Eyeing the Future With HBO’s ‘Looking’ and ‘Girls’

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HBO’s new series Looking, about three male friends in San Francisco, looks like as an early nineties independent film, and is as different from the other HBO show Girls, to which it’s being endlessly and inevitably compared.  It feels preposterous to write about authenticity on television, much less to look for it, but it’s here, inside this essential new show. Between the hovering, nearly incidental long shots of early morning San Francisco where the series is filmed, and the exceptionally strong and naturalistic performances, Looking, is textured in something that feels a lot like reality.

The series stars Jonathan Groff as Patrick, a winsome 29-year-old video game designer, prone to mortifying interpersonal fumbles. Newly single and struggling to find the right guy, his blithe attempts to connect continuously misfire, leading each of his dates to cut the night short. His friend Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), an artist who helps other artists make their art at the expense of making his own, has just moved in with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) who doesn’t seem to share his views on monogamy. At 39, Dom (Murray Bartlett) is the oldest of the three, but eight years on, he’s still waiting tables at Zuni, having done nothing about starting his own restaurant. A fading lothario, Dom is beginning to feel his age; the younger men he was once able to seduce now rebuff him. That these three men all happen to be gay is what’s novel about this series; it’s the first of its kind to normalize homosexuality.

Stripped of the self conscious sexual referencing that reinforces stereotypes, Looking, doesn’t dress gayness up like an exaggerated character actor.  Here, it’s incidental, just like the hovering early morning long shots of San Francisco, and this allows viewers the room to connect. As remarkable as what this series does, is what it doesn’t do; it doesn’t skewer the culture it represents nor does it protect itself from its own self-consciousness with one-liners and overly constructed banter. The characters are able to laugh at themselves in ways that are funny and relatable, but one of its many successes is its ability to explore universal topics (relationships, monogamy, love) as it applies to gay men in a rapidly shifting culture. In other words, Looking is not about gayness, it’s not gay-centric and it’s not the “gay Girls” and it’s precisely what it’s not that makes this show tremendously good, and dare I say…significant.

Its significance is not simply that it’s on television, but that it’s saying something about what it means to be human in a world that is increasingly unforgiving of people’s successes, failures, choices and flaws (for more on this read the entire internet). At one point, after talking about their career failures, Patrick turns to Agustin and says, “I don’t know if either of us are very good at being who we think we are” and that’s why this show feels important, because it’s not focused solely on the sexuality of its characters as though that was all there was to them. It’s a show about being human, about conscious people trying to find the dividing line between who they think they are, and who they say they are, and in that way, it’s about authenticity, and it succeeds on almost every level.

Based as they are on personal desires, expectations are dangerous, and they were high for this show’s premiere, as they were for Girls.  With high expectations comes backlash (which is often just hostile envy dressed in a different name), but just as no one person can meet another’s every need, no one television show is going to represent everyone who feels they might identify, and demanding more of something only to complain it’s the wrong something once we get it, is creating a have-it-both-ways culture, and much (though not all) of the backlash creates a distraction, turning everyone’s attention away from whatever minor progress is in process, redirecting the attention back to those who didn’t see themselves reflected on television.

The conversation is an important one to have, but it should not come at the expense of acknowledging the small advancements. After all, change doesn’t happen all at once, that’s why it’s called change. Women didn’t get the right to vote on a Saturday and wake up to the premiere of Girls on Sunday. It took decades to advance to this not very advanced place; of course it’s incomplete, but doesn’t that just give you hope? Isn’t the bright side here that because this is a process, our future chances are being built right now, for every last one of us?

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Amanda Stern is the author of twelve novels; eleven for children and one for adults. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times MagazineNew York Post, Post Road, Salon.com, Five Chapters, The Believer, Salt Hill and St. Ann’s Review, among others. Several of her personal essays have been anthologized and her interview with Laurie Anderson is forthcoming in Confidence, or the appearance of Confidence: The Best of the Believer Music Interviews, out in February 2014. She’s the founder of the Happy Ending Music and Reading Series in NYC. She’s working on her next two books.