The comparisons between Looking, HBO’s newest offering , and Girls, which just began its third season, are both inescapable and legitimate. Both follow the lives of a group of misguided, self-involved, and socio-economically privileged neurotics. Both shows are remarkably self-conscious of the present era in which they’re based: fast-paced, culturally fragmented and wanting for meaning under a distinct curtain of social vapidity. Both series are inextricably linked to the cities where they’re located: Girls portraying a precise post-graduate Brooklyn malaise, Looking set in a post-Stonewall, post-AIDS Castro. And, not uncoincidentaly, they run back-to-back, the former’s premier having followed the second episode of the latter this Sunday.
While I don’t find Girls compelling enough to watch, I do at least find it clever; regardless of criticism of the show’s privileged, unlikable main characters, it has undeniably captured the lives of a certain subset of society (wealthy, entitled, unfulfilled liberal-arts grads) in a, if not accurate, than at least unique way. Everybody knows somebody like one of the Girls, and while you might not like them, the show is often pretty on-point.
Not so for Looking. Though reviews have been mostly positive, noting the series’ use of naturalistic cinematography to showcase a “normative” gay experience (ie, gay men in their own settings, without any of the baggage of history), I found two points of criticism. First, and more importantly, it was boring. Second, its representation of gay men didn’t ring true for me.
The characters are believable enough, though uninteresting. Our main guy, Patrick (Jonathan Groff), is cute and awkward, but it’s not clear why we’re supposed to root for him. The most compelling insight we’re offered is that his longest relationship was under six months (5 months, his friend Dom corrects him). Got it: he can’t find a boyfriend. Dom (Murray Bartlett) and the other main character, Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), are both clichés (the former is a nearing-40 waiter, the latter an artist without any art), but not particularly transgressive or interesting ones.
The show has been lauded as groundbreaking in its unembellished portrayal of the lives of gay men, but this very “realism” makes it uninteresting in 2014. Most HBO viewers who might tune in already know gay men – and have likely heard them complain about their love lives IRL. Gay men being gay can’t be the basis of a show – not because it’s offensive to larger audiences, but because of just the opposite: straight people have (rightly) caught on that most of our lives are pretty boring. In this sense, the producers of Looking have accomplished their job. But if the point of the series was to show gay men in their natural setting, then 2014 is too late for that to be any news at all.
Beyond the supposed naturalism of the show, the characters have been praised for their lack of “campiness”. I was curious about critics’ response to this, as I noted that of the three main characters, only one (Agustin) might be classified as moderately “femme”. Unsurprisingly, this lack of femininity garnered praise from critics; Willa Paskin of Slate compliments the lack of “stereotypically campy gay men”, a fact that in and of itself would “be enough to justify Looking’s existence on purely sociological grounds.” The LA Times’ Marcy McNamara praises creator Michael Lannan, who “keeps the ‘get in the car, Mary’ tics to a minimum.” Nobody likes those gays, evidently.
All of the positive reviews I read noted the characters’ lack of campiness, or, more pointedly, their obvious masculinity. The conclusion that this is necessarily a good thing for gay men (or straight viewers, who presumably shouldn’t be asked to stomach a high level of wrist-flipping flamboyance) is at least mildly offensive, the subtle implication being that “campy” (femme) gay men don’t belong in the modern gayborhood, or at least not on the modern television screen. That act was so ‘90s.
The glaring reality, though, is that many gay men are femme, and there are a lot of subtle power dynamics within the gay community revolving around masculinity – dynamics that would actually make interesting, groundbreaking fodder for a show like Looking. In fact, most of the gay men I know probably fall farther onto the femme side than any of our protagonists, and we don’t even live in gayborhoods like the Castro. I don’t proclaim to represent every gay man, or to know how gay men should be represented, but for a series that obviously seeks to take the mantle of “gay male TV”, you’d think at least one of the three might embody some camp – or at least play it up now and again, as my friends and I do.
I wouldn’t want to demand that a producer has to incorporate unrepresented characters simply to be more balanced (see the fracas over SNL’s supposed lack of minority presence, or Girls’ prominent addition of a new black character to avoid public backlash). But if the producers of Looking seek to represent a modern gay reality (if a more dramatized, more interesting one), then their decision to pass on the camp skews that reality. If that’s the world that these three characters live in, so be it; I just can’t help but imagine that of a sampling of three random gay men in the Castro, at least one in three would have a slight lisp. And if that lisp was avoided merely for the sake of not portraying those gays, then I fear that these characters – and thus the modern gay man – have been commoditized to be acceptable to a larger straight audience, or to a gay audience that wishes to overtly side-step pervading stereotypes about gay men – stereotypes, which like many others, contain more than a grain of truth. And, if the show was made to deliberately side-step these stereotypes, then by this very fact it disallows the naturalism that Looking seeks to encompass.
I might have a handlebar moustache, but I can pronounce my S’s
It was fun watching the premier in a room of mostly gay men living in San Francisco (and, typically, a few straight ladies added to the mix), but I couldn’t help observing the normalcy on the watcher’s side of the TV set. Most of the young gay men I know (perhaps a demi-generation away from these late-20s-to-30s gays) work in finance or consulting – a few of us, like me, are scattered around in startups or NGOs. Admittedly, our lives are too boring (normal) to put into film. If the point of Looking is to portray gay men from a normative standpoint, it certainly succeeds, but society has moved too far for this to be interesting TV. If creator Michael Lannan wishes to offer something more, it can’t be gay characters who are as boring as everybody else.
Note: I cited reviewers of ‘Looking’ who had access to the first four episodes of the series. I (a normal consumer) only watched the series premier.