HBO’s new programme Looking seems to be attracting rather polarised responses: some are hailing it as refreshingly true to the lives of gay men in their 30s and 40s, while others are complaining that it’s nearly criminally dull. Which is it?
The show, set in the greatest city on Earth (San Francisco, did you even need to ask?), tracks the lives of a group of gay men who make up an almost stereotypical cross-section of life in the Bay Area: there’s a game designer, a high-end waiter, an artist’s assistant, and an entrepreneur as a supporting character. As they meander through the city, we follow their lives and relationships, against a backdrop of San Francisco sights and landmarks—for those of us wrestling to come to terms with a gentrifying and rapidly changing city, there’s something privately bittersweet about Looking. This is a programme, after all, set in one of the gay capitals of the United States, in an era where bold gay artists, gay men of colour, and other social pioneers can’t even live in the famous Castro District thanks to gentrification—for a lively, diverse, rich gay scene, you’ll have to cross the Bay to Oakland (which is itself in the throes of gentrification and class war as well thanks in part to people fleeing San Francisco, among other pressures).
This show has been positioned as the gay answer to Girls, and as a major victory for gay representation on television given that it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a queer-centric show on the air. On that second point, critics are correct, but on the first, the comparison isn’t entirely fair. Looking is about a slightly older experience in a different city for a very different social group: the things that some critics say make it ‘boring’ in comparison to Girls are in fact the very things that make it revolutionary and delightful.
Looking is about gay men in their late 20s and early 30s. The producers very much wanted to depict gay men at a more settled stage of life, and they wanted to depict people living in our generation, those of us who have very different expectations and beliefs about queerness and society. They’ve come through their early years of coming out, their careers are established, they’re making lives for themselves; this is not a programme about coming of age. This is a programme about being a gay man in the city, about seeking hookups on Craigslist and riding MUNI buses and all the other mundane things that real, living, actual gay people do in San Francisco.
That might sound boring to you, but the very fact that we’re depicting gay men on television in the first place is astounding, and it’s even more astonishing to see them depicted in a way that isn’t sensationalised. This isn’t a programme for people who want to see the imagined ‘gay lifestyle.’ This is the show for people who want to know what happens when leather daddies come home from the bar, what happens when two gay gents decide to stay home for the night, eat some pizza, and watch a movie.
This is a show about the everyday lives of gay men, and that makes it more emotive, real, and compelling. The experiences it depicts are true to the characters, but also true to the lives of some gay men in San Francisco, whether they’re cruising for partners or hanging out with friends. It doesn’t speak to the universality of experience, of course, as not all gay men have identical lives, but it provides a fascinatingly intimate glimpse into the lives of these characters. While Looking is a Gay Show, it’s not an agenda show or an issue show; it’s very much character driven, and this may be why some critics are having trouble with it.
Within the context of Looking, the story isn’t about being gay or doing ‘gay things,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s about the development and lives of the characters, who happen to be gay, and who happen to be part of San Francisco’s larger gay culture. As in other urban environments, minority groups often cluster in smaller social groups, creating a microcosm of their home cities, and that’s the case here. Thus, Looking is, by nature, a slow, ambling sort of programme, but much is going on between the lines. This is a tale of nuance and subtlety, not clonking readers over the head with profound statements or comments on social issues, let alone dramatic storylines.
Looking has avoided cheap shots, going for titillation, and sensationalism. For that, some people are calling it boring, but I happen to think it’s rather refreshing; this is an aspect of gay life we often don’t see on television, where characters are forced to be either SUPER DUPER GAY!!!! or neutered imitations of heteronormative bliss. Looking is just a…look, as it were, into three men’s lives. Yes, there are handjobs, but no, there’s not any sex played for the sake of showing ‘transgressive’ sex to appease audiences who want to be entertained.
The show has also been criticised on the grounds that it lacks diversity (for example, the cast has a limited number of Asian and Latino characters, despite the fact that both populations are heavily represented in San Francisco), and this is a more serious charge. I’d like to say it’s a commentary on self-segregation in some corners of the gay community in the city, but unfortunately, I doubt it’s that deliberate. Hopefully the creative team can find a way to tackle this issue, turning Looking into a more accurate demographic reflection of the beautiful, diverse, and amazing city it’s set in.
Photo by nekidtroll, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license