The phrase “Looking?” is a familiar one to users of Grindr, a geosocial app for gay men to find nearby meetups. Like Grindr, HBO’s series Looking, which debuted a year ago, centers largely on sex. Anticipated as a variation on HBO’s hit Girls starring gay men, the show (whose second season premieres tonight) was tasked with portraying what remains distinctive about gay lives in an era of relative freedom and individualism, and has fought an uphill battle with gay reviewers. “It’s always hard when you make a show about gay people,” the show’s director and producer Andrew Haigh has said, “because you just cannot—no matter how hard you try—represent every gay person in the world. Because there’s so little out there, everyone wants it to reflect their own experiences. All you can do is focus on a set of characters and who they are.”
The show centers on three gay men living in San Francisco, who we get to know through their everyday concerns. Patrick, a 29-year-old video-game designer, though attractive and smart, is lost when it comes to relationships and insecure about being gay. Agustín, his former roommate at Berkeley, hails from Cuban Miami. An artist who doesn’t make art, he is stuck in a game of tug-of-war between his ego and his relationship with his boyfriend Frank. Then we have Dom, a 39-year-old former hookup of Patrick’s who hopes to open his own restaurant but is stuck waiting tables and chasing men half his age on Grindr. Their problems, like accidentally hitting on your future boss or negotiating when to move in with a partner, could be anyone’s.
Jonathan Groff, who plays Patrick (and previously starred in Glee), told Out that the show’s leads are looking “for love” rather than “for now,” but love here does not imply marriage. The series hardly endorses Patrick’s “straight-acting” normativity; in fact it makes him the butt of most of the show’s jokes from his more culturally gay friends. As creator Michael Lannan explains, Patrick “begins the show with the idea that you can either have sex in the woods or settle down and get married. As the show goes on, he realizes that those aren’t the only two choices—that there’s this whole world of options.”
Patrick and his friends are faced with possibilities previous generations of gay men could only dream of. “When the world changes so quickly, even for the better, it’s confusing,” Lannan said. The question is whether gay men who feel accepted by straight society will abandon the gay culture and identity they no longer feel confined to.
In his book How To Be Gay, cultural theorist David Halperin proclaimed “gay culture’s apparent decline” as a cost of “access to mainstream social forms” and subsequent integration into straight society—“trying to beat heterosexuals at their own game.” Instead of gay pride, he writes, “we are witnessing the rise of a new and vehement cult of gay ordinariness.” This tension has played out in the gay community for decades, but Looking makes it explicit. In Season One, we see the downside of the traditional relationship Patrick pursued with Richie, a Latino guy he met on the subway. Patrick’s friends accuse him of “slumming it,” and he worries what his mother will think of her Berkeley-educated son seeing someone who cuts hair. When Patrick snaps under this pressure, Richie bails as his wedding date, and Patrick realizes he’s trying too hard to live up to his idea of what a relationship should be.
Patrick is in need of friends to expand his horizons. Dom is the proud sexual subject Patrick is too afraid to be. A “macho” type with the classic mustache and leather jacket, he is referred to as a sexual “institution” in the Castro. Affectionately called “Daddy” by Patrick and Agustín, Dom is closer in attitude to Halperin’s generation than to Patrick’s. Worried about meeting his newly successful ex, Dom sighs, “I just need to get laid”—and we get a frontal shot when he does. In one standout scene, we see Dom in a gay bathhouse effectively choosing between two guys. An attractive older man named Lynn, with whom he has been flirting, encourages Dom to pursue a young guy who’s been eyeing him. As Dom swaggers out, he coolly proposes that Lynn meet him for lunch sometime, as if they had just met fully clothed on a bus or in a café. Their subsequent relationship is by any standard untraditional. Lynn is twenty years Dom’s senior, and when the two meet to discuss opening a restaurant, it’s unclear whether it’s a date or a business meeting, or both. Gay men of different ages, the gay French philosopher Michel Foucault once remarked, “face each other without terms or convenient words … They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship.” While gay spaces like bathhouses seem to be disappearing, Looking reminds us that the open attitudes behind them still have something to offer us.
Compared to Patrick and Dom, who loosely fit recognizable gay types, Agustín is remarkably fluid. He decides to move in with his boyfriend, Frank, but complicates the situation when he makes out with a new coworker after a look of what he takes to be Frank’s quiet approval. Frank soon joins in himself. When Patrick mocks his “domesticity,” Agustín challenges him: “Would you call a three-way an act of domesticity?” At times like this Agustín reveals his cynical but empowered approach to intimacy. “All relationships end up opening up in the end, whether you like it or not, so why not be honest about it instead of cheating? Guys are guys,” he tells a skeptical Patrick.
In Episode Four Agustín tells Patrick to stop grooming his OKCupid profile and join him at the Folsom Street Fair, an annual leather and BDSM festival. “You never know, you could meet the love of your life here today!” he says with more than a hint of sarcasm. Patrick glares at him—“I doubt that very much”—but his curiosity gets the better of him. When Patrick resists donning a leather vest, Agustín concedes that he’d look good in it, “but very gay…,” playing on his insecurities. Patrick succumbs, awkwardly trying to hold the vest closed for the rest of the fair, but Agustín knows he’s made his point. An occasional brush with queer culture and its sensibilities might be enough to keep one’s horizon of possibilities from narrowing.
Despite its rich plot lines and character development, Looking has been received less than enthusiastically by many gay critics. In his incendiary review, “Why Is Looking So Boring?” Slate’s Bryan Lowder accused Looking of being “gay without any of the hard parts (dick included), gay that’s polite and comfortable and maybe a little titillating but definitely not all up in your face about it.” He rejects Haigh’s very premise: “Looking cannot just be a show about a specific circle of gay men; it is also unavoidably a PSA for how the mainstream increasingly expects gayness to look—butch enough, politically apathetic, generally boring.” For Lowder, this leads not to the acceptance of queerness, but its erasure.
The concerns of critics like Lowder are less about Looking than its implications for gay life—“the ‘sociological’ work they think the show is doing,” as Lowder says. Perhaps this is only natural. Looking put post-DOMA gay life on a pedestal at a time when everyone was watching—the months preceding the most politically successful year in the history of the gay rights movement. Yet the approach of these critics is self-defeating. It sets an impossible standard for gay media that smothers the creativity it purports to demand. In his review, Andrew Sullivan captures this tension: he cringed at Philadelphia’s melodramatic depiction of AIDS patients and Will & Grace’s reliance on “queeny” stereotypes but acknowledges that he should celebrate more portrayals of gay people. Still, Sullivan worries that “gay” shows like Looking can send counterproductive messages.
One could thus imagine Sullivan tensing up at Looking’s opening scene: Patrick is out cruising for sex in a San Francisco park, as was popular decades ago, before the AIDS crisis. But the scene depicts a far from glorified encounter, which involves cold hands, cries of “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name?” and ends with a cell phone going off. Looking’s protagonists want to see if old school gay culture still exists in San Francisco. It is a playful diversion from the seriousness romantic life has acquired for them. For Patrick in particular, the freedom to marry comes saddled with anxiety. He awkwardly attends his ex’s joint bachelor party, and worries about finding a date for his sister’s wedding that will satisfy his mother’s expectations: “She wants everything to be normal. Even if I were getting married to a guy, it would still make me just like everybody else.” In the first episode, Patrick goes on a date that embodies everything wrong with the dating world—the gay now just as bad as the straight (“Are you drug- and disease-free?”). When he shares that he recently went cruising, the guy cringes in disapproval. “So you’re looking just to hook up?” They split the check before ordering dinner.
Compare this with the opening scene of the American version of Queer as Folk, Looking’s closest precedent, which aired on Showtime in 2000. The first episode opens in a club packed with half-naked men dancing and provides a telling voiceover: “The thing you need to know is, it’s all about sex. It’s true. In fact, they say men think about sex every twenty-eight seconds. Of course, that’s straight men. For gay men it’s every nine.” The show consistently portrays deviant sexualities as exotic and revolutionary. Nothing could be further from the most prominent gay lives on TV in recent years: the wholly domesticated gay couples of Modern Family and The New Normal, with their shameless agenda of desexualizing and normalizing viewers’ conceptions of gay life. Both extremes make for okay television but unrealistic social commentary.
Looking is to Queer as Folk as Girls is to Sex and the City: keep the sex but lose the glamour, neatly packaged characters, and Carrie Bradshaw to tell us what it all means at the end of each episode. The Huffington Post’s David Toussaint wished Looking’s characters had “already passed Gay 101,” like Will and Jack of Will & Grace, but this would make the show prescriptive. Instead it asks an important question: Why destabilize straight norms just to replace them with gay ones that are just as limiting? Foucault asked this question decades ago and inspired a generation of queer activists. “To be ‘gay,’” he said, is not to subscribe to some “natural” identity but “to try to define and develop a way of life.” Looking’s leads show no interest in queer politics, but they do respond to the challenges of gay life in imaginative ways. They are endlessly working out, and failing at, and inventing, what it means to be gay—flunking Gay 101.
By the end of Season One, however, Looking’s more colorful moments—such as the Patrick and Agustín’s unguarded exchange about the BDSM festival—ebbed, and things became outright predictable. In the final episode, Patrick breaks from Richie and sleeps with his British boss, Kevin, whom he’s been unwittingly chasing all season. Almost too easily, we get what we had been hoping for. Kevin lures Patrick to their office late one night and seduces him with this soapy line: “Do you know how much effort it takes to be around you every day? It takes all of my willpower not to lunge and kiss the fucking shit out of you.” Soon after, we get another dose of satisfaction when Dom finally corners and kisses Lynn. As we learn in the trailer for Season Two, Patrick and Dom’s romances get put on the back burner, but both of these subplots run the risk of becoming stale. I’m still optimistic about the new season, partly because Agustín and Doris meet interesting new men, but mostly because Patrick’s awakening has only just begun.
Foucault once remarked of gay life, “What’s unbearable is not leaving in search of pleasure but waking up happy.” Now that, at least on television, we seem to have accepted both gay sex and gay happiness, what barriers remain to be broken down? I think Halperin is right in noting that “gay culture is more taboo nowadays than gay sex,” notably among young gay men and mainstream liberals. In its first season, Looking played with this aversion, subtly introducing gay cultural elements, but it didn’t challenge it. In Season Two, it needs to take more risks on this front, or it will become the boring show its critics have foretold it to be.