate: Gabe (Brian Gleeson), a failed novelist who’s hung up on his student, Francisca (Michèlle Guillot). In the midst of these life changes, Leila begins to grapple with the realization that she’s also attracted to men. Her late-blooming bisexuality poses a challenge not only to her previous understandings of her identity but also to her relationships with her loved ones.

For better or for worse, Akhavan’s sensibilities are inherent in the show’s DNA. The co-creator’s personal anecdotes blend with her and writing partner Cecilia Frugiuele’s penchant for dry humor to create a series that straddles the line between awkward, slapstick humor and keening rawness. The creator-turned-lead isn’t afraid to film long takes that alternate between heightened one-liners and confessional vulnerability, and her own measured performance seems to set the tone for the ensemble cast to fall in line. While many of them receive inconsistent screen time and character attention, their presence in their roles still makes them linger in the viewer’s mind — particularly Gleeson and Saskia Chana as Leila’s wry best friend, Deniz.

“The Bisexual” also remains free of the glamorized glossiness that pervaded early queer shows like “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word.” Leila’s navigation of sexuality and dating might not include alternative pop and coy voice-overs, but it does feature dim, fumbling sex scenes and arguments on loud public transit.

Because queer women directing and starring in stories about themselves is so rare, one can’t help but admire Akhavan’s ability to portray a queer woman’s life as a realistically-messy dramedy, while also exploring how her sexuality affects her life in ways that straight and/or male creators might have never realized. Issues like biphobia in gay versus straight circles, the logistics of queer parenthood and navigating one’s sex life with partners of different genders are refreshing to see onscreen. In turn, their inclusion is a strong reminder of how far we still have to go to create a variety of “own-voices” stories in the mainstream.

That being said, “The Bisexual” is still the first time that Akhavan has worked beyond the 90-minute confines of her filmmaking roots, and ultimately, it shows. While “Appropriate Behaviour” and her new film “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” closely trail a few main characters, this series feels caught between serving as a character study of Leila and expanding out to the people in her life. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the cast was relegated to key players like Sadie and Gabe, but as the miniseries attempts to bring in minor characters like Gabe’s nephews or Leila’s assistants, it robs the main characters of emotionally-satisfying arcs.

The show’s grapplings with common gay and straight misrepresentations of bisexuality also beg the question of what exact audience the series has in mind. The fact that Leila’s queer friend group consists entirely of lesbians who openly engage in biphobic discourse feels remarkably dated in an era where, according to a statement from The Independent, over 72 percent of surveyed adults identified themselves as queer. In a miniseries with older protagonists that’s nonetheless populated with bright, youthful clubs and supporting characters, “The Bisexual” might have gotten more mileage out of a plotline that contrasts older millennials’ and young adults’ views of sexuality on a spectrum.

By the time that its finale finishes, the first season of “The Bisexual” feels like meandering groundwork for a fleshed-out dramedy that gives its writers ample room to find their legs across a series. The leads have wandered back to each other after receiving isolated moments of character growth, and Leila, Gabe and Sadie are finally starting to come to terms with their capacities to change. If the series gets a renewal and the extended budget and episodes that it deserves, hopefully the writers will reconsider their original plan to jump ahead in time — this story stands out in the world of rapidly expanding streaming content, but without more direction, it runs the risk of becoming a blip in Akhavan’s indie rise.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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