UPDATED: Feb. 21, 2017, to add clarifications.
It’s refreshing to see a series so well done that it not only invites viewers to deeply care about the characters, but encourages the audience to educate themselves about what’s happening in other parts of the world. People Like Us does that and more.
The webseries, which just released its first season, follows four gay men living in Singapore whose lives interconnect in unique ways. It is the first webseries to ever be developed in Singapore about gay men, which is why producer/director Leon Cheo is aiming to introduce their stories to a mainstream audience.
“We pushed a lot of envelopes,” Cheo said to Plus. “It was multifaceted. We wanted real locations, real bars, real bathhouses... A lot of [global] gay representation is not Asian. I’m glad we made a film primarily about gay people in Asia and their stories. They have different ways of coming out, different cultures — being gay in South Korea or Japan is completely different [than in Singapore].”
Meet “Isaac,” performed by actor Steven Lim (nominee of Best Supporting Actor - Drama award at the Indie Series Awards) a 45-year old senior private banker. Though he used to lead a double life when he was married, he now enjoys the freedom of chem-sex parties on the weekends at his fancy apartment.
The series was co-developed with Acton for AIDS Singapore, a charity and non-governmental organization in Singapore that promotes HIV awareness and education. Since wrapping the first season, People Like Us has been screened at festivals around the world to high acclaim, recently winning Best Short TV Drama at ITVFest - Independent Television Festival in Vermont last October.
When Action for AIDS approached Cheo in 2015 to help develop the series for Singapore’s MSM community as part of Gayhealth.sg, it soon became a passion project with much higher stakes.
“The first thing I said was 'We cannot have a scene where a character gets tested,'” Cheo recalled. “We didn’t want it to be too moralistic, I didn’t want to see the character going through the emotions of getting tested and, you know, that usual scene we see a lot. And they agreed. We wanted to create something that didn’t preach to the audience. I thought about these characters, I drew from my own experience.”
Meet “Ridzwan,” performed by Irfan Kasban, a 30-year old accountant and your typical “discreet, fun only, top here, no place” kind of guy who loves a good bathhouse. He keeps to himself, and is great at segregating work, social, and sexual activities.
Filming at real gay clubs and bars in Singapore, the characters also use local slang, such as “AJ,” which means “gay” and even the title itself: “People Like Us” or “PLU,” which is akin to how “queer” is used in the west.
In addition to highlighting the experience gay men deal with, which is universal, the series deals with HIV, sex, coming out, and sex health. At the end of each episode, representatives from Gayhealth/Action for AIDS talk about the issues displayed in the episode.
“We had a private screening for the [Singapore gay] community,” Cheo said. “People laughed and really connected with the characters. The response has been really good. One of the things we sort of hoped would happen is to provoke a little controversy with one of our characters. His name is “Ridzwan,” which is a very Muslim name. There isn’t talk about religion in the show, but we wanted to inspect religious people, how they deal with being gay… I think they needed an intersection as well.”
Meet “Joel,” performed by actor Josh Crowe, a 26-year old yuppie working at a PR firm. While he lives with his parents and is out to everyone who cares to know, he is also a bit impatient, which is probably why he his longest relationship was three months.
Gay sex is still technically illegal in Singapore and although it's kept on the books to appease conservatives, it’s rarely enforced. Still, as a result of the policy there is a great deal of censorship restricting positive portrayals of LGBT people in the news and in film/TV. Cheo says that’s a major reason why the team chose Internet streaming.
While there are LGBT rallies, like "Pink Dot" in Singapore, they are rarely covered by press until a “bigger company” like Google is there, Cheo says. In that case, when the event gets bigger, they “can’t help but cover. With the Internet, you can't hide that an event supporting LGBT rights was attended by more than 28,000 people."