LOS ANGELES -- "Queer as Folk" is wearing its heart on its sleeve this season.
The Showtime drama made a splashy debut in 2000 with its frank, freewheeling depiction of sex and social escapades among a circle of gay and lesbian friends in Pittsburgh.
But the stories are as much driven by relationships as they are by bare skin - even more so in the third season beginning Sunday at 10 p.m. EST.
"I think in certain ways it's the year of the couple," said Ron Cowen, who developed the series (based on the British program of the same name) with partner Daniel Lipman.
While the sexy, promiscuous Brian (Gale Harold) has yet to change his ways, he's being squeezed on all sides by pairings that began or were hinted at last season.
Brian's ex-flame Justin (Randy Harrison) has fallen for a music student (Fabrizio Filippo) whose unbridled romanticism is in sharp contrast to Brian's cynicism.
Comic book store owner Michael (Hal Sparks) is still an item with hunky professor Ben (Robert Gant), while happily committed Melanie and Lindsay (Michelle Clunie and Thea Gill) are contemplating having a second child.
Even buddies Emmett (Peter Paige) and Ted (Scott Lowell) are taking the leap into love - a friends-to-lovers shift that's worked more than once on "Friends."
There's a daring twist involving Michael's single mom, Debbie (Sharon Gless) and her police detective friend, Carl (Peter MacNeill).
"Yes! Heterosexual sex on 'Queer as Folk!"' exclaims Gless, who is as enthusiastic about her role - she plays the brash, proud mother of a gay son - as she is about the show.
"I think it's probably the most fun I've had with a character. They've made such a mouth on me for this," said the former "Cagney & Lacey" star. "I've been doing television for 30 years and never had the freedom I've had doing this show."
She doesn't expect a middle-aged straight couple to become the drama's focus, and neither should viewers. Other lovers, especially Justin and his new squeeze, are center stage in the early episodes.
"To Justin, Ethan represents a certain romantic love that he did not experience with Brian, who's more pragmatic," said Cowen. "I think what Justin may discover through his relationship is how valid is a romantic relationship, does it work, does it last."
The "neg-[filtered word]" problems confronted by Ben, who is HIV-positive, and Michael, who is not, also will be an important story line, Lipman said.
"It's a gay relationship that hasn't been seen on TV at all, I feel," he said.
As for Brian, his love affair with one-night stands continues. But there's more screen time for another passion, his ad agency work. One new client is a local politician who represents a threat to gay liberties while raising questions about how those liberties are exercised, the producers said.
For the actor who plays him, the arrogant Brian's professional success make his longtime friendships - and sexual conquests - more believable.
In real life, Harold said, "if you were his friend, you wouldn't want to keep hanging around him." But the same power Brian exerts at work allows him to control people in his personal life, he said.
One viewer, who's a comedian and writer of a gay-TV update that runs online and in some newspapers, previewed several episodes and said he's pleased with the series' direction.
"I really love romantic story lines," said Gay Boy Ric, who goes by his stage name. "I would watch the show anyway but it's the Justin and Ethan story line that makes me feel like I can't miss it."
He's willing to defend the drama's randier aspects, which have drawn fire from some gay observers but which he believes "show the reality of some gay lives" and allow people to honestly assess their behavior.
This season's action takes place on a compressed stage. There are 14 "Queer as Folk" episodes, compared to 22 in the first year and 20 the second. Showtime has committed to another 14 episodes next year.
Although the drama has proved a success for the channel, attracting both a straight and gay audience, Showtime is following the common cable practice of shorter runs.
The HBO drama "Six Feet Under," which also returns Sunday, has a 13-episode order, as did "The Sopranos." Cable channels have more flexibility in marketing and production because they aren't locked into broadcasting's 22-episode seasons, a Showtime spokesman said.
Lipman and Cowen say they are comfortable making fewer episodes. The two, along with Tony Jonas, serve as executive producers for "Queer as Folk."
"For everyone, cast, crew and us, emotionally and psychologically it has been a little easier. Fourteen hours still is a lot to do and you can get a lot accomplished," Lipman said.
Cowen concurred. "I think we can create a shape to the season that with a longer order is order to do. The story arc plays out nicely in 14 episodes."
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