Entertainment

‘Looking’ Is the Real Gay ‘Sex and the City.’ And It’s So Much Better


ICYMI, hit rewind: This is the definitive series about being young and single amid a great metropolis.



In the first episode of Looking, a show about three gay men in San Francisco, the protagonist Patrick (Jonathan Groff), an adorable Waspy, preppy, sweet-faced young video-game designer, goes on an OKCupid date, and quickly commits several OKCupid date faux: He shows up ten minutes late; gulps his first glass of wine before his date—a doctor—has made a dent in his; and, as an ice-breaker, launches into a sheepish confession about getting his first anonymous hand job in the park. He tells him because he thought it’d be funny, delivering the anecdote with a coy smile.

Bad idea. The doctor is not amused, swiftly turns the tables on him, barraging him with pointed questions: “So you’re looking to just hook up?” and “So, what was your longest relationship?” It’s clear this date is DOA. “When this is working,” the doctor tells him, “you obviously shouldn’t have to try so hard.” Patrick, gobsmacked, responds, “Are you serious?”

So. Many. Awkward. Feelings.

Take away the part about cruising in the park, and Patrick’s is the sort of universal bad first blind date anyone can relate to. Viewers watch, thinking, I’ve been on that date.

And that’s part of the genius of Looking. In some ways, it doesn’t matter that the three protagonists are gay men, even though they are often experiencing things specific to gay life (e.g., leather festivals in the Castro, hand jobs in the park, threesomes with a rent boy), Looking’s universal themes have more to say about being single, dating, and becoming an adult and growing as a person, than the two shows it is most closely compared to—Sex and the City and Girls.

At the same time, Looking takes seemingly mundane details—sex in the morning, introducing your new boyfriend to your friends—and shows them unvarnished, without commentary. But the kicker here, is that because it’s gay men we are watching, there’s a politicization in just about every action—Looking doesn’t need to shout about it from the rooftops. It’s not showy. The mere act of depicting a guy getting a blowjob just slightly offscreen is transgressive. Yet what’s revolutionary is just how normal and nonplussed it all is.

For this reason (among others) it’s easy to relate to the characters and the circumstances in Looking, far more than it is with Girls or SATC, both of which use broad comic strokes, stock characterizations, and outrageous scenarios, rather than nuance and realism to tell the story.

Lindy West famously wrote that Sex and the City 2 was “a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls,” and it is true that SATC feels like female performative drag. To watch SATC was to believe that every woman in New York wore expensive high heels, piles of makeup, and drank giant Cosmos when they went on dates, and dished with their girlfriends about it in the most tawdry way possible (Samantha, especially, sounded exactly like a drag queen most of the time).

Girls feels like a hipster version of that—with American Apparel swapped in for Prada, PBR instead of Cosmos. In SATC, the ladies meet guys who want to pee on them, are “modelizers,” and who can only have sex in public places. In Girls, one friend accidentally does crack and loses her pants; another has a lost weekend with a stranger, and has sex with her gay ex-boyfriend. None of these things rings true—possible, sure, but not true. (For a more realistic version of Brooklyn twenty- or thirtysomething-life, watch Broad City. But that’s another essay altogether.

Looking has its share of funny moments, and lots of awkward ones, thanks to Patrick’s fumbles—as when he assumes that his Latin boyfriend, Richie, will be uncut, or he experiences “bottom shame”—but it isn’t a comedy. (That unfortunate term dramedy might best describe it.) Its director Andrew Haigh gets variously praised and maligned, with some charging that Looking should be renamed “Boring.”

But those “boring” scenarios is what makes it so universal. Who hasn’t had (or hopes to have) an incredibly hot boss that’s flirting with them and conflating working late with creating a false sense of intimacy? Who hasn’t had to navigate some hoary socioeconomic boundaries when dating? Who hasn’t had to worry about how your friends or family will receive your new significant other?

What Looking does best is show how the characters are struggling to change themselves or fighting change. They already feel lived in. They are revealing themselves, bit by bit. In addition to the shy and awkward Patrick, there’s the hunky, and unfortunately mustachioed, Dom (Murray Bartlett), whose anxiety around his age (he’s 40! Nearing death!) is a plot point just about every straight woman can relate to, and even Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), the cocky, failed artist, has more layers to him than all four of the SATC women put together. He’s a dick, but you get the sense that his acting out comes from insecurity and fear—not because he’s a horrible, shallow person.

We’ve been taught that an unlikable or difficult character is the same as an interesting one, but Looking recognizes the difference. Agustin is unlikable, but what makes him interesting is trying to figure out what made him bitter and insecure, what made him stop creating the art he was once known for? When he puts down Richie in the park, Richie asks, “Why are you friends with him?” and we want to know the answer. We have friends like this too, people we keep in our lives even as we outgrow them. People we love, even when they do despicable and unsavory things.

It’s a huge difference from the shallow characters on SATC. Carrie didn’t really change—she never became less materialistic or less enamored of a man who was totally ambivalent about her; she never realizes what a jerk she is most of the time. Personal growth on SATC was Miranda moving to Brooklyn and dating someone lower than her station, a bartender.

Hannah Horvath and her entire cluster of friends on Girls, minus Ray and Adam, are awful, narcissistic, whiny brats; spending time with them is an exercise in masochis, minus the climax. We know Hannah is horrible, but we don’t really understand why. And I’m not sure we care.

And there’s the familiarity of Looking’s setting. If you’ve spent a modicum of time in a hipster enclave, in gay culture, or some combination thereof, you’ll feel comfortable with Looking. Those dense gay bars, that drag queen singing on stage, that Panda Bear Stripper dancing on a bar (yes, that was actually ripped off from a real night run by a friend San Francisco), it doesn’t feel like a glitzy version of real life. Their apartments don’t feel like a set—normal furniture, normal rooms (though probably not normal rents, not anymore). No outrageously expensive apartments in hoods we’d never be able to afford. Even Hannah’s two-bedroom (who gets a two-bedroom and leaves one conveniently empty for the sister we didn’t even know about to show up later in the season?is totally ludicrous.

On Looking. they smoke weed, drink bourbon, and get into a threesome, call boys up on Grindr, go to an engagement party at a club, and go cruising in the park. In other words, just another week in San Francisco. They might be clichés, but they are believable ones. I’m grateful that HBO recently announced they’ve been renewed—this Sunday is Looking’s season-one finale, and I’m so not ready to say good-bye to these boys. We’re just getting to know them, just as they’re getting to know themselves.

 

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