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Television Gay, grey and proud of it: How docu-soap Golden Gays is a breath of fresh air

Yesterday, I was telling you about a reality-TV show, Preachers' Daughters and making a case for taking it with a bit of seriousness. One of my wee points was that sometimes reality series are useful in the way they open up unknown, unseen places, people and communities.

Well, I'm sticking with that. It occurred to me while watching the series under discussion here, that I live in a city where the mayor seems spooked by the annual Pride Parade and some people support him in that. Why be spooked? Let's look at this TV series.

I had no idea that Palm Springs, Calif., is considered the gayest city in America. Roughly half of Palm Springs' 45,000 residents are gay, many are retirees and quite a few are originally from Canada. According to a Los Angeles Times report, there are 11 "clothing-optional" gay resorts in the place, there have been two gay mayors and the majority of city council is gay.

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Much of this was unknown outside of the city, and nobody cared much, until one of its residents, Robert Julian, published a book, Postcards from Palm Springs, last year. The memoir, about moving to Palm Springs and living the gay life there, caused a small sensation, especially for its depiction of parties, orgies and the social shenanigans of local bigwigs.

Julian is one of the first people you meet in the gloriously daft but beguiling docu-soap Golden Gays (starts Friday at 10 p.m. on Slice). It's a Canadian-made series that chronicles the ups and downs of life in Palm Springs and, by heavens, is it full of eccentrics and oddballs.

It's daft because there is no way on earth that this reality series is an absolutely accurate description of day-to-day life in Palm Springs. But that doesn't matter. It's a stylized abstraction, arch and mannered as all get out. But here's the thing – while a lot of reality TV is just weirdly arch and a bit camp because it features people with no acting skills who are self-consciously strutting for the cameras, this one features people who were born to strut and whose glory is in being camp.

Author Julian says, "I like growing older about as much as Cher likes growing old." He's been with his partner Patrick for 20 years, and they both like the "clothing-optional" resorts in Palm Springs. Along comes a guy named Reid who is planning to open a new luxury gay men's resort, called Pura Vida. Reid is a straight guy, according to Julian, but attractively "butch." He's from Vancouver and rides a Harley. He doesn't see "clothing optional" as an option for his new business. "I don't understand why everybody is so obsessed with taking their clothes off," he says, shaking his head.

Julian introduces us to his pals at the gym. There's David Marlow, a novelist who is 69 years old and utterly obsessed with his body. As Julian says of him, he's been too worried about his body to develop a personality. And there's Valya, who is a lesbian and a Republican but says, "I don't tell people that." She's a life coach and does "spiritual things." Her house is in foreclosure and she has big debts, but she says she's baffled by how this happened. Which seems odd for a life coach.

Meanwhile, Reid is proceeding with Pura Vida and having an opening party. This means that he encounters local party planner Sandy, described by Julian as "the ChapStick lesbian" who runs the hottest lesbian parties in L.A. For the party, entertainment will be provided by Rudy, an elderly gay piano player who does every party in Palm Springs. Julian says Rudy is "out of date, out of touch," but can't be avoided.

Stuff happens. There's a crisis before Pura Vida opens. Everybody is terrifically excited. Somebody gets thrown out for taking off their clothes.

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This is the stuff of dopey sitcoms and high-camp movie comedies. But it's funnier than fiction and, even in a reality-TV genre that seems to celebrate all sorts of peculiar people, it's a breath of fresh air. It subverts stereotypes and, at the same time, reinforces some of them. Behind the laughter and high jinks, though, it is deeply iconoclastic, upending a lot of expectations about what life in America's gayest city is like. Unlike a lot people encountered in reality-TV series, these aren't tedious attention seekers. They are very funny attention seekers, and it's a pleasure to meet them.

Airing tonight

Justified (SuperChannel, 9 p.m.) continues a terrific season. That business with Ellen May, the prostitute who disappeared, was a marvellous storyline and it ain't over yet – tonight, Boyd discovers he still has an Ellen May problem, while our laconic hero Raylan apparently goes dynamite fishing. And The Americans (FX Canada, 10 p.m.), another of this year's great series, also continues to get better, morphing into a tense drama about a marriage in trouble and an even more tense drama about Russian spies in Washington during the Reagan years.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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