There we were, a merry band in my living room last Sunday night, watching HBO’s new gay-themed drama, Looking. Amazingly, this being 2014, almost 45 years since the Stonewall Riots, marriage equality rumbling across the nation, this is a notable event. Sure, gay characters are in primetime but fully-fleshed-out gay stories and gay lives are still under-represented in that mass porridge. If this was a school report, you’d mark it, “Improving, could do better. *eye roll* Soon would be good.”
There was a degree then of, if not excitement, then anticipation on our couch. It had been years since Jack and Karen had tormented Will and Grace, years since The L Word when Bette and Tina had rowed and reconciled and the ghost of Dana appeared in a waterfall; years since Brian and Justin in Queer as Folk had scandalized with their age-gap hot sex and since Sharon Gless had made everything better in the diner and Emmett still loved Ted even after his crystal meth addiction.
Initial signs were not just promising for Looking, they pulsed positive. The executive producer is Andrew Haigh, director of the wonderful movie, Weekend, about the romantic brief encounter of two British guys. Tender and honest, it said a lot without them saying much.
Back on the couch, we were ready to enjoy, snark, laugh, grizzle: gay TV viewers, so used to making as much as possible from crumbs from the table, also fiercely fight over those crumbs—what they mean, what they represent, and then how gays are being represented, how their lives are being shown. Typically a cacophony erupts: why can’t they be more slutty?!; no—more sweet and normal; no—more bookish; no—more outrageous, no—more regular guy-ish. Put him in chinos. Put him in a kaftan. It’s a little thankless, producing gay-themed drama. You will screw up, violate sensitivities, ignore a sub-group.
As Looking’s half hour progressed, not a sound from our couch. Oh, maybe there was an amiable chuckle. The first episode of Looking didn’t offend because it got anything wrong about “us.” Instead, it was—a gay TV first—boring. Not terrible, not brilliant, not good, but amiable, uneventful, inoffensive. Rather misleadingly, it’s been called the “gay Girls,” but people have sex in Girls and say and do the stupidest, cruelest things, they have dramas, there’s flesh on display. Looking does the opposite, and it does the unimaginable: it makes gay men look dreary. Perhaps this is some postmodern gay subversion, but to me it just seemed like lousy writing and lackluster direction. Expecting people to watch gay men not do that much for half an hour is oddly kamikaze television-making.
Looking features three men in San Francisco—Patrick, Agustín and Dom—played by Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett. They’re friends. They sit around and talk, they have frustrated flirtations, one is starting a new relationship, the other two moon about not sure what they want. They’re regular guys—a hint of fruitiness reverberates around Agustin, not much—and that’s about it. You don’t really buy Groff would have any problems finding love or sex, the main thematic knot of the first half hour. He’s adorable. He makes all us schlumps at home feel like they’re really is no point.
"The fact that it's about three gay people means it automatically gets called 'the gay HBO show',” Haigh told The Guardian, “and the only reason it annoys me is that it limits the audience. You make something and you want it to be a universal experience. We're not that different, gay people."
No, we’re not but yes we are and that is presumably why HBO commissioned Haigh's drama. Perhaps Looking, and its core cast of label-free pleasure-seekers, reflects its times and generation of twenty-, thirty- and fortysomething gays. These are gay men who have grown up in a time of relative, increasing equality, the beneficiaries of older generations' struggle. Looking's characters, who speak only about themselves, don't talk about the wider gay world (except to joke about it).
There is no notion that legal and social equality are still elusive, only that these guys are all right. There is no notion of San Francisco's tumultuous and venerable gay history. The men just use its bars and cruise its streets; sexuality, the show makes clear, is now just part of the service industry.
The characters remind me of a 25-year-old from Texas, a teacher, I met in my local gay bar a few months ago. He asked where he should go on this, his first visit to New York. I said, well obviously the Stonewall, if only to pay homage. He looked confused. "What's the Stonewall?" he asked. He knew nothing about the Riots. He knew quite a bit ten minutes later.
One view is that this is positive, that new gay generations are coming to maturity in a "post-political" age, with an innate sense of their own equality. I'm happy for them, but a post-political age—and we're hardly there yet; full legal equality is far from guaranteed—means younger gay men should know, and value, the struggles of the past which have helped achieve these greener pastures. In Looking, individual entitlement trumps any notion of community or collective identity. In a sense, this is a true sign of the times and therefore the show is the TV drama the gays of today deserve. It is a true reflection of the casting off of old shackles and labels, but what a depressing mirror. It's one thing to be post-political, if that's your questionable choice, but these gay men literally have nothing to say.
The Guardian asked Haigh if he felt any pressure that Looking be representative. "I completely understand there is a desire as gay people to see your lives reflected on screen—because it's not been there—but I can't do it. It would be an awful show if we tried to represent every type of gay person who exists, because every gay person is different. All I can do is tell the story of three characters and their friends."
All this sounds eminently sensible, but he is still producing a half-hour of drama and the issue of representation is not the point: it was simply that this trio, while perfectly nice, were dull. I watched another three episodes, thinking it might just be a slow start—but no, the amiable, purposeless loafing continues. The men talk about sex a bit, an ex-boyfriend is confronted (but we don’t really care because we don’t know the relationship). The arrival of the talented British actor Russell Tovey heralds a little flutter, but he is soon subsumed into the pervading homo mumblecore.
In Slate, the excellent J. Bryan Lowder has also pondered why Looking lumbers so lackadaisically, and makes a persuasive case for its "cynical tokenism"; in response Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair cautioned against sweeping judgments and claimed Looking was "mildly transfixing escapism." Even its supporters, you sense, can't fully get on board.
So far, there have been two particularly grating scenes. In the first episode, Patrick is shown on a cruising ground, claiming to one of his buddies by phone he is just there to see what it’s all about. When a guy actually approaches him, he becomes flustered and bumbling, which I think is supposed to be charming. So, he went to a cruising ground to laugh at gays who use cruising grounds? Really? Being gay and laughing at and deriding other gays resurfaces again in a later episode where Groff’s character attends the leather and fetish event, the Folsom Street Fair. He and his buddies spend much of his time laughing at the people taking part in the event, which is not only unpleasant but also—given he lives in San Francisco, where every variety of gay flora and fauna is on display and Folsom a long-standing event—implausible.
Bartlett’s character, in his late 30s, begins a flirtation or friendship, as yet unclear with a florist played by Scott Bakula. There seems to be an age-gap issue hinted at, but nothing of interest evolves from it (yet). But most strangely Bartlett's character treats Bakula's as an alien beamed in from another world, whereas in San Francisco, one of the best things is the mix of gay generations and the pronounced presence of gay elders.
If they are not talking about sex, the Looking men occasionally discuss work, but never politics or the world around them. None of the men have “issues.” Looking seems at special pains to be so non-political, so over all the kind of nitty-gritty stuff that people do talk about and experience: marriage equality, homophobia, discrimination, the plight of gays abroad. Again, its producers may argue this is deliberate, that these are regular gay guys, whoever the hell they are. But even regular gay guys talk about these things, they experience discrimination and homophobia, and crafting relationships which may or may not include monogamy (as, to be fair, one couple in Looking does).
After four episodes this puzzled viewer’s questions: What is this show for? Why bother? Where’s a villain? Where's a relationship to be interested in? Where's a compelling storyline? Where's the tension? What's the peril? Where’s the fire in the belly? It’s all very well claiming this is how today's gay men really are, but that is not the function of drama. Drama heightens the everyday, it distills and magnifies it. If Looking is right, "We're as boring as you" could be the new—at once ingenious and depressing—equality battle cry.
More pointedly, if you make a gay-themed TV drama you are necessarily creating something at a variance to the mainstream; to then claim there is nothing that differentiates your characters to heterosexuals rather invalidates your narrative. Looking fails because nothing anchors its characters, bar endless mumbling about hot guys and "does he like me, do I like him, shall we go out, shall we stay in, shall we get takeout, he's hot, gosh those leather dudes are weird." If the men of Looking are too cool to be even defined by their sexuality, why was the show—their sexuality at its heart—commissioned? As yet, Looking hasn't yet made a persuasive case there is anything interesting about them, sexuality or otherwise.
Groff told The Guardian: "One of the cool things about our show is that nobody's having a coming-out experience. They're not grappling with their sexuality. It's mostly men in their 30s and 40s. It's a show with gay characters, but their issues are work, relationships, interpersonal. Hopefully it's a sign of where things are, or where they're going: that your sexuality is a big part of who you are, but doesn't define who you are."
It's an oft-repeated canard, that one, I always thought concealing the truth that our sexuality does define a large part of many of us, uncool as it maybe to admit. Whatever, if that really is the beating theoretical heart of Looking, why make it in the first place?