January 20, 2014

Looking: A New Series on HBO

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Looking, HBO’s newest slice-of-life dramedy chronicling the lives of three gay male best friends in San Francisco, airs at 10:30 p.m. on Sundays — directly after its female, heterosexual, East Coast counterpart Girls. After premiering last weekend, the show has already garnered critical approval from writers of the LA Times and TIME. It was praised by the latter for avoiding the “relentless whiteness” that Girls is guilty of and for documenting the gay experience organically without “contort[ing] itself to create a character to represent every different aspect of it.”

The similarities between the back-to-back shows come mostly from the fact that both are portrayals of a subset of people who are the first of their kind — the twenty-something New York women who have had the spoils of feminism thrust at them and the adult gay men living in California during a post-DOMA shift of public perception — a status that comes with mind-blowing freedom and paralysis to match.

The trio of leads ranges in age from 29 year-old Patrick (Glee’s Jonathan Groff) to 39 year-old Dom (Murray Bartlett) and the show drops in on them in media res, with Patrick dared into receiving a hand job from a stranger in a public park “just as a joke … to see if people are really still doing that.” Show-creator Michael Lannan’s choice of opening scene is a deliberate confrontation of gay stereotype, as well as an overt part of his declaration that this is a show from the vantage point of gay men, not a crash course in gayness for the elucidatory purposes of a largely heterosexual public. In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Lannan states his intention to show gay male friendship and romantic relationships “without having it be about being in the closet or coming out” — the moments of early homosexual identification and confusion that have become the standard focal points for shows like Glee, Queer as Folk, and The L Word.

The third member of the trio, Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), is a struggling artist waffling over moving to Oakland with his boyfriend (O.T. Fagbenle). After an impromptu three-way between the couple and a young art apprentice, the question is whether or not they’re “that type of couple.” While it’s cliché to say, these are universal questions about relationships, not simply hetero-voyeurism of homosexuality, a difference that sets Looking apart, even after just one episode.

Further, Lannan and director Andrew Heigh have dedicated themselves to creating a more realistic portrayal of San Francisco and the Bay Area than has come to be expected on television. As a San Francisco resident in the late ’90s and early aughts, Lannan expresses disdain for portrayals of his city that feature “the establishing shots for Full House” and extensive use of L.A. sound stages. Early scenes in the Looking premiere expose us to San Francisco’s poorly-lit trains, crappy apartments and the joint-smoking denizens of its rooftops (shot mostly in the Castro District), alongside its brighter, more familiar streets (primarily in Lower Haight).

In regards to Lannan’s tackling of the trials of a new generation — “those tech assholes” (Lannan was one himself for a brief period in the ’90s) have already introduced themselves in a supporting role, as has the ubiquitous social media that Girls has been lauded for integrating so deftly into its characters’ relationships (e.g. Facebook, Grindr, OKCupid). Other than Dom’s hometown best friend (Lauren Weedman), the show is noticeably devoid of female characters, a smart choice which cirumvents the American craving for the nauseating tropes surrounding friendships between straight women and gay men.

The dialogue of Looking is spot-on — witty without being as overtly ridiculous as Girls, naturalistic without the boredom of Mumblecore. Moreover, it serves as the force of the plot in a way that few besides the Gilmore girls can claim. The only place the production can be said to falter is in the redundancy of its not-too-well-lit single-camera, a choice which makes it the visual twin of Girls, and cousin of a half-dozen city-shot indie flicks in the last year.

Intimate scenes in the premiere, including the three-way, were shot far less explicitly than the Girls standard (or even the HBO standard), but it’s not necessarily a sign that the creators are shying away from a still-hesitant American public. Girls is largely a response to the way that women are shown (or not shown) engaging in sex and it reveals every gory detail of its characters’ sexual practices because that is a primary piece of the puzzle to their psychology — but we’re walking in on these characters in a distinctly different moment. Patrick is at the point in his life where he’s not sure if he’s just looking for hook-ups or if he’s looking to top his six-month record for a relationship, but he’s actively thinking about it. Viewers are shown a glimpse of his psyche in the dialogue of his horrible first date with a wine-swilling M.D. and in his elitism-fueled hesitation to call a doorman who hits on him. He is not self-conscious about sex in practice the way he is about sex in the context of a means to connection. A show about the 21st century woman is inherently a show partly about bodies; a show about the 21st century gay man is something much different because Americans don’t have a problem understanding that gay men have sex — they have a problem understanding that they have anything else.