In breaking down a stereotype, ‘The Bisexual’ goes where few shows have
Coming-out stories tend to focus on people finally, painfully, liberatingly telling their parents and friends that they’re gay. And there have been many of them on TV, from episodes of “Will & Grace,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and “Gossip Girl” to large swaths of “Ugly Betty,” “Glee,” and “Six Feet Under.” If you are coming out as gay or lesbian and looking for TV representation, you’ll find plenty in the canon.
If you are bisexual, however — and there are many Bs in the LGBTQ mix — you’ll have to look a little harder, and you may not like a lot of what you see. “A lesbian phase,” “a stop on the way to gay,” “just sexually obsessed,” “hiding from the truth” — those are a few of the dismissals regarding people sexually attracted to any gender. The number of bisexual characters on TV has risen some in recent years, on shows such as “Orange Is the New Black,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Grown-ish.” But still, it’s fairly uncharted and misunderstood territory.
That’s part of the reason I’ve fallen in love with a new Hulu comedy called — in case the theme isn’t clear — “The Bisexual.” It’s a six-episode British import from American writer, director, and actor Desiree Akhavan, and it’s as amiably engaging as it is enlightening while it looks into the ups and downs of a newly realized bisexual. Akhavan plays Leila, an American and a politically committed lesbian living in London who takes a time out from her long-term relationship with Sadie (Maxine Peake), who is also her business partner in a startup. She quickly falls into the arms of a man (before falling into the arms of another woman), and so her adventure in identity begins.
Leila is, essentially, a virgin all over again with men, which means that, despite years of lesbian sex, the thirtysomething woman is now facing a learning curve in terms of straight sex. That’s a situation rich with comic potential, and Akhavan takes full advantage — but she never diminishes Leila’s sincerity during her straight experiences. And Leila takes to it, with the discovery that, for her, sex with a man she likes is, ultimately, not that different from sex with a woman she likes.
Leila is also in the closet again, because none of her lesbian posse would dream that Leila could feel romantic toward or sleep with a man. She is tight with a group of lesbians who make frequent references to “The L Word” — and then laugh about how typically lesbian they are for making frequent references to “The L Word.” They aren’t prepared for Leila’s new step, and, fearing their disapproval, Leila hides it from them with lies and omissions. She knows they’ll be turned off, because she is.
“When I hear ‘bisexual,’ I think lame slut,” she confides to the only person who knows her secret, her straight roommate Gabe (Brian Gleeson). “It’s tacky, it’s gauche, it makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance. You know? Like you have no criteria for people, it’s just an open-door policy. It’s not a nice thing to be, it’s not a cool thing to be, and it makes my skin crawl.” Leila suffers from the kind of self-loathing more commonly identified with gays and lesbians who have internalized society’s disapproval.
Gabe’s younger girlfriend, Francisca (Michelle Guillot), considers herself “queer,” and she can’t understand Leila’s hang-up about telling her friends she’s bisexual. “I think you’re making a problem where there isn’t one,” Francisca says. But for Leila, being an open lesbian has been a critical part of her identity, since she had to fight hard for it. Now she’s thrown.
I do hope I’m not making “The Bisexual” sound like some kind of didactic screed. It’s far from that. Akhavan has made two independent films — 2014’s “Appropriate Behavior” and this year’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” — and she has confidently created an appealingly lived-in world for the show. In some ways, “The Bisexual” is like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent “Fleabag” on Amazon — short, sexually frank, mordantly funny, and filled with eccentric flourishes. But, as Leila, Akhavan is less brittle and bruised than Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag.
Leila is endearingly self-conscious, thanks to Akhavan’s stealth comic timing. Watching her, for instance, with a new hairstyle (“It’s really painful but I think it works”), I thought of some of Carrie Brownstein’s best moments on “Portlandia.” And her sweet friendship with a deadpan grocery store clerk named Deniz (Saskia Chana) is one of the joys of the show.
As “The Bisexual” breaks down sexual stereotypes, it warmly reminds us that coming of age can happen repeatedly, and at any age.