Without being preachy, HBO’s “Looking” offers a fine lesson that being totally out of the closet, as are all the many characters, can lead to a cool cool (and also hot hot) existence.
By Gerald Peary
You don’t have to be gay, only queer-friendly, to be delighted by HBO’s new 8-part Sunday night series, Looking, which follows the stories of three gay men, the best of pals, as they negotiate their lives in the Mission Castro district of today’s San Francisco. In some ways, it may even be better being straight (like me, for example) watching the series. My focus is on the easygoing drama, and I’m not cognizant of the tiny details of accuracy and verisimilitude which can drive a knowing gay viewer to distraction. The Boston Globe featured a strident attack by staffer Christopher Muther, whose usual beat is metrosexual fashion and au courant music. Muther called Looking “infuriating” and replete with “outdated stereotypes of gay life.” He complained that the characters wore the wrong “undergarments,” what was “popular when Armistead Maupin wrote Tales of the City.” (That would be 1976. Close to 1776.)
But what really caused Muther “to flip off his sofa” (his term) was — zounds! — the wrong music being played in a club scene: “Patrick and his date danced gleefully to Erasure’s 1998 hit ‘A Little Respect.’ Did I mention that this program takes place in 2014 San Francisco?” Well, what can I say? I’m sure Muther is right, technically, and maybe other gays cringed before their TVs about this anachronistic music blunder. But Mr. Straight here, of course, had a different view. While watching the series, he naively turned to his wife and said, “This is a great soundtrack. I’d love to own it!”
I watched the first four episodes, and enjoyed them enormously. Oh? What about having thrust in my face all that male-on-male lasciviousness, from a hand job while cruising to, what the gay script doctor ordered, oral and anal sex? As they say: different strokes. The days when men couldn’t even (yuck!) kiss on a TV screen are thankfully long over, especially on cable. I never saw the pioneering series, Queer as Folk (2000-2005), on Showtime, but apparently everything carnal was done there too. Anyway, HBO has long been a verdant pasture for soft-core sex on the teasing edge of hardcore, and Looking is, to me, just more of the same, with guys only instead of guys and chicks. Fairly generic. No big deal.
What’s positive about Looking, what fills me with glee, is that this “dirty homo” stuff will be widely, wildly, watched around the USA, contaminating pious religious households and Tea Party strongholds, infuriating the Fox right. For every urbane naysayer like the Globe’s Muther, there will be ten LGBT types who are delighted, excited, and titillated. Without being preachy, Looking offers a fine lesson that being totally out of the closet, as are all the many characters, can lead to a cool cool (and also hot hot) existence. Not only are the creators of the series gay (Michael Lannan, Andrew Haigh), but three of the principle actors are also, as one of them explained, “proudly out”: Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett, Russell Tovey.
I’ve been procrastinating getting to the tiny plot. Our three protagonists are Patrick (Groff), a low-level video games designer, Dom (Bartlett), a longtime waiter, and Augustin (Frankie Alvarez), a would-be artist. Looking cuts frequently among their stories, meaning: what are they doing that day? Often, the narrative forefronts sex. Two of the three, Augustin and Dom, seize full advantage of being in the gay nirvana of San Francisco by having a robust erotic life. Augustin partakes of a spontaneous threesome which, since Frank’s there, includes his boyfriend (O.T. Fagbenie). It’s fun, and has no effect on their frisky, casually promiscuous relationship. Dom, despite his sturdy looks, is on the edge of losing a bit of allure, as he approaches being 40, as white creeps into his temples. For now, he’s OK with paying for a hooker one night, and himself hooking up at the baths on another racy eve.
Only Patrick falters. He’s the series’s most mainstream-and-midwestern-looking character, kind of babyfaced-handsome like Ryan O’Neal on Peyton Place, that ancient TV series. (In real life, actor Groff grew up in a tight Christian family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before he fled to New York, a Tony nominee for Spring’s Awakening on Broadway, then on to the TV show, Glee.) In the first four episodes of Looking, Patrick is the only one who “can’t get no,” who keeps goofing up, being nervous, inauthentic, off his rhythm, whenever there’s a chance for love.
Horny as Patrick is, he’s longing far more to have a real relationship. In his earnestness, and in his sexual fumblings, he’s probably the character whom we heterosexuals, so clumsy and guilty in our own sexuality, best can relate to. My own contained, repressed New England life is far afield from what is shown, beyond Patrick, on Looking: gay men popping up everywhere in San Francisco, salaciously checking each other out. California, here I cum!
But Looking also says more: that a great time in the boudoir, though surely great, is ultimately not enough. Andrew Haigh (also the British filmmaker of the well-received gay drama, Weekend) has described the arc of his characters: “They’re aspiring to have happier lives, more fulfilled lives.” None of the main three are golden-boy yuppies. Professionally, they all are under-achievers. That’s where they feel guilty and anxious.
Patrick wants to rise higher in the designer world. Augustin admits, with self-loathing, that he’s become the odious person who talks about his art but never does any. But the most touching character is Dom (played with adult charm by Aussie actor, Bartlett, formally a soaper lady-killer on Guiding Light). Dom chokes over the intolerable fact that he’s still waiting tables at the place where, eight years earlier, he began. He’s desperate to buy a restaurant and — a pipe dream? — he believes there’s a customer need for Portugese piri piri chicken.
Good luck, fellows. I wish them all well. And what I really endorse about Looking, amidst all its leather-jacket posing and fucking? It’s very very sweet. And sincerely humanist. The San Francisco created here is, though it’s jaded 2014, a kind of retro pre-AIDs 1960s utopia, where friendship and fellowship reign in the gay community. I salute Haigh when he says of his excellent series: “I’m not interested in angry bad people. I like stories about nice people. They get left out sometimes.”
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.