Sexuality can be fluid and confounding, which is the backbone of two very different but complementary series premiering in the next week, each dealing with a woman coming to grips with who she is as an adult. Of the two, Hulu's "The Bisexual" is the better bet, while HBO's "Sally4ever" is too uneven in tone to recommend a committed viewing relationship.
Both shows hail from the U.K., deal frankly with sex and are the creative offspring of their stars, who in each case produced, directed and wrote or co-wrote the series. That gives them very distinct voices, although while "The Bisexual" navigates well between comedy and drama, "SALLY4EVER" muddles the relatable conflict of its title character with the cartoonish nature of the people surrounding her, including her coworkers and thoroughly obnoxious boyfriend.
Sex and gender issues
In "The Bisexual," Desiree Akhavan plays Leila, who opts to take a break from her longtime girlfriend (Maxine Peake), who is pressing her to get married and have children. During the time apart, Leila discovers -- and acts upon -- an attraction to men, despite her assertion early in the show that being bisexual is "tacky ... like your genitals have no allegiance."
Leila, happily, isn't the only character dealing with confounding problems, as she rents a room from Gabe (Brian Gleeson), a novelist whose personal and professional lives are both essentially blocked. Their budding friendship becomes a central pillar of the six-episode show, but the two are surrounded by quirky personalities, including Leila's lesbian friends, who are generally ghast when they learn about her exploration.
As Leila notes, the sense of betrayal and inner turmoil stems from the struggle for gay acceptance, while the protagonist in "SALLY4EVER" faces what plays like a more conventional coming-out story.
Ensconced in a longtime but clearly unsatisfying relationship to David (Alex Macqueen), Sally (Christina Shepherd) has a chance encounter with Emma (writer-director-producer Julia Davis, whose credits include the original British version of HBO's "Camping"), and is instantly drawn to her.
The free-spirited Emma turns out to be everything the buttoned-up Sally isn't, which makes their liberating sexual encounters all the more shattering.
While Sally's reaction alternates between amusing and bittersweet -- overwhelmed by feelings that leave her excited and confused -- those around her are so exaggerated as to distract from that sense of discovery, starting with the fact that as he's presented, it's hard to imagine what she ever saw in David. Perhaps that's why "SALLY4EVER" often feels like two shows crammed into one.
There's nevertheless a symbolic message in these two series arriving so close together, reflecting the latitude of premium TV platforms to showcase female talent and international productions, here providing women's perspectives on different forms of sexual awakening. They're the sort of projects that once would have resided on the theatrical art-house circuit and have migrated to television, where characters and issues tend to be more gradually fleshed out.
As shows go, however, "The Bisexual" -- despite Leila's confusion -- has a clear identity, while "SALLY4EVER," beyond Shepherd's vulnerable performance, can't seem to decide what it wants to be.
"SALLY4EVER" premieres Nov. 11 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO, and "The Bisexual" premieres Nov. 16 on Hulu.