The Bisexual: A comedy that wants to have it both ways

Brian Gleeson is the straight man in a sex comedy set among millennial Londoners

Brian Gleeson and Desiree Akhavan: Relationship strictly platonic

Brian Gleeson and Desiree Akhavan: Relationship strictly platonic

 

In The Bisexual (Channel 4, Wednesday, 10pm), the actor and filmmaker Desiree Akhavan tries to keep her options open.

Her character Leila, an editor at an impossibly trendy lesbian magazine, spins out of a relationship with her partner Sadie (Maxine Peake, as assured in comedy as she is in drama), and – for reasons barely established – holes up in a flat belonging to Gabe (Brian Gleeson) – a man, according to her gender-critiquing friend, “so straight and white he called his book, Testicular”.

Their relationship is strictly platonic: “Don’t shit where you eat,” Gabe mutters. (And they say chivalry is dead.) But Leila seems ready to take a page out of Gabe’s book. She is, in her mind, part of a distrusted sexual minority: “I’m pretty sure bisexuality is a myth,” she says early in the series. “It was invented by ad agencies to sell flavoured vodka.”

Leila ought to know. She exists among London’s milieu of millennial media start-ups, multi-cultural hipsters and shambling intellectuals, a bisexual who has yet to have a heterosexual experience, awkwardly scouring the bars, launch parties and club nights for an opportunity to broaden her horizons. She is, largely, disappointed.

Like a combination of Fleabag and Insecure, with a couple of deferential nods to the meandering tilt of Atlanta, Akhavan’s creation is a comedy about confidence: hipper-than-thou as she may be, but Leila doesn’t have any.

The comedy of her encounters with men, for instance, trailing with studied cool after one guy only to wait for him outside the men’s toilet, or clumsily dispelling another’s fantasy in the bedroom (“I’ve wanked off so many times thinking about this,” he says, wracked with emasculating insecurities), is one of touchingly adolescent sexual anxiety: Who does what? What goes where?

Refreshingly, when she finds a decent guy, their sex is filmed with the unglamorous, unhurried realism of a Ken Loach movie (or a Lena Dunham show, for that matter) as though in antidote to an era of porn and posing; tender, with no filters.

The show is best, though, in its supporting characters: a chill clique of London lesbians (including the excellent Caoilfhionn Dunne) who will reference The L Word while reminding Gleeson’s dithering, cardigan-wearing man-boy that it does not define them.

Unusually, for a 30-minute show, The Bisexual takes time to get to know them, and the deep roots and temporary status of its multi-ethnic city. Better still, though, it sees London as it really is: a cluster of fabulous pop-up enterprises over cold architecture and shabby apartments, a trek to dismal house parties on drab buses, at once intimidatingly expansive and suffocating small.

In that, London makes a fine home to Leila’s searches. They want to have it both ways.

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