With Looking, HBO launches a new half-hour show that blurs the line between drama and comedy, and successfully avoids comparisons to Sex and the City and Girls due to its honest depiction of modern gay life.
HBO has a long history of boundary-pushing television. From The Sopranos to Sex and the City to The Wire to Game of Thrones and Girls, critics and audiences have come to expect both a quality artistic product and unabashed salaciousness from the celebrated cable provider. Sex and violence sells well for the network, and they display it proudly and more prominently than most Hollywood films could dare to dream of doing (damn that pesky MPAA). It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, that their latest show Looking, about a group of gay friends navigating their professional and personal lives in modern-day San Francisco, comes off as rather reserved. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair bit of sex (there certainly is), but it’s talked about more than displayed. There is also an honest casualness to the proceedings that comes off as neither seedy or uncomfortable, making it all the more digestible for a broader audience. Perhaps it is indicative to the times that we live in that a gay-themed show can be pulled off in this fashion and seem so relevant in its telling. Looking doesn’t feature any flamboyant gay caricatures delivering pun after pun, neither does it feature any repressed figures embarrassed by their sexuality; instead the show celebrates these men’s lives for exactly who they are. The trials and tribulations of the 21st century everyday gay experience are documented here with great aplomb.
Looking starts off with one of the most cliché setups in a gay narrative possible with our protagonist Patrick, played by the adorable Jonathan Groff, hooking up with a stranger in a park. This is eye roll-inducing and so obvious in its telling that it could be offensive, but the show quickly turns the situation on its head by revealing the encounter to be a dare made by friends that is interrupted by a well-timed cell phone ring. Patrick later questions out loud whether gay men actually still go cruising, and “as it turns out, they do.” It is this playfulness with gay sex stereotypes that gives the show much of its humor. In this first episode alone we also get the beginnings of a three-way that the show mercifully cuts away from before it becomes pornographic. Some might say that this is a double standard coming from HBO who proudly displays more T&A than any other network on television, but Looking isn’t interested in titillation (at least so far) and instead wants to get behind the truth of such sexual encounters which makes for far more interesting viewing. Some viewers, gay and straight alike, may find the show’s casual sex off-putting, but it is a reality that exists and the show is wise to depict it as such. For too long real sexuality has been taboo on television, which makes Looking’s depiction all the more relevant while remaining tasteful. It’s quite a balancing act.
Patrick may be our protagonist, but he has two friends who feature prominently in the story – Augustin (played by Frankie J. Alvarez), who is an artist’s assistant, and Dom (played by Murray Bartlett), who is a 40-year-old waiter stuck in limbo starting to feel his age. In the pilot episode, Augustin has the aforementioned three-way with another artist’s assistant and his own partner, Frank, whom he just agreed to move in with. They later discuss the event and Frank asks Augustin if they are now “one of those couples”, with Augustin replying that they can be anything they want to be. Sexual freedom has long been a hard-fought hallmark of the gay community, but the show dangles the question of whether a real relationship can survive such freedoms and it will be interesting to see how they explore the answers. Dom attempts to have a sexual encounter with a much younger fellow employee, but his advances are rebuked. It would be easy for the showrunners to turn Dom into a Sex and the City Samantha-like character, but instead they allow him to occupy the opposite end of the spectrum and fill him with longing and self-doubt. Towards the end of the episode, Dom reaches out to a former flame and it becomes obvious that there is a gaping hole in this man’s heart.
Looking is executive produced and directed by independent filmmaker Andrew Haigh, whose film Weekend was a welcome surprise back in 2011 as it announced the arrival of an important emerging gay artist. Haigh films Looking with that same handheld fly-on-the-wall style that was so beautifully realized in Weekend. He allows his camera to observe his characters, but never comment on them. He also refuses to judge them or place a directorial point of view on them, instead allowing the audience to interpret what they see through his documentary-like style. With Weekend, Haigh was unflinching in his honest depiction of gay life in England and he succeeds much the same way with Looking. And like Weekend, a lot of the humor in the show is embedded in character motivation and natural dialogue instead of obvious set-ups and punch lines. The scene in the pilot that embodies this style the most is when Patrick goes on a blind date with a doctor he meets on OkCupid. It is filled with awkward tension, embarrassing moments, and sad truths while simultaneously being deceptively funny. Creator and Showrunner Michael Lannan was extremely smart in his hiring of Haigh, without whom the show easily could have fallen into gaudy sitcom territory.
With its pilot, Looking shows a lot of potential and establishes its characters well while teasing us with plot points, relationships, and situations to come. It’s refreshing to report that a gay-themed show is neither revolutionary nor stereotypically offensive, but simply exists as a slice of life story alongside that of many other straight-themed shows. That in and of itself is an accomplishment. Its candor is appreciated, but if Looking expects to leave a mark as long-lasting as HBO’s other legendary television work it’s going to have to find out exactly what it wants to say about the modern gay experience fairly quickly. After a few episodes it won’t be enough to simply document and exist, but for now the possibilities presented are enticing.