When Desiree Akhavan was doing press for her first film, 2014 Sundance debut “Appropriate Behavior,” people kept citing her sexuality. She was “the bisexual director,” noted for writing and acting in her own frank, semi-autobiographic feature about an Iranian-American in the throes of hapless young adult romance with both men and women. But while Akhavan was unapologetic in her bisexuality on-screen, she found herself inwardly cringing all through Sundance. Her latest project, Hulu–Channel 4 co-production “The Bisexual,” co-created with Rowan Riley, seeks to untangle that self-imposed anxiety. “The Bisexual” answers the adolescent destruction of “Appropriate Behavior” with tenderness, pain, and startling humanity.
The bisexual in question is Leila (Akhavan), who kicks off the show as a self-identified lesbian with a wandering eye. When Leila ends a ten-year relationship with her girlfriend and business partner, Sadie (Maxine Peake), and moves in with depressed writer Gabe (Brian Gleeson), she finds herself torn between her lesbian inner circle and her repressed attraction to men. She and Gabe (likewise, Akhavan and Gleeson) make a delightful odd couple, mercilessly ribbing each other through their respective sexual crises. “Have a good one, I love you,” Leila tells Gabe by episode three – before amending, “I’m fond of you.”
While the first three of the series’ six episodes take a laugh-out-loud look at Leila’s self-involvement, Gabe’s white male haplessness, and the dry absurdity of the London lesbian scene, that fluffy foundation turns prickly by Episode 4. Akhavan and her writing partner, Cecilia Frugiuele, aren’t here to deliver a neo-coming-out story that, like most bisexual narratives Leila’s seen, seems “created by ad execs to sell flavored vodka.” Instead, “The Bisexual” presents a challenging, beautifully sparse story about what it’s like to live between binaries.
Much like Leila feels buffeted between “gay” and “straight,” viewers must reconcile their preconceived notions about every character. Episode 5, a decade-old flashback, upends each player’s archetype and grants them further nuance. For instance, Deniz (Saskia Chana), Leila’s best friend and deadpan dyke, becomes a feminine “straight” woman struggling to accept her closeted lesbianism. She confides in Leila, “I’ve never met someone who was like me before.” This scene succeeds an episode wherein Deniz icily accuses Leila of “pretending to be a lesbian.” While the latter comment seems heretically un-PC at first glance, the added context from the flashback offers viewers delicious, thought-provoking complexity.
Ultimately, that’s the point of “The Bisexual” – first impressions are never as they seem. Is Leila a narcissist or a nurturer? Who is a user, and who is being used? Characters who make biphobic comments are not biphobes, full stop, nor is Gabe just a sexist prick (even when he says sexist, prickish things). “The Bisexual” dwells in the uncomfortable world of the grey, refusing – just like its protagonist – to pick a side. Its people are people, and thus you’ll want to laugh with them and cry with them and scream when they do stupid things.
“The Bisexual” presents six episodes so harrowing in their reality that I don’t necessarily recommend you binge them – which is all to say that this is a deliriously well-written show. Other assets to the series include intimate, female-focused (and sometimes blisteringly hot) sex scenes, creative-but-not-twee title cards, and some fucking incredible acting. Saskia Chana and Maxine Peake are particularly brilliant as Deniz and Sadie, each delivering monologues in the later episodes that will have you struggling to breathe. But perhaps the most incredible discovery here is Akhavan herself, who has clearly matured not only as a writer and director, but also as an actress. Though her work on “Appropriate Behavior” drew comparisons between her and Lena Dunham, Akhavan’s lead performance as Leila in “The Bisexual” stretches far beyond dry quips and feminist T-shirts (though there are, thankfully, plenty of those as well). You might want to throttle her in the pilot, but she’ll have you teary-eyed by the finale, her condescension coloring with empathy as the show settles into bittersweetness.
It’s not surprising that “The Bisexual” marks such a mature step forward for Akhavan, whose second Sundance feature, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” was lauded for its compassion and formal fortitude. Still, “The Bisexual” is particularly rewarding because it follows “Appropriate Behavior.” We get to see Akhavan answer her own questions – not just about bisexuality, but also about economic screenwriting, the human condition, and queefing.
It’s unclear if “The Bisexual” will really land with American audiences (HBO and several other studios rejected the show before it went across the pond, Akhavan revealed during a Q&A at NewFest). Regardless, the show is an artistic triumph on par with “I Love Dick” or “Please Like Me” – a masterful series that does as much for diverse on-screen representation as it does for television as a medium. “The Bisexual” doesn’t push boundaries or agendas, it ignores them. And even when the going gets rough, you’ll find yourself chuckling. In the immortal words of Leila, “There is booze and there are dykes, so the ingredients are there for fun.” Like at any lesbian party, though, you might also want to prepare to feel a little bummed out. [A-]