“Find something real.” That’s the tagline stamped on the ads for HBO’s gay-centric series Looking, and, in the wake of the pilot episode, whether or not something real can be found depends on who you ask. Writing for BlackBook, Amanda Stern says this “essential new show” is “textured in something that feels a lot like reality,” and is “stripped of the self-conscious sexual referencing that reinforces stereotypes.” In a (hopefully) semi-satirical Esquire piece, which Salon’s Daniel D’Addario calls “astoundingly homophobic,” Mick Stingley (who is straight) suggests that Looking is too real for his desired comfort and entertainment levels, saying it “commits the heinous sin of being gay and boring,” and that its lack of “mincing” stereotypes results in “a portrayal of gay life [that’s] normal, tedious, and bland.”
Personally, I’m not sure what Stern watched on Sunday night. And what she and Stingley both seem unable to grasp is that, though Looking isn’t populated by a bunch of Jack McFarlands with feather boas, it’s still rife with a slew of gay stereotypes that pile up fast in the first 10 minutes. Our introduction to this ostensibly progressive series is a hookup scene in the woods, where protagonist Patrick (Jonathan Groff) gets a handjob from a burly stranger before being interrupted by his phone’s house-y ringtone. Within seconds, there’s the fear that Looking is reducing a minority group to what its small-minded critics would expect: a culture of superficial deviants whose obsessions with sex and club tunes are paramount. Patrick meets up with his two best friends, scruffy artist Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and aging maneater Dom (Murray Bartlett), to whom he admittedly spills the embarrassing details of what was, in fact, an experimental encounter, but with whom he’s quickly swigging bourbon, sharing a joint, dissing an ex’s fat partner, and discussing parties with open bars. Cut to the next scene, and Agustín is having loud morning sex with his boyfriend, Frank (O.T. Fagbenle), while Patrick peruses the Internet for dates, only to soon be told by Agustín that his top choice has a “lazy eye.”
At this point, Looking hasn’t even been broadcast for six whole minutes, and I’d be horrified if, for some reason, it ended here, leaving viewers with a snapshot of gay culture defined by sex, techno, alcohol, drugs, parties, snap judgments, more sex, and more snap judgments. Yet, even as it moves on, we hear Dom whine to his female bestie, Doris (Lauren Weedman), that he “just [needs] to get laid.”
One of Looking’s key masterminds is writer-director Andrew Haigh, whose 2011 film Weekend netted international acclaim. Starring the gifted Tom Cullen and Chris New as lovers with a short romantic shelf life, Weekend had an almost tactile intimacy in which two men shared their differing feelings about their own sexual identities. The attraction was real and the inevitable ending ached deeply, but the discourse between the men had a certain PSA-type staleness—less a series of personal, organic chats between contemporary gays than a regurgitated summation of the discussions gays have been having for years. (My opinion of Weekend as something not unifying, but banal, found me at odds with older gay friends in particular, who came of age before such things as lengthy coming-out stories and ranting complaints of inequality were commonplace in queer cinema.)
With the premiere of Looking (which is co-created by Michael Lannan, and based on his short, Lorimer), Haigh finds himself at a new standstill. His material no longer involves characters exchanging familiar dialogue behind closed doors; however, it remains, from my perspective, incapable of capturing a modern, multi-dimensional portrait of gay life. The Looking review to which I related most is by Previously.TV’s Mark Blankenship, who titles his piece “Your Crotch Is Not That Interesting”, and opines, “Don’t get me wrong: I am not a eunuch. Gay sex actually does enter my thoughts and (happily) my life. I just feel there’s more to me and my community than what’s happening beneath our boxer briefs.” This gets at the heart of how Looking instantly disturbed me, and to someone like Werner, who claims the series is “stripped of the self-conscious sexual referencing that reinforces stereotypes,” I’d ask what she makes of Dom’s lament, “Something awful happened to me at work today. I didn’t get to fuck someone I wanted to fuck. That’s never happened to me before.”
All this said, I’m admittedly a gay man in a monogamous, long-term relationship, and I have friends who are single and in open relationships, and who can probably identify with the experiences of Patrick and company more than I can. I don’t want to scold Looking simply because it doesn’t put my specific life on screen. It’s frankly thrilling to see a heavily touted gay series that’s made by, and stars, out gay artists, giving work to talents like Groff and bit players like Matthew Wilkas from Gayby and Tanner Cohen from Were the World Mine. And as virtually every review, positive or negative, has acknowledged, the series is at least progressive in the sense that its characters aren’t, as of yet, struggling with bigotry, demonization, sexuality-based self-loathing, or impending doom. In many ways, it seems to be pay cable’s next step beyond Queer As Folk. But is it only a baby step? As Blankenship observes, shallowness is Looking’s main red flag, as it essentially makes sex and other diversions the touchstones of an entire community.
And yet, there’s something highly intriguing about the way the series is potentially shaped. Its very title, derived from gay slang, suggests it’s a search in progress, and through Patrick (for whom the utterly disarming Groff was perfectly cast), perhaps we’re challenged to wade through these shallow waters until something deeper reveals itself. Judging a series by its pilot may be the job of producers, networks, and financiers, but it’s generally bad practice for viewers. If it were my modus operandi, I’d have immediately dismissed American Horror Story: Coven and even Breaking Bad, two shows I now deeply love. Looking gets off to an irksome, unsure start, and those quick to liken it to “reality” or “normalcy” are at once generalizing their thoughts and chomping at the bit. I think it’s better to think of the series as aspirational television. Like Sex and the City before it, Looking presents an awkwardly endearing lead character tasked to overcome a concrete jungle of superficiality. Maybe I’m too optimistic, and giving Haigh and his cohorts too much preemptive credit, but this show’s inaugural 27 minutes culminate with a fine cliffhanger, wherein Patrick catches up with Richie (Raúl Castillo), a man he met briefly on a bus, whose intentions have a flair of first-crush innocence that goes beyond sex. To the tune of dance music, which, this time, is inverted to serve as a universally identified outro of optimism, Patrick and Richie’s second meeting seems to promise something hopeful, maybe even something real.