Steel River is the latest urban gay series based on the down-low stereotype, but I thought I'd give it a chance. After a delay and an early sneak peak on YouTube, the Web series finally launched through signal23TV on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013. If you saw the trailer and thought the show would be melodramatic, terribly acted, poorly written and hackneyed, you were right. I hate to judge a book by its cover, but I was right. Meanwhile, another Atlanta-based series that's trying to get picked up, Skin Deep, which focuses on the intersecting lives of a diverse group of gay men, promises to be a better show.
The first episode of Steel River, "Man in the Mirror" (NSFW), is tragic, and not because of what happens in the storyline but because it exists. In the episode, R&B singer Terry (Emani Williams) is lambasted by his manager, Shelton (Wesley Adams), for receiving flowers from another man. Terry is then left to think about "the man in the mirror" and his vocal group, Chance, and confronts his lover, Dexter (Jordan King). As I watched, I kept thinking, "Are these first-time actors who left their day jobs?" As in other series dramatizing down-low relationships, the acting here is laden with screaming and over-emoting.
Also, that creepy, thriller-type music that plagues Cover, a 2008 film that also trafficked in the down-low stereotype, is all too prevalent in this 9-minute clip. I was thinking, "Is this a drama series about black men struggling with love, relationships and sexuality, or is it a horror-thriller movie?" If anyone reading this is planning to put together yet another portrayal of black men on the down low, please don't use this played-out formula. At least the series doesn't feature a woman crying about her deceitful husband or boyfriend with creepy music playing in the background... yet!
I should point out that the second episode of Steel River, "Rejection" (NSFW), which was posted on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, is somewhat better. The acting isn't as bad, and the episode introduces new characters, so there is more to work with. Nevertheless, the series is problematic. It focuses too much on confrontation, and the character and story development is slow. I would like to learn who the characters are and what their purpose within the premise of the show is, so that I can develop informed opinions about them and care about them. I guess there's only so much that can be done in a 10-minute webisode.
In stark contrast to Steel River, Skin Deep might do the trick. What makes this series original is that it focuses on the intersecting lives of three gay black men and three gay white men from different backgrounds, belief systems, social classes and age groups. Although at this point the show only has a 10-minute teaser clip on YouTube (NSFW), that series' website features character bios and a show synopsis that describes it as Queer as Folk meets Noah's Arc meets Crash. I can kind of see the comparisons, but this show seems more intense yet deconstructed. Although it's clear that the struggles of these gay black and white men with their relationships and with coming out connect them in spite of their differences, the series seems to suggest that what really connects them is simply their shared quest for love.
Although my opinion is an early one, I feel that highlighting diversity in this way is just as important as having formulaic gay romantic comedies that feature couples that just happen to be interracial, for whom issues of race are not main factors in their struggles with love and dating. I'm not expecting to be blown away by Skin Deep, but it's exploring unusual ways or portraying gay relationships that could make it groundbreaking. Skin Deep is based on 150 interviews, to give it realistic story lines, and it plans to explore the experiences of gay men from Asian and Latino backgrounds too, thereby promising to be a more meaningful series for the gay community than Steel River. According to Arch Productions on YouTube, Skin Deep has signed with a company to represent it and is being pitched to networks.
Check out slideshow of media representations of down-low men of color: