It's not easy being a TV show about gay men in 2014. Thanks in part to the power of the internet as a platform for activism and outrage, the responsibilities of representation have never seemed more urgent, or more complicated. To appeal to your gay audience—built-in and notoriously loyal—you need to be realistic. To appeal to everyone else—whose patronage will ultimately make or break—you can't be too gay. The ideal is something satisfying without the ick factor, something like, and about as likely as, a spontaneous orgasm.
(You could always, of course, settle for the noble getting-by of being niche, but gays are notorious overachievers.)
And, of course, above all else, a piece of gay pop culture*, in these United States, in 2014, has the challenge of arguing that gays are people too—that we're more than sex maniacs and objects of amusement.
So, given these constraints, HBO's new series Looking (premiering Sunday) does an adequate job. It compromises and humanizes. It's polite but firm, its characters so normal that they're barely remarkable. They have jobs and like to hang out. Maybe every five minutes, someone will say something funny, maybe not. Whatever! They're just dudes in their late 20s and 30s living in San Francisco, looking for love, or something.
They're also very boring. Looking gets that right, if nothing else: For a lot of young gay men—for a lot of everyone—life is boring. I watched (in some cases rewatched) the first three episodes feeling like I was wading through waist-deep mud. I couldn't care less what happened from scene to scene from this nice enough, low-energy, rarely clever group of friends. Things pick up a bit later in the season, which is to say: It gets better. But for the first handful of episodes, I couldn't figure out why we were following these people, why I should care about any of them or their gentle journeys through life—except for the fact that they're all gay.
That said, I have more in common with these gay guys than any I've seen on TV before. They smoke pot; they get along with their platonic gay friends without bitchy backstabbing; they hook up casually on Grindr; they frequently exhibit an apprehensiveness and/or amusement over greater gay culture that they are supposed to relate to but for whatever reason don't; they say things like, "God I'm such a cliché...thinking that sex will make me feel better. I mean it does but still..." And yet, I'd much rather spend time with the queens on RuPaul's Drag Race. I don't think I'm having some sort of narcissism-of-small-differences reaction to Looking—I like pop culture I can relate to, whether I can actually see myself in it or just recognize its essential truth. Girls, which runs before Looking on HBO, is a show in the latter category for me. But while the snappy and fast-paced Girls feels like a trip to an amusement park, Looking is like paging through a magazine in a dentist's office.
Maybe it's this: Time has proved that we gays are resilient, able to assemble a patchwork of influences and cues from the scraps that pop culture gives us. (I'm not saying that's right, I'm just saying that's the way it's been.) Thus, I don't feel a particular yearning to see my specific life experiences coming from screens. I read Bret Easton Ellis' Out essay last year and wondered why a 49-year-old man was moaning about not seeing himself—his "type"—accurately represented onscreen. He's made it through half a century without such a compass. Why would he need it now?
The question, more or less, is answered reasonably in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet by the academic/writer Richard Dyer:
Your ideas about who you are don't just come from inside you, they come from the culture and in this culture, they come especially from the movies. So we learn from the movies what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to have sexuality.
That makes sense to me. As Teena Marie didn't say, sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. What might be right for you may not be right for some, and vice versa. I can see how it could be helpful for some people to see Dom (played by Murray Bartlett), nearing 40 and struggling with his waning appeal, on Looking. I understand that the opening relationship of boyfriends Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Frank (O. T. Fagbenle) might make people who have similar allergies to strict monogamy feel less alone. There are web series like The Outs that cover a similar weed-paced, friend-valuing, sexually-active-but-not-methy, gay way of existing. But Looking is on HBO, which means more exposure and that's great and monumental and everyone can feel fulfilled because their lives, or something that looks like their lives if they squint, are on their TV screen. Cool, I hope this works for you.
(The Outs is much wittier than Looking, by the way.)
I don't really get, though, how anyone in the know could find the milquetoast and adorkable principal character of Patrick (Jonathan Groff) anything but irritating, but he's so clueless that he seems less of a model/cautionary tale for gay men than a liaison for those who aren't so familiar with gay-male culture, an avatar for curious straights. (For the record: We're just like you! We don't know what any of this shit means either!) "My friends think I'm this boy from Colorado that's just fresh of the bus, but I'm not that guy! I have had sex before! I can do it! I will do it! I can do it right now in the toilet!" he exclaims at a club at one point. Simmer down, Shoshanna.
Patrick is fucking clueless, the kind of person who introduces himself to his anonymous trick as they start to hook up in a wooded area of a San Francisco park (the scene the series opens on). He's the kind of person who gets thrown into a tizzy when he realizes that the dick of Richie (Raúl Castillo), the Latino guy he has scheduled a date with, might be uncircumcised. After an extremely awkward exchange in bed with Richie, Richie cuts their hook-up short and then Patrick frets on the phone: "Everything was going fine until I acted like all I wanted to do was suck on his uncut cock, which it turns out he doesn't actually have. I think I may be a racist as well." (That's when you're supposed to laugh.)
Front and center of Looking is this physically nonthreatening white guy with eyes so blue they're complimented by Richie on first meeting, but the powers that be (among them, creator Michael Lannan and executive producer Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed 2011's excellent Weekend) know better than to repeat the mistakes of Girls and run an all-honkies-all-the-time production. So Agustín is Cuban, Frank is black, and Richie is Mexican (and everybody on the internet can shut the fuck up because there's your diversity, you're welcome).
(Dom, for the record, is also white.)
But the show's Hollywood homogeneity—i.e., the only people worth listening to have perfect bodies and a handsome faces—aligns a little too well with the no fats/no fems ideals of online hookup culture. (Looking's guys also could be described as "non-scene.") No matter how deep Looking wants to be—and I get the sense that it wants to be very deep—no matter how many different races and facial hairstyles it represents, it shares a terrible superficiality with the most alienating aspects of gay culture.
It's a shitty reminder of one of the shittier aspects of being gay. Even worse, though, is its seeming squeamishness about sex, which it routinely cuts away from as soon as the action starts heating up. Early in the first episode, we hear Agustín and Frank doing… something through Patrick's room (when the series opens Agustín and Patrick are roommates). When we cut to the couple, they're discussing stopping their session (Agustín has to go to work). And then they stop. Later, they start to engage in a threeway with a guy Agustín is working with. After they both kiss their third, the scene cuts, never to return (though the threeway dictates the course of their relationship for at least the next three episodes). The most nudity you see during a brief trip to the notoriously filthy Folsom Street Fair are a woman's breasts. I'm talking XX flesh! Dom gets cruised in a steam room and as he's pursuing the much younger guy, you guessed it, the scene cuts.
That's a particularly disappointing scene, because just before, a guy (played by, weirdly enough, Scott Bakula) who'd been chatting him up encourages him to pursue the supple, young thing—and then, on Dom's way out of the steam room, still agrees to meet with Dom for lunch sometime. That coolness when it comes to sex, the implicit camaraderie in accepting that the dude you want to do wants to go do someone else and refusing to judge him or even reject him as a result of it, is, in my experience, really particular to gay men and a wonderful moment of nuance for the series. (And then, Dom goes off to, for all we know, rub his Ken doll-smooth crotch up against the younger guy's hole-less butt.)
Whether it's HBO's censorship or Looking's creators being very careful, it sucks that this supposedly forward-thinking, and self-evidently important series is deferring to straight society's repulsion at the idea of two men having sex. Consider how prudish Looking is in the scheme of HBO programming. If Girls is a Borat bathing suit, Looking is one of those calf-to-elbow old timey men's bathing suits. If Game of Thrones is porn, Looking is Elmer Fudd kissing Bugs Bunny in drag. (Game of Thrones' gay sex scenes, incidentally, are more graphic than those in Looking. At least in those, you see actual man ass.) Looking is reluctant to show the gayest part of being gay. I understand why, but I don't like it. I like my gay things with balls.
And so as I watch this show, I yell transcend! at the screen. Transcend, as all non-heterosexual things must do to succeed in a homophobic world. I'm not asking for hardcore porn (there's plenty of that already and I know where to find it), but the closest thing you get to nudity in the first four Looking episodes are some glimpses of shirtlessness and the side of Dom's ass as he fucks a Grindr trick from behind for about 10 seconds. That's as racy as it gets and it's still less graphic than Girls' tamest sex scene. The U.S. version of Queer as Folk's anal-virginity-losing scene during its premiere was way more explicit than anything in Looking's first four episodes by a large margin, and that aired over 13 years ago. It feels like we're regressing.
Above all else, Looking is a reminder of how very normative gay culture skews now. While the show's title evokes hook-up-app-speak ("Looking?" is shorthand for, "Wanna hook-up?"), the tagline is, "Find something real." Maybe that's just marketing, but with the way the plot progresses in the first four episodes, it seems like that might be the show's ethos. Yeah, if that's what you want, go ahead and do it, find something real—but don't let a show or society dictate to you what you should be doing or looking for. Don't let a show tell you that normalcy is a long hunt for a "real" mate. Don't let a show tell you that promiscuity has one ultimate goal. That's so standard. That's so traditional. These story lines are things we've seen a million times before (Patrick has a flirtatious relationship with his ball-busting boss! Dom is intrigued by a man who's older than his usual type! Agustín has eyes for a bad-boy escort, even though he should know better!). In the quest for equality, "normal" has become such an ideal that being gay is the same thing as being straight and lightly dusted with seasoning. Gay people and gay life are not curly fries to straight people's normal fries.
In Looking, gay men get to be boring on TV at last. They get to look for love in barely different ways than straight people. But to me Looking's traditionalism serves more as a reminder of how queer gay pop culture used to be. It's hard to imagine something like the intercut vignettes of alienation seen in Todd Haynes' Poison, or the tangent-prone and fractured Totally Fucked Up (Greg Araki) getting made today. It's hard to believe that something as high-profile and unconventional as Interior. Leather Bar actually exists. It's like gay pop culture shot its wad with the likes of those guys, and John Waters, and Derek Jarman, and Kenneth Anger, and all the other gay men who made movies that didn't function like movies that came before them, that told previously inconceivable stories that often focused on gayness but understood that space for the freedom that it offered. I suppose that in all of these cases, being niche is the rub.
Those artists were pushing back against, and in many cases flat-out rejecting, homophobic society. Looking is made in and for a world that's more accepting of homosexuals than ever. As much as it seeks to shape the culture, this show is also a product of it. Things aren't perfect, but they're getting better—for most of us—and acceptance opens a lane in the middle of the road. Looking's mediocrity is ultimately a reminder of something wonderful: our advancement.
But it's still fucking mediocrity.
*Note: I'm using "gay pop culture" here to talk about pop culture focused on gay men. While pop culture focused on (and/or made by) gay women often has similarities, it diverges just as frequently and is regarded differently (gay men are regarded by homophobic society as threats to masculinity; gay women often are not, or are regarded as threats in different ways). In addition, in terms of relating and recognizing myself in TV shows, I can only really speak to my own experience as a gay man. That said, I'd love to hear more about gay women's experiences with recent pop culture portrayals—obviously The L Word is the big one—especially in comparison to a show like Looking.