Fresh from winning the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, Desiree Akhavan(The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Appropriate Behaviour) co-writes (with long-term collaborator Cecilia Frugiuele), directs and stars in The Bisexual, a new comedy drama which offers a raw, funny and unapologetic take on the “last taboo” - bisexuality - and the prejudices, shame and comic misconceptions that surround it. With Desiree’s trademark dry wit, the series takes a candid look at people’s approach to love and sex, and what the love and sex they’re drawn to reveals about them.
New Yorker Leila (Akhavan) is feeling lost in London having decided to go on a ‘break’ from her 10-year relationship with girlfriend and business partner Sadie (BAFTA-nominated Maxine Peake). Moving out of their shared flat but still faced with the fresh hell of seeing her ex every day at their joint tech company, Leila ends up renting a room from neurotic novelist Gabe (Brian Gleeson), a Hackney-dwelling 30-something dwarfed by the success of his debut novel which came out years ago and has long been forgotten.
Leila begins sleeping with men but struggles to come out as bisexual to her gay friends, most importantly her best mate, the near un-shockable Deniz (Saskia Chana). She finds an unlikely wingman in the form of Gabe. He helps her navigate a new life dating men and women –and Leila, in return, introduces wide-eyed Gabe to the London lesbian scene, whilst doing her best to help him decipher his unreadable, sort-of-girlfriend, sort-of student Francisca (Michelle Guillot). As Leila makes changes, so does Sadie -changes that take her in a very different direction.
Skewering stereotypes and unpicking them The Bisexual explores the difference between dating men and women from the perspective of someone who finds herself –for the first time -doing both, whilst examining the funny, painful, complexities of realisingthat the one you love, and the life you need, may be two very different things.
Here, Desiree Akhavan discusses her reasons for creating the show.
'The Bisexual' is your new comedy – can you explain a little bit about the show?
The show is a bisexual dating comedy about a woman who has identified as a lesbian for her whole life then comes out as bisexual and starts seeing men for the first time in her 30s.
Inevitably, there are more than a few echoes of your own experiences in there. How autobiographical is it?
It’s not autobiographical in its plot - I’ve never identified as a lesbian and came out as bisexual from the start, but the characters in it are inspired by the people Cecilia and I know and love, so it comes from a very personal place. It’s a look at London and particularly Hackney as we know it.
You describe ‘bisexuality’ as the last taboo. Do you think that’s the case?
It sure feels like it. There are worse taboos out there, but this one’s tricky because by the very nature of it being bisexual is invisible: if I’m walking down the street holding a woman’s hand I’m gay, if it’s a man’s I’m straight. That’s how a lot of people side-step the label. It has a lot of stigma to it.
At one point, Leila says "the word bisexual makes her f*cking skin crawl". Is that how you feel?
For sure. That’s the genesis of the whole series for me-that discomfort with the truth. Saying the words,“I’m bisexual,” makes me deeply uncomfortable and I want to explore why.
Your film 'Appropriate Behaviour' also begins with a break-up, as does 'The Bisexual'. What is it about that situation that interests you?
When I was writing Appropriate Behaviour, I was coming out of a relationship, and managing that, and that’s where it came from. I was trying to figure out how it went wrong, still living in it. For this, it was more about what Leila would have to sacrifice and establishing everything she was leaving behind.
Watch 'Appropriate Behaviour' at SBS On Demand
I’m told it was a predominantly female crew. Was that a conscious decision, and if so, what does it mean for the atmosphere on set?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision, I think I just gravitate towards the right people for the jobs and who knew how to build this world of Hackney through a queer lens. Many of the crew members were openly gay, which brought a lot of attention to detail. Set can be a very macho, male-dominated space and this was predominantly female, which was much more conducive to the kind of show we were making.
What brought you to London? Do you consider yourself a Londoner now?
I don’t know whether you can officially give yourself that title. I would love to consider myself a Londoner. I consider myself a little bit of a nomad. That was how I felt in New York as well, an outsider. That said, London feels like home and I’vebeen really happy here. I think it’s a good city for outsiders.
How different do you think the series would have been if you’d made it in the US?
Oh God! I don’t think I would have had any of the freedom I had. I was given such a long leash. Between Sister Pictures and [Executive Producer] Naomi de Pear and Channel 4, it was incredible. They were constantly saying: “We want you to take it further.” They were my enablers. I just feel like I’d never have been able to take the risks that I took if I’d made this show anywhere else.
You wrote the show with your longtime collaborator Cecilia. What is it about writing as a pair that appeals to you?
We share a shorthand, a shared sense of comedy, a shared perspective on what matters and deep mutual adoration. She is my partner in all things except the romantic. I adore her and her taste. She makes me better and braver and smarter. Sometimes it’s seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes that helps you understand who you are.
You began writing aged 10. That’s not a particularly common thing for that age –why did you want to do that?
A lot of kids write stories but I wrote scripts, which I think is what’s uncommon. I specifically wrote them so that I had people to play with at lunch. I could assign roles to people and put them in my play, and I think it was just because I was very lonely and I wanted to play. I wasn’t very good at making friends.
You’ve said that TV was your third parent, and taught you about US culture. What shows do you think shaped you?
The Brady Bunch –I watched a lot of The Brady Bunch. And I watched Saved By the Bell, Full House, really saccharine, melodramatic shows about families, which was so strange, because my family didn't look like anything I saw on television. Tracy Ullman and Mel Brooks were two of my comedy heroes. His movies and her television series –those were shows that I watched with my family, all of us together, and we all laughed. It was very rare that we could agree what channel to put on, and what programme was good, but those shows could make us all laugh, and that was exciting and special.
The Bisexual screens Tuesdays at 9.25pm on SBS VICELAND with episodes available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.