HBO’s Looking: the men on TV who just ‘happen to be gay’

Frankie Alvarez as Agustin and O.T. Fagbenle as Frank in Looking. Foxtel

Show a gay man on TV, and you immediately open yourself up to a degree of scrutiny that other artists usually have the privilege of avoiding.

Representations of marginalised subjects on screen or in literature often trigger heated debate. The platform for such stories is relatively small, which means there is a lot at stake. Audiences and critics tend to regard representations of the “other” with a sense of trepidation, sometimes longing to see themselves or their politics reflected back to them.

When I watched the first season of Looking in 2014, HBO’s original series about a group of young gay men in contemporary San Francisco (season two is currently airing in Australia), I was keenly aware of the burden that such expectations must have posed for the show’s creators.

How to approach the ‘gay issue’?

I could already detect a distinct self-consciousness about how to approach the “gay issue” when I listened to the cast interviewed on CNN last year, where they each went at lengths to stress the universality of the themes that the series addresses.

The actors assured potential viewers that the point of the show was not to encapsulate gay life per se, but rather, to explore the lives of characters who “happen to be gay”.

The cast of Looking talk about how the series approaches its gay characters on CNN.

But in another plug for Looking, actor Jonathan Groff (who plays lead character Patrick) proudly enthused:

there’s been gay characters and gay shows on TV before, but never told in this sort of way.

The show was marketed as a new take on what it means to be a gay male in modern times. But, perhaps in an effort not to alienate other demographics, it was also sold as a universal story.

Marking a distance from gay culture

These dual interests set up a sense of ambivalence within the series about just how “gay” it intends to be. Even its title is carefully coded for both “gay” and “mainstream” audiences. Those who have used gay social networking devices will be familiar with the term “looking” as a shorthand expression for “looking for sex”.

If that reference is lost on you, “looking” still makes sense as a broad metaphor for the pursuits of the show – whether it references the characters’ various searches in life, or the camera’s fascination with gazing at them.

Often, Looking dramatises the extent to which its characters appear estranged from the history of gay culture. The opening scene of the pilot in 2014 finds Patrick “cruising” in a park, only to sheepishly opt out at the last minute. It transpires that Patrick’s attempt was not entirely sincere; he was in fact performing a sort of voyeuristic curiosity (he and his friends had wondered, “Do people really still do this?”).

Frankie Alvarez as Agustin, Jonathon Groff as Patrick, Murray Bartlett as Dom in Looking. Foxtel

Later, Patrick claims he is interested in an OkCupid profile because it includes a Frank O’Hara quotation, but then confesses that he actually had to google the famous gay poet.

These scenes play out a strange equivocation; there is recognition of a gay cultural legacy, but its icons are handled half-heartedly, as though they were ironic props. Alternatively, they fall on deaf ears all together, requiring the assistance of a search engine to clarify their content.

The show seems to be announcing that it is dealing with a new generation of gay men, who require a new mode of representation that is distinct from the established cultural narratives.

‘Authentic’ gay representation?

Yet the basic character arcs of Looking are not astonishingly fresh: an apprehensive square (Patrick) becomes slightly more adventurous, an ageing Lothario (Dom) has a mid-life crisis, a dissolute artist (Agustín) betrays his lover. We have seen these stories, or variations of them, before.

The most novel element of Looking is not its plot, but its look. The visual character of the series is made to appear “un-stylised”, as though the camera has merely dropped in on the lives of its subjects, searching for intimate moments in their dimly lit bedrooms.

Frankie Alvarez as Agustin, Murray Bartlett as Dom and Jonathon Groff as Patrick in Looking. Foxtel

The extravagance of Angels in America (2003), or the laugh track of Will & Grace (1998-2006) are not called upon here. Instead, the aesthetic borrows more closely from pioneers in naturalistic film-making such as John Cassavetes and Richard Linklater.

Such restrained and sober realism is not trailblazing in and of itself, but it is true that we haven’t seen an enormous share of it in gay representations on TV.

One wonders if the show’s aesthetic claim to “authenticity” is tied to some of the more conservative aspects of its content. In representations of “gay” San Francisco, we are accustomed to provocative lead characters who assume a path of rebellion or inhabit bohemia.

Patrick, in contrast, is a socially-awkward computer-game programmer who is very concerned about what his bourgeois parents will make of his new, hairdresser boyfriend. Does this timid, white-collar and geeky character represent a model of gay subjectivity that is especially “authentic” in our contemporary times?

Diminishing cultural difference

This representation might prove uninspiring to writers such as American queer theorist David M. Halperin and Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, who have expressed their disenchantment with a perceived waning of radical thought in gay culture, which increasingly steers towards assimilation and obeisance to the larger structures underpinning western culture – consumer capitalism, marriage, conservative gender norms.

Along these lines, American author Bruce Benderson has explicitly voiced his distaste for Looking:

… What exactly is there to learn from watching these people? I don’t know if there is anything at all. But it’s very hard to talk about this thing – it may actually end up being a very important document 70 years from now. And for that very reason, it’s depressing. I mean, I lived in San Francisco in the late Hippy years, and to compare those two experiences … I just don’t know what to say about it. It was all about experimentation then. You didn’t know anyone who had that kind of job.

Benderson’s critique runs the risk of indulging in nostalgia, and there is a danger in glorifying past versions of gay culture without acknowledging their flaws and exclusions.

Murray Bartlett as Dom, Jonathon Groff as Patrick in Looking. Foxtel

Nonetheless, he strikes a chord: there is something mild and underwhelming about an approach to gay representation that declares its “revolutionary” status through its depiction of characters who are themselves the opposite of revolutionary, and an aesthetic that traffics in well-trodden tropes of naturalism.

To be sure, many viewers – gay or otherwise – will probably relate to Patrick, and characters such as his are as deserving of representation as any other. But the politics of Looking are worth questioning, particularly in light of the show’s tendency to distance itself from gay history and to diminish the notion of cultural difference. These inclinations do not demonstrate a tremendous amount of respect for the men who did and do participate in an established gay culture.

But there I go, interrogating a show that attempts to showcase “the other” with a level of scrutiny I might not apply to another series.

Then again, if there were more diversity on screen, I doubt that a show like Looking would ever have to sell itself with press items explaining how it approaches its “gayness”. No one ever advertised Breaking Bad (2008-2013) as a new take on heterosexuality, or felt compelled to tell us that Walter White “just happens to be straight”.

Until those norms are broken down, we will probably continue to wrangle over the small stage afforded to “other” voices.


Season two of Looking is currently airing on Foxtel’s Showcase channel.