Developed by Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh, HBO’s new series, Looking, follows a trio of gay men who should all be at the top of their game in present-day San Francisco. Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) is a frustrated artist nearing 30 who agrees, in the first episode’s opening minutes, to move in with his boyfriend. His move will make an orphan of his college bestie, Patrick (Jonathan Groff), an overeager late-starter who never finishes his sentences and, apparently, rarely finishes dates without his flop sweat clearing the room. Their friend, Dom (Murray Bartlett), is an aspiring restaurateur who’s a decade older than the other two and still stuck waiting tables and splitting pretty men half his age in half. Once the show settles into its own skin, Looking emerges as a dramedy exploring how gay men clumsily negotiate the appropriate distance to place between the words “friends” and “benefits,” but like many of the relationships it details, it gets sex out in the open and out of the way as the first order of business…and too frequently the last order of business as well.
Weekend was a film whose biggest critics insinuated had its cake and ate it too, focusing only on the most exciting aspects of new love during the 48 hours two men share before one moves halfway around the world. For all its mystically credible nuances, which combined with its unforced Instagram-filter sheen almost gave off a vibe of magical realism, the film didn’t exactly counter the argument Faye, one of Don Draper’s discarded playthings, uttered in season four of Mad Men: “You only like the beginnings of things.” More serious charges were leveled by those who thought it idealized its protagonist by sanitizing him of gayness, as it were, apparently missing the part where Tom Cullen’s wallflower owned up to his own inner censorship, admitting to being comfortable with being gay only so long as he wasn’t interacting with other gay people.
The friends of Looking, in contrast, are all verbally secure in their sexuality, but experience “the beginnings of things” as the given, and very rarely as something to cherish. In the frustrating pilot episode, Patrick, a fresh, cute, single man with a twentysomething-credible job as a video-game level designer, is seen cruising in the park for a handjob. An intense-looking older man offers him his cold southpaw seconds before the entire sad encounter is mercy-killed by Patrick’s gamer ringtone. It’s one of “the guys,” and he acts like it’s a very important call he must take, which it is: He shares news of his encounter as though it’s more important that Agustín and Dom recognize his bid for broadened promiscuity than it is for him to experience it. As with Weekend, the casual explicitness of the dialogue lacks most of the forced signifiers that have come to characterize shorthand for gay discourse. Easy frankness is a mark of their mutual comfort level, and it levels their playing field despite obvious differences in experience.
It emerges as a dramedy exploring how gay men clumsily negotiate the appropriate distance to place between the words “friends” and “benefits.”
It’s also among the only characteristics the trio seems to share, which may develop into a pitfall the longer the series continues (HBO’s current order is for a not-even-gay-fat eight episodes). In a recent Out Magazine article, Haigh noted that what platonically linked gay men “connect to initially is your sexuality, not your age or where you’ve been to school.” Haigh is correct that the show’s protagonists appear to be connected on a physical level, but that’s only the half of it. The moment the sizzle reel dropped for Looking, the knives came out over what was perceived as a diversity-challenged casting director. Where, they challenged, were San Francisco’s Asians, African-Americans, and Latinos? Their fears were at least in part unfounded. Not only does the show’s cast do more than cover its bases, it even challenges Patrick’s motivations for first rebuffing and then enthusiastically pursuing a fling with the adorable Richie (Raúl Castillo, a holdover from Lannan’s Lorimer, the short upon which this series was based). During their chance meeting on the Muni, Patrick sends up a warning flare, saying, “You’ve got to watch out. People will try to take advantage of you.” Richie knowingly responds, “You’ve been hanging out with the wrong people tonight, sweetie.”
Indeed, and not just because Patrick at that moment is coming off a bad date of herculean proportions. (His inadvertently condescending response: “You have no idea.”) The creators of Looking may rightly bristle at any taxonomy that positions their series as the next stage of evolution from Queer As Folk, Sex and the City, and Girls, but it’s worth noting that it shares with those shows a slate of characters who are too caught up in the surfeit of choices in front of them to fully appreciate the level of privilege they enjoy. Which is probably because so many of the choices they make are the wrong ones. Sex is the one thing that more or less comes easy to the square-jawed silver fox-in-waiting Dom and Agustín, partnered as he is with someone open-minded enough to agree to a threesome with some Dolly Parton-tatted, supernaturally hung piece of Scruff bait. Meanwhile, though Patrick at one point unceremoniously unplugs his fruitless OkCupid account, his enduring aura of Archie Andrews ensures he can always get it if he’d only remove his own internal barriers. He lives in an environment where, as Richie (moonlighting as a doorman) promises, “pretty blue eyes drink two-for-one.”
Which brings us to the show’s most palpably assumed hypocrisy, temporarily sidestepping that thorny issue of alleged initial racial misrepresentation for now. Though it aspires toward an unfiltered, beardo brand of authenticity, it cannot be denied that Looking’s roster of players and potential playees are invariably physically impressive specimens, eight shades of cute, with nary a Hobbit in sight, excepting of course that poor dude whose cold hand just wanted to please Patrick in that opening scene. As with Weekend, the assumed baseline for what serves as acceptable appearance is in fact much higher and much more exclusive than any entertainment claiming veracity should be offering, seriously undercutting its sense of generosity. “I’m not interested in angry, bad people. I like stories about nice people. They get left out sometimes,” Haigh noted in the Out piece. Yes, and sometimes “nice people,” though their hearts may be in the right place, unknowingly marginalize chubs and the elderly. (And by the latter, I obviously mean anyone over 40. Only in a series so miscalibrated in this regard could Scott Bakula represent a charity case.) Looking carries with it the potential to pick up the baton from something like Travis Mathews’s explicit I Want Your Love, another gay short that was later expanded (in this case, into a feature film), but time will tell if it can’t look beyond those hypnotic treasure trails.