Does Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual Skewer Stereotypes, or Succumb to Them?

TV Reviews The Bisexual
Does Desiree Akhavan’s The Bisexual Skewer Stereotypes, or Succumb to Them?

Late last month, in one of its sharpest episodes this season, The Good Place not only outed protagonist Eleanor (Kristen Bell) as gleefully down to smooch any and all hotties, whenever and wherever they might be found, but it also used Eleanor’s laissez-faire attitude and laser-focused hedonism to establish a pretty simple philosophy about sexuality in general: “Why not?” she all but shouts at Chidi (William Jackson Harper) after he breaks it to her that no, he’s not bi. “More guys should be bi. It’s 2018! It’s like, get over yourselves!”

It’s 2018: get over yourselves. This is the kind of relatable content the socially progressive, GIF-making corner of the Internet is hungry for. We already had bi teen activist queen Emma Gonzales, and bi children’s cartoon queen Avatar Korra, and all-around YouTube queen Anna Akana coming out as bi while on stage at the Streamys for her own YouTube series—which featured bi and gender fluid characters—after an arc playing girlfriend to bi scientist queen Camille (Allison Scagliotti) on Freeform’s (now cancelled) Stitchers. Now we get to add Eleanor Shellstrop, self-professed Arizona Trashbag and queen of the relatable reaction GIF, to the list? Oh, and late-breaking news, newly elected (not trashbag) Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema is now the first out bisexual woman to be elected to Congress. Yes, please. That sound you hear? That’s the sound of decades of bi stigma in the media starting to crumble.

British television, it seems, has not gotten the message. This, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw after watching Desiree Akhavan’s six-episode cringe dramedy, The Bisexual, which creates a comedic frame around bisexuality that is either regressively stuck in last decade’s discourse, or else is so deadly deadpan that I’m too American to get it just how skewering it is.

“When I hear ‘bisexual’ I think ‘lame slut,’” Akhavan’s self-repressing, sexually voracious bisexual protagonist, Leila, explains in one of part of the trailer to her new roommate, Gabe (Brian Gleeson), with the kind of heightened staccato articulation that is the character’s uncomfortable signature. “It’s tacky. It’s gauche. It makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance.”

This is a joke, obviously. Or at least, I think it’s a joke? It’s probably a joke. But as with the rest of the series—not just Leila’s hot-mess-who-can’t-commit storyline, but Gabe’s stunted man-growth one, the baby fever one of Leila’s older ex (Maxine Peake), and all those significantly less fraught ones belonging to the various women on the Gen-Z/Millennial cusp that drift around the older characters like less anxious, more emotionally mature satellites—I can’t really tell which angle of it I am meant to be laughing at, and which is meant to be the show delivering on its promise, per the press materials, to “examine the funny, painful complexities of realizing that the one you love, and the life you need, may be two very different things.”

Is Leila’s unnaturally articulated delivery meant to signal that this regressive, self-hating attitude about bisexuality is the butt of the joke? Or is it Gabe’s blinkered, privileged-white-man backwardness in bringing the term up as one she should be using at all that we are meant, with Leila’s sharp, sure rejoinder as our guide, to be pointing and laughing at?

Are we meant to interpret Leila’s blatant embodiment of nearly every imagined bisexual sin—her unwillingness to commit, her readiness to jump just about anybody even remotely hot, her almost pathological self-focus—as a sly subversion of deep-seated prejudices and an indictment of viewers who see stereotype when they should just be seeing Leila? Or is the point Akhavan is making with Leila, who takes issue with being negatively stereotyped for her bisexuality but never stops vocally detesting the idea of bisexuality as something anyone might be, that being bisexual actually does mean that some stereotypes will necessarily bear out?

Is the literal objectification of the adjective Bisexual by appending it in the show’s title with The meant to underscore the lunacy of categorizing a person solely by one small part of who they are as an individual, or is it meant to scream, HEY! THIS particular ball of neuroses can be identified by THIS!

Let’s say that the most generous version of each of these possibilities is true, and that The Bisexual really is “skewering stereotypes and unpicking them” with a razor-thin wit, with Leila meant to be read not as a bisexual, or even as a lesbian, but just as her messy, messy—god, so messy—self. If that’s the case, then this short series is… fine. Good, even, if you focus uniquely on Leila’s friendship with lesbian Deniz (Saskia Chan), whose British dryness is almost suffocating but who still manages to deliver the most devastating moments of confession and emotional intimacy throughout the series. That is good dramedy.

Now, if lots of consensual, creative, protracted sex scenes are your bag, that good might rise to great, because very genuinely, Leila’s entire motivating factor in life is sex—how she might get it the moment after she and Sadie break up, how other people she knows are getting it, how much dumb dude bullshit to put up with from men she is newly trying to meet in bars to possibly get any of it from them, how much emotional lesbian bullshit to put up with the women in her anti-bisexual social circle to get any from them—just, how to get sex, anytime, all the time.

As a singular motivating force, this leaves Leila’s character pretty underdeveloped, and makes the little development she does have almost too self-destructive to be enjoyable—and, ultimately, makes the series as a whole impossible to conclude; its ending is (ironically, given Leila’s whole deal) the most anticlimactic and unsatisfying of any I’ve seen for years. But with so much sex out there to be having, it’s possible you, like Leila, won’t care about.

In the end, I’m not sure the The Bisexual is worth a 6.9 rating, but at the same time, I’m also not really sure it’s not. What I am sure of is that, for better or worse, Leila would avoid committing to any of the deeper introspection that would make the fairest rating clear, if she could instead skate by with a dumb sex joke.

So, Leila: This 6.9 is for you, and whatever hot new friend you decide you want to share it with. Hopefully you’ll be back for a second season to make The Bisexual’s thesis a bit clearer.

The Bisexual premieres Friday, Nov. 16 on Hulu.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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