Outrageous, heartbreaking and bitterly witty, "Queer as Folk" is certainly the most unapologetic treatment of gay people ever seen on American television. Beyond its cultural significance and shock value, the series promises to be an eye-opening experience for adventurous viewers of whatever sexual inclination.

The boldness of "Queer as Folk" lies in presenting its gay characters neither as persecuted paragons nor as solid citizens. Far from it. A 29-year-old named Brian, central to the story, is a promiscuous Adonis with a cold, cold heart. He wakes up in the morning, sees a strange naked man in bed beside him and asks, "Who the hell are you?"

Gay characters are common on network TV now, but not gay characters with active libidos and sex lives. The gay men in "Queer as Folk" are more dimensional than virtually any others portrayed in mainstream entertainment.

Based on a British miniseries that was popular enough to engender a sequel, "Queer as Folk"--airing Sunday nights at 10 on the Showtime pay-cable network starting tomorrow--is like a very explicit update of Clare Boothe Luce's play and movie "The Women," except that this time all the characters talking about men are men themselves. The circle of friends depicted also includes two lithe lesbians, one of whom gives birth to Brian's son (conceived via artificial insemination) in the first episode.

Showtime is committed to airing 22 installments, each about 45 minutes in length, with the first two airing back-to-back tomorrow night. The first six were made available for preview. Very late in the game, it evolved that Showtime twice submitted these episodes to the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America, even though the MPAA's censors primarily rate theatrical films.

Apparently you can bring them anything--a doughnut, a banana, whatever--and for a fee, they'll rate it. Anyway, small cuts were made that may not be reflected in the review copies sent to critics. Even with trims made, the show is still going to shock some people silly. And yet even skeptics may find themselves drawn into the story and its artfully tangled web. All other issues aside, it's encouragingly good TV.

Arbitrarily set in Pittsburgh as opposed to the original Manchester (perhaps just as arbitrary), the series begins with a visit to a gay bar called Babylon that will serve as the show's centrifugal center. Here the main characters meet, drink, dance and cruise tirelessly for sexual partners.

Michael, played with extreme likability by Hal Sparks, is outwardly heterosexual by day in the big drugstore where he works and homosexual at night with his friends. One of them is the aforementioned Brian (Gale Harold), a successful ad agency executive who changes sex partners nightly. An innocent 17-year-old named Justin (Randy Harrison, actually 23) finds Brian irresistibly magnetic, goes home with him and sheds his innocence during a long night of sexual acrobatics.

He wants to be Brian's boyfriend, but Brian says, "I don't do boyfriends," and when Justin tries to join him again the next night, Brian looks at him coldly and says, "I've had you." To complicate matters, Michael, who's known Brian since early adolescence, also seems to be carrying a huge torch for him.

Emmett (Peter Paige) is the only member of the group who conforms to the effeminate gay stereotype. Ted (Scott Lowell) is honest, decent, intelligent--and sexless. Lindsay (Thea Gill) gives birth to Brian's child with her partner, Melanie (Michelle Clunie), by her side. Melanie is one of the few characters who see through Brian's slick charm and find shallowness behind it.

Brian will have sex with just about any man anywhere. When one member of the group is hospitalized, he wakes from a coma to see Brian entangled with a nearly nude doctor in another of the hospital beds. In the fifth episode, with Justin still following him around loyally, Brian delivers a pretty brutal verbal assault: "I'm not your lover, I'm not your partner, I'm not even your friend. You're not anything to me."

Told by another sexual conquest that he has "a beautiful body," Brian responds, "I know." Brian's a much chillier character in the American version than he was in the British original. One assumes he will mellow somewhat as the episodes continue; if he doesn't, it's going to become awfully monotonous.

One of the biggest surprises in the series is Sharon Gless as Debbie, Michael's "understanding" mother. Gless has put on a bit of weight, but that just tends to make Debbie more lovable, huggable and adorable. Debbie, who works as a waitress and whose brother is also gay, is perfectly content to have a gay son and just hopes he'll meet a nice young man and settle down.

Gless bubbles over with life and love and is a poignant pleasure to watch.

Justin's mother, Jennifer (Sherry Miller), meanwhile, is only now learning that her son, who attends a snobby prep school, is homosexual. It takes some adjusting, especially since Justin arrogantly revels in rebellion and in defying parental authority.

Some of the humor and references will obviously register more strongly with gay members of the audience than with non-gay, but pretty much everybody should appreciate Ted's bittersweet experience with the "gay date club" that he joins in Episode 6. The club presents itself as an alternative to the body-mad atmosphere of Babylon and the other clubs. Told at Babylon that he has "a really big heart," Ted says acerbically, "Nobody here is interested in the size of that organ."

At the dating club he meets a man with whom he seems to share many interests. They vow to become friends first, lovers later. But when they finally do end up in the same bed, it's a disaster. "I thought you didn't want sex to be everything," the man says. "Yeah," says Ted, "but I'd like it to be something."

Written by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman and directed by Russell Mulcahy, "Queer as Folk" stands out on novelty value alone. But it has other values that run much deeper. Mulcahy invests the bar scenes with a dizzying kinetic energy, employing what one might call whiplash pans from boy to boy to boy and often circling characters with his camera.

Whether the drama will remain compelling as the weeks roll by, though, is open to question. Brian does show a little hint of having a conscience in the fifth installment, so maybe his character will grow and not just fester. A touching subplot finds a pretty girl who works with Michael at the drugstore developing a crush on him, leaving Michael torn between being flattered and feeling guilty for not letting the girl know she's barking up the wrong he.

The narrowness of the characters' worldviews threatens to make the series narrow and constricted, too. There is an awful lot of repetition even in the first few episodes. For the most part, though, "Queer as Folk" gets off to a triumphantly provocative start. The least that can be said is that there's nothing else like it anywhere on the air.