After she’s slept with a man for the first time, Leila ruefully observes, “I thought sex with a man would be different, but it’s not.” Then she adds, “but with guys, there’s clean-up.”
This exchange is just one of the highlights of “The Bisexual,” a great new six-episode series premiering today on Hulu. The series is an insightful comedy of sexual manners that is smart, sexy and quite funny.
Leila is played by gifted filmmaker Desiree Akhavan (“The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “Appropriate Behavior”) who also co-wrote (with Cecilia Frugiuele) and directed the series. Leila is a native New Yorker who’s living in London with Sadie (Maxine Peake), her long-term business and romantic partner.
As the series opens, it’s clear their relationship is starting to fray. Sadie’s thinking about marriage and children; Leila is not. Leila decides they should take a break in their personal relationship even though they will still work together. As Leila says when she awkwardly tries to reassure their staff that everything will be all right, “Mommy and Daddy still love you.”
With the help of her best friend Daniz (the delightfully deadpan Saskia Chana), Leila moves in with Gabe (Brian Gleeson), a neurotic author and professor with problems of his own. His sort-of girlfriend Francesca (Michélle Guillot) is also one of his students and she’s rather ambivalent about their relationship, noting “you don’t fuck the way you write.”
When Leila tells Gabe that she’s interested in sleeping with men (something she could never admit to her lesbian friends), the two form an awkward partnership. Leila introduces Gabe to London’s queer scene and reluctantly tries to help him decipher his complicated relationship with Francesca. Gabe becomes Leila’s wingman and takes her to straight bars while helping her keep her new sexual adventures a secret from Sadie and their circle of friends.
The scripts by Akhavan and Frugiuele are simply superb. The writing sparkles effortlessly; the dialogue is crisp, lively and witty while always feeling very naturalistic. They create a cast of fascinating well-rounded characters with interesting quirks and flaws. Each character is presented with deep compassion and complex emotional issues are handled with an appealingly light touch.
Akhavan’s work as a director is also assured and nuanced. The pacing is brisk and the sex scenes are well-choreographed. She has a playful touch with the material and a solid collaboration with camera operator Ilana Garrard and music supervisor Amy Ashworth.
That sense of fun also extends Akhavan’s partnership with title designer Charlotte Retief. In each episode, the words “The Bisexual” show up in a different place. Spotting the title becomes a fun game like spotting one of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos or one of the “Ninas” in an Al Hirschfeld illustration.
Writer/director/actor Akhavan proves she’s a legitimate triple threat with her sensitive portrayal of Leila. Akhavan boldly embaces every aspect of Leila’s changing and often prickly personality. She deftly captures the character’s vulnerability as well as her frequent insensitivity. When she brutally dumps one of the men she’s been seeing, he calls her “an emotional intimacy whore;” his assessment is not entirely off-base, even if it doesn’t describe the entirety of Leila’s big heart.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Peake brings a steely sense of elegance to Sadie and Gleeson imbues Gabe with a level of dysfunction that is frequntly appealing and occasionally annoying. The supporting cast create vivid characters with quick brushstrokes.
“The Bisexual” does an outstanding job of representing a segment of the LGBT community that is too often ignored. Akhavan and company capture Leila’s second coming-out process with great finesse. They sensitively track her journey from a woman who rejects bisexuality and sexual fluidity to a woman who begins to express her authentic self. Her journey is both moving and amusing.