Great Expectations

HBO’s ‘Looking,’ Gays, and Sex: Are We All Expecting Too Much?

The makers of Looking and TV critics sound off on the expectation that HBO’s new ‘gay show’ represents the expectations of every gay man.

John P. Johnson/HBO

HBO’s new dramedy Looking is about three men in San Francisco on the road to discovery: of love, of happiness, of themselves. The three men, as it happens, are gay. It should be no surprise, then, that Looking is being referred to as “HBO’s gay show.” Or, more reductively, “Girls for gays.” It also should be no surprise that Looking is far more than what either of those two labels suggests, for example how friendships and relationships, with others and ourselves, change as we get older.

Yet people are surprised. At least they seem so. Looking is not Girls, for gays, or otherwise. But the two series do have one incredibly frustrating thing common: ridiculous expectation.

Poor Lena Dunham. The uber-talented twentysomething screenwriter was drowned in backlash when her show about twentysomethings didn’t live up to the impossible-to-live-up-to expectation that it be about every twentysomething. Premature buzz over Girls built into a mountain of hype that was unscalable for Dunham. Or anyone, really. But we’re already seeing a twin peak forming with expectations—and even demands—from people, including and maybe especially within the gay community, for what Looking should be. Take a sample headline about the show: “Is Looking the gay TV series some of us have been waiting for?”

We’ve seen the first batch of episodes, and, in so many ways, it is and it isn’t—just as Girls was the show that so many twentysomethings were waiting for and was also the show that so many never wanted. In other ways, it’s a TV show, one that’s about a gay experience, not every gay experience.

The creative team behind Looking, though, is certainly aware that the expectation for universality exists.

“I do think it’s the case,” Andrew Haigh, the show’s director, tells me. “I think it’s a shame but I think it’s the case. You can already see it in people’s tweets.” To some extent, he understands: “People are starved for representation, and want it to reflect their lives.” But that doesn’t mean the expectation make sense. “There will be people tuning in expecting Looking to be a representation of everything that’s happening in the modern gay world,” Jonathan Groff, who plays the lead, Patrick, says. “It’s a dangerous expectation. It’s just impossible to meet.”

It is laughable that the issue of inclusion is raised so often with shows like Girls and Looking—whether its race or age or sexuality, the expectation that every aspect of a viewer’s life should be reflected back at them through the experiences of the show’s characters.

But are careerwomen in their 30s upset that Claire Danes’s character on Homeland implies that all working women have bipolar disorder and are having affairs with the suspected terrorists they’re supposed to be tracking down? Do fathers in the Midwest raise a ruckus because Walter White’s dealings with drug lords don’t resonate with them? So why are we so put off when Hannah Horvath’s behavior on Girls doesn’t ring exactly true to something we’d do in our lives? (Apologies, of course, if you have done cocaine at a Williamsburg rave while wearing a mesh tanktop recently.)

There are already rumblings and gripes—much of it on Twitter, as Haigh mentioned—about the way the characters in Looking reflect or do not reflect certain aspects of the gay community. Patrick, for example, is a video-game programmer. How un-gay is that? “Michael Lannan came up with the original character and it was important that Patrick was a video-game designer,” answers Haigh. “It’s San Francisco and there’s a lot of tech jobs there. I think it’s quite an appropriate job for the character.”

There’s also the issue of sex. Actually, if you read the sight-unseen judgments of prospective Looking viewers on Twitter and in Internet comment sections, sex is the issue.

Depending on who you ask, the characters in Looking are either having too much sex or not enough of it. They’re too slutty, or not slutty enough. When the series opens, Patrick is in the midst of a hand job that he had cruised for in a park. Grindr and OK Cupid factor into Looking. There’s a threesome in the first episode. There are open relationships and monogamous relationships and serious dating and sleeping around.

It’s always dangerous to generalize, but many gay people will tell you (at least in my experience) that the thing they notice that people are most intrigued about when it comes to their community is the sex element. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it happens behind closed doors. A lot of that has to do with clichés and stereotyping through the years, a misinformed preconception of excessive promiscuity. (Or maybe not misinformed, depending on who you ask.) But the bottom line is that when HBO announces that it is going to air a show about finding love starring three gay characters, a massive amount of the coverage about the show is going to be how it portrays sex.

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“I think the reason, or part of the reason, that HBO hired Andrew Haigh is because of his movie, where the sex felt just like real life” Groff tells me. Haigh directed the 2011 film Weekend, hailed by critics as one of the most honest and touching portrayals of a gay relationship ever put on film. “They knew what they were getting into when they hired him for the show. In my experience, there was no talk of “we need more tits and ass! Or “we need less sex!”

You might actually be surprised to find out that Patrick doesn’t have sex in the first episode at all. Or the second. Or even the third. (Fear not: Patrick eventually gets laid.) “If it’s right for there to be a sexual moment, there is,” Groff says. “Even when Frankie opens up his relationship with Agustín and tries a threeway, it’s about where he is emotionally with his boyfriend and where they are in their relationship.”

Haigh knew there would be discussion about the show’s sex, and certainly suspected there would be an obsession over it. Dutifully, he debated what responsibility his show had in that regard. And then he scoffed at it.

“You discuss those things, sex, of course,” he says. “But I suppose all I can do is reflect the world personally as I see it. Once you sort of have a manifesto to be as authentic as you can, you don’t worry about those things too much. Some people want to have lots of sex, some people don’t. Some people are looking for long-term relationships, some people just want to hook up. I’m not making judgments on different ways of life. It’s about reflecting and showing them.”

Sounds logical. So why are we having—and let’s face, going to have after the show premieres Sunday—such a hard time accepting that?

The thing is, in many ways, Looking is the gay show that everyone’s been waiting for. Its mere existence signals progress. But it is just progress, as there is still so much farther to go. For example, we’re still calling it a “gay show,” and placing it on that timeline that charts the depiction of gay characters on TV.

“As a gay audience member, there are few things more bittersweet than a character who ‘just happens to be gay,’” says Buzzfeed’s Louis Peitzman. It’s progress, he says: “A character’s sexual identity has become incidental—not his or her one defining trait, not the impetus for the narrative. On the other hand, it’s a cheap way to avoid any actual discussions of what it means to be a member of the LGBT community.”

Looking strikes a balance we’ve not yet seen on TV, he says. “This is a show about characters who just happen to be gay that is also about their gayness, insofar as it explores their romantic and sexual relationships.” But make no mistake about it. “Looking is a gay series.”

For now, he says, that’s OK. Haigh agrees. The label of “gay show” is “so inevitable” for Looking, he says. There’s no controlling that. “To me, it’s a show with gay people in it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a ‘gay show.’ When you call it a ‘gay show’ it maybe limits the audience, who won’t watch it because it’s ‘the gay show.’ But of course I want this show to be for gay people, because it’s about gay people. But I also want other people to watch it regardless of their sexuality.”

And when they do, we all just ask that they be measured and rational about what they’re looking for.