The first scene of the 2012 web series The Outs bears a striking resemblance to the beginning of the 1924 novel Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of French writer Marcel Proust’s gargantuan 3,000-page work In Search of Lost Time. Both stories open with raucous gay sex followed by uncomfortable pillow talk and the swapping of contact info before a hasty exit. However, while Proust’s Baron de Charlus fishes for boyish tailors and valets outside a fabulous Parisian apartment, Jack of The Outs more often finds himself outside Metropolitan, a gay bar in Brooklyn where he picks up bearded twinks on the curb during his “slutty phase.”
Marcel Proust, a moustachioed, asthmatic aesthete and probably the biggest closet case of the 20th century, seems like a guy who would be into The Outs. The breakout web series is a 21st-century gay drama that follows the life of Mitchell, portrayed by the show’s writer and director Adam Goldman. The story traces the “half-life” of Mitchell’s explosive relationship with ex-boyfriend Jack, portrayed by Hunter Canning. The two slowly put themselves back together as uneasy friends in the wake of their nasty breakup.
The first season also features Mitchell’s sharp-witted, whiskey-downing, straight best friend Oona (Sasha Winters), as well as her boyfriend Andy, a smoldering bisexual hanger-on who just so happens to be portrayed by Sean Patrick McGowan ’12.
And, if Proust could indeed voice his support for this modern exposé on gay love and loss, he would be joining an already sizeable crowd of fans. The show’s Facebook page boasts about 20,000 likes, and its episodes must have racked up thousands of views on Vimeo (the site unfortunately doesn’t display the number of plays for its videos).
After a speedy rise to cult classic status, The Outs has enjoyed a number of high-profile shout-outs from magazines like the Atlantic, Paper, Out, and Interview, all of which helped the breakout series snag seven nominations at the 2013 Indie Soap Awards, as well as the attention of Scottish actor Alan Cumming, an outspoken bisexual LGBT advocate who also has a cameo in the Season 1 Chanukah special finale.
Hailed as the gay version of HBO’s Girls—if we can ignore Looking, which I am more than happy to do—the show proves yet again how it’s possible to create cable-quality content on the web. Quick, funny, and at times deadly serious, The Outs joins the ranks of shows like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Hulu’s The Mindy Project in what seems to be a great migration of American television. More and more it seems, we’re seeing big shows with big names getting released exclusively on the internet.
Yet, when The Outs premiered on Vimeo in 2012, it was hardly a big show with big names. The entire first season was crowdfunded through Kickstarter campaigns, the first drive collecting only $1,000. As the show gained popularity, a second drive during the first season brought in more than $20,000. And, amazingly, just last year, The Outs raised over $170,000 to launch production of a sophomore season, which has catapulted the show to its current spot on Vimeo’s 2016 lineup of originals alongside sketch comedy from SNL cast member Aidy Bryant and standup from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio.
So, what is it about this web series that has got people going? Many point to the show’s exquisite honesty as its greatest achievement. Interview, for example, praises the first season as “the most accurate and essentially human portrayal of young gay men today.” Out calls the show “painfully realistic”; Black Book, “refreshingly honest.” Queerty cites “notes of real honesty” in its review, and the rest all seem to point to a general sense of “realness” struck by the series’ smooth-talking, good-looking, day-drinking protagonists.
Perhaps it was this “honesty” that prompted Alan Cumming to admit that he is “obsessed with The Outs.” I’ll admit that I am too. I binge-watched the show over Thanksgiving break back in 2013 instead of studying for my chemistry midterm because the “realness” really hit home with me.
But perhaps the show doesn’t ring true to everyone. In a 2013 Salon review titled “Is this the gay Lena Dunham?” entertainment writer Daniel D’Addario was quick to call out the show’s lack of diversity “Adam Goldman’s ‘The Outs’ tells a very gay story,” D’Addario writes, “but one that depicts the white creative class exclusively.”
D’Addario isn’t wrong. With a practically all-white cast of whiny Brooklynites, the show serves only a slim slice of what gay life can be like, an aspect Goldman has acknowledged and has pledged to engage with in later work.
But then again, perhaps Williamsburg is really just that white and gay. In any case, it is my opinion that the fervor surrounding “The Outs” has less to do with the truth and more to do with the show’s unique portrayal of youngish gays who experience the same problems that straights do: work, school, rent, and a hearty portion of heartbreak.
For the first time in a long time, we see a show about gay people where no one dies or cries for a whole 15 minutes. No one goes to jail. No one gets beaten by their father. Instead, each episode simply follows the meanderings paths of a few white gays and their friends through Brooklyn and beyond. It both glorifies and parodies the uncomplicated gaze that is afforded to heterosexual romance.
It’s like Sex and the City, but hipster and no Jimmy Choos. With a “locally-grown” soundtrack from the Brooklyn indie scene and momentary interludes from early 20th century, avant-garde composer Erik Satie, The Outs is sure to enrapture a select group of open-minded, artsy-fartsy, college-aged viewers. Unfortunately, it will simply float on past all the rest. The show is unabashedly niche, with one scene involving a dream sequence that imagines a steamy rendezvous with a pizza delivery guy while a clip of Cher performing all the parts of West Side Story runs in the background.
In the end though, this is the show’s very appeal: its playful, shameless, human quirkiness.
The whole premise really does remind me of Proust, whose humongous novel chock full of snooty gay aristocrats and wily servants stands today as one of the first truly casual portrayals of homosexuality. Over the course of the book’s few thousand pages, a reader must simply come to terms with the fact that almost everyone ends up liking their own gender. The book is a continuously opening closet from start to finish, and by the end, the only odd one out is, oddly, the semi-autobiographically inspired narrator.
Despite his frequent visits to gay brothels, Proust doggedly denied gay rumors right to the bitter end when pneumonia finally did him in. However, this didn’t stop him from publishing In Search of Lost Time, a really rather controversial depiction of homosexuality as ubiquitous and decidedly un-tragic. He took those doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the biblical breeding grounds of deviancy, and he decided to paint them as familiar towns instead of the damned wastelands we’re told of.
Maybe I’ll go as far as saying that The Outs, a mostly-comedic, Twenty Teens web series about Brooklyn gays, carries on the progressive legacy of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, one of the most studied and celebrated pieces of literature of all time.
At any rate, when it comes to this show, as indeed when it comes to anything, I think it is the carefree Carrie Bradshaw who puts it best: “Beauty is fleeting, but a rent-controlled apartment overlooking the park is forever.”