“Looking” tackles gay life in San Francisco

Jan. 31, 2014, 12:29 a.m.

Ultra-contemporary storyline? Check. Gorgeous queer men? Check. Indie filtered cityscapes of San Francisco, our neighboring metropolis? Check. “Looking,” HBO’s new television series, which premiered on Jan. 19, has all the ingredients of a successful comedy-drama show that will serve as the gay male reincarnation of “Girls.” “Looking” chronicles the lives of Patrick (Johnathan Groff), Dom (Murray Bartlett) and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), three attractive middle class San Francisco locals… who also happen to be gay.

Like “Girls,” the main characters are all self-absorbed, particularly in their romantic lives and career ambitions. Although it is early in the season, there have been no allusions to any issues facing the gay community, no hint of activism in any character as they develop and little diversity in the types of LGBTQ members that have appeared. This very narrow and limited portrayal of “real gay intimacy” makes the show feel unfortunately banal and trite.

In an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, “Looking” creators Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh explained, “I think we both wanted to tell a very honest story, and be very honest about sexuality. We didn’t want to pull our punches about dating and sex. And there are very few places that would treat it so honestly and authentically.” In some ways, they weren’t lying.

The show does, in fact, showcase some pretty explicit conversations about polyamorous lovemaking, circumcision and aging in the gay community. But heartfelt moments in the dialogue are quickly cut abrupt with curt phrases like, “Will you ladies just finger-fuck each other already?”

In the second episode, “Looking for Uncut,” Patrick and Agustin have a fairly explicit sexual conversation while moving boxes into Agustin’s new place in Oakland. A detailed yet shallow conversation about the mechanics of gay sex takes place as they grab the boxes from Patrick’s car trunk, and banter is exchanged without delving into any meaningful discussion about either character’s gay sexuality. Agustin briefly mentions a change in his relationship dynamic with his boyfriend Frank, but any seriousness in the conversation is overshadowed by their indulgence in gourmet cupcakes.

It’s clear that the creators are intentionally portraying these characters as “regular guys with regular lives.” The moving scene is long and mundane, spanning about a fifth of the half-hour long episode. But by ignoring the idiosyncrasies of gay life in order to make the characters more palatable to a larger audience, “Looking” has forgotten to give viewers a reason to care about Patrick, Agustin and Dom and has withheld the ways in which they are special.

Yet the show makes a subtle commentary on the how the tech-driven gentrification of San Francisco is driving the city’s integral creative and bohemian types into Oakland and other parts of the bay. In this way, the show is very authentic in portraying what it is like to be middle or working class in San Francisco right at this moment, regardless of sexual orientation. In fact, many San Francisco stereotypes are present and incorporated into the show in understated ways, which provides enough mild amusement to sustain a viewer through at least a single episode.

Still, even after being severely let down by the lack of actual sex scenes — I mean, c’mon HBO. Only one 15-second scene of dry humping in the second episode? How uncharacteristically conservative — the absence of activism and painfully homogenous cast thus far, I am holding out hope that the rest of the season will get better. With only five more episodes to go, “Looking” will need to pick up speed quickly to keep audiences engaged with the storyline. For now, viewers will likely need to keep looking, too.

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