Had Desiree Akhavan not explicitly said that she dislikes being called the bisexual Lena Dunham, I might have compared her excellent new show on Hulu, “The Bisexual,” to HBO’s “Girls.” It’s a difficult comparison to resist — there’s something awfully familiar about the pithy, neurotic dialogue, fumbly sex scenes and skittish, scruffy characters who straddle the line between being in on the joke and being the punchline.
But “The Bisexual” manages to do what so many introspective mumblecore-type shows — “Girls” included — often struggle to pull off: It finds something to say. Despite having all the trappings of a show about nothing, it’s very much a show about something; it’s a new sort of coming-out story that muses thoughtfully on intergenerational and cultural tensions.
Leila (Akhavan, “Appropriate Behavior”) is an Iranian-American woman living in London with her longterm girlfriend and business partner, Sadie (Maxine Peake, “Silk”). Together, they’re working on an app they market as “Shazam for clothing.” But just before the app’s launch, Sadie proposes, and Leila gets cold feet about the whole relationship. They decide to take a break, and Leila is left to reflect on her own history and identity.
We know from the show’s beginning that Leila is the titular bisexual — following her breakup with Sadie, she begins to explore her attraction to men. But it’s Leila herself who is most afraid to adopt the label. “It’s tacky,” she says, balking at the term when a new roommate uses it. “It’s gauche, it makes you seem disingenuous, like your genitals have no allegiance. Like you have no criteria for people, just an open door policy.”
Her reluctance stems from a few places: her judgmental social circles, her own insecurities and, most of all, the fact that she has only identified as a lesbian her entire life. “Everyone under 25 thinks they’re queer,” Leila explains to a college student who can’t understand why identifying as bisexual is such a big deal. “When you have to fight for it, I think that being gay can become the biggest part of you. You’re gay or you’re straight and one comes with an entirely different lifestyle than the other, like different clothes and different friends, and you can’t do both.”
And indeed, to Sadie, who is several years older than Leila, Leila’s bisexuality comes as a kind of betrayal, a flippant position to take on something loaded with trauma and struggle. “Have you any idea what it takes to be a dyke growing up in the ’80s?” Sadie yells.
Though “The Bisexual” is steeped in raw, uncomfortable vulnerability, it is also intensely, mordantly funny. We’re given some comic relief in Gabe (Brian Gleeson, “Love/Hate”), Leila’s painfully straight roommate who goes to dinner with Leila’s lesbian friends and immediately asks them what they thought of “Blue is the Warmest Color.” The show’s best zingers, though, are reserved for Leila’s friend Deniz (newcomer Saskia Chana), who compares Leila to a girl in a Judd Apatow movie when she begins socializing with straight people. “I didn’t realize you were so familiar with his oeuvre,” Leila snipes back. In another episode, an employee accuses Leila and Sadie of filling the office bathroom’s Aesop bottles with Imperial Leather. It’s the sort of reference you’ll only understand if you’re well-versed in the world of expensive hand soaps, but the joke’s unapologetic nicheness almost makes it funnier.
It’s the humor that lends “The Bisexual” its emotional authenticity, with motivations that feel real and lived-in. Despite being the sort of people who could easily be unlikable — the type that goes to bizarre performance art shows and buys plantains at the farmers market — everyone on “The Bisexual” is endearing and appealing. Careful plotting and Akhavan’s own tender writing let each character have their own awakening, big and small.