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The Joy of 'Looking'

With HBO's superb new urban sex comedy, pop culture's portrayal of gays (and San Francisco, and gays in San Francisco) finally catches up with reality. 

Looking star Jonathan Groff, photographed at Billy Goat Hill in San Francisco on November 2.

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From left: Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett, and Groff on Muni in a still from Looking.

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From left: Show creator Michael Lannan, director Andrew Haigh, and Groff on location in San Francisco.

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Groff on Billy Goat Hill.

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It is an extraordinarily gorgeous day in Golden Gate Park, all soft greens and sun-dappled clearings and sweetly chirping birds. A man comes into view, pushing through branches. He’s clean-cut, midwestern-looking, manifestly nervous, possibly lost. Then a second man appears—confident, silent, not insignificantly bearded (“not even hipster hairy. Like, gym teacher hairy,” the first man later describes him)—and immediately reaches for the first guy’s fly.

“OK, OK,” Nervous Guy says as Bearded Dude’s hands work busily away. There’s some heavy breathing, but something is obviously wrong. “I’m Patrick,” offers Nervous Guy. He goes in for a kiss and is rebuffed. “Do you come here a lot? What’s your name? I didn’t catch your name.” Nervous Guy’s body betrays the bone-deep discomfort of someone who’s either an incurable neurotic or very new to anonymous outdoor sex (soon, we find that the answer is both). He giggles nervously, is instructed curtly to stop talking, and recoils at Bearded Dude’s “cold hands.” Finally, just as things look like they might start, ah, happening, his phone rings, a shrill, jarring electronic melody—and he actually answers it, scurrying off to talk as his would-be sex partner stands by in disbelief.

In a way, this scene, which opens HBO’s new comedy Looking, tells you all that you need to know about the series, which debuts on January 19. This is a show that’s hyperrealistic, that’s unflinchingly honest about sex, that’s self-deprecating and deeply contemporary—a show that is, in nearly every sense of the word, intimate. Nervous Guy is the show’s protagonist, Patrick, a 29-year-old video game developer living in the Mission, played by Broadway veteran and Glee guest star Jonathan Groff. Patrick’s entrance in the show is played largely for laughs, almost sitcom-y slapstick aside from the blatantly sexual subject matter, but the scene is far from a throwaway. “We knew it was a bit of a risk, making a little statement,” says Andrew Haigh, an executive producer of the show who directed five of its eight episodes, including the pilot. “To start a gay show with a scene of cruising in the woods...” He trails off, pauses a beat. “We’re not gonna shy away from talking about certain things, about saying that kind of stuff still exists, but it’s not always like you think.”

“One of the things that we talked about from the beginning was a high degree of naturalism,” says the show’s creator, Michael Lannan, over coffee back in November on the last day of shooting. “And we wanted a mix of comedy and drama that could kind of fit in with that naturalism. We don’t really write jokes, but there are all kinds of conundrums that the modern world presents to us—I think those are really funny. The show has a bit of a kitchen sink [as in, realistic] quality to it.” There’s a rare emotional immediacy to the show, one that will invariably garner comparisons to HBO’s other urban sex comedy of the moment, Girls (after which it airs). Like that show, Looking looks uncomfortable subjects—race, class, age, self-perception, postrecession financial anxiety—squarely in the eye; makes affecting use of realistic sex-scene set pieces and lingering close-ups; and concerns itself primarily with a group of characters who are still deeply in the middle of figuring their shit out. The show feels personal, perhaps because it is: Lannan freely admits that Looking’s three main characters—Patrick, a serial, short-tem monogamist; Agustín, who’s in a serious relationship; and Dom, a 39-year-old Zuni waiter who’s fairly adrift, romantically and professionally—and their experiences are loosely based on his own memories of living in San Francisco during the late ’90s and early 2000s. According to Groff, before the show was entirely cast, photos of Lannan’s social circle were used as inspiration. Indeed (and largely unlike Girls), Looking evinces a palpable, almost unconditional affection for its characters, flawed as they are, in the way that one might feel about an old friend. Groff recalls that when he was auditioning, a scene in which his character gets picked up on Muni felt so realistic that “I started blushing and sweating and I couldn’t stop. I really couldn’t stop! I was like, ‘This feels really intense. This character is really alive.’”

“We wanted to be really honest about life, and about gay life,” says Sarah Condon, one of the show’s executive producers and an 18-year HBO vet whose credits include Sex and the City and Bored to Death. In that sense, too, the park scene is particularly apt. “For Patrick, [cruising in the park] was almost a curiosity,” she says—that is, more retro fascination than genuine necessity, especially in the age of Grindr. “It’s not something he grew up with.” It’s not hard to find the symbolism here: “It’s kind of like, we used to have to be in the woods,” Condon says. The implication being: not anymore, and certainly not on Looking.

Page 2: "Please don't be Queer As Folk redux." 

 

 

This approach may not sound all that groundbreaking, but it is when you consider Looking’s antecedents in the (admittedly small) ecosystem of what might be inelegantly called gay media. On one end of the spectrum, you have shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word, which dispensed early with the idea that straight people might watch a “gay” show, and thus veered—smartly or cynically, depending on whom you ask—in the direction of camp and schlock and skin. While these shows did a relatively good job of depicting fully realized gay characters, the corollary of having a built-in audience starved for nuanced portrayals of itself on TV is that the shows themselves are given a fairly massive degree of grade inflation. They don’t have to be good; mere existence is enough. (A commenter on one of Looking’s YouTube trailers summed up the frustration thusly: “I’m surprised by how much I want this to be great. I mean HBO great. The writing, the material, the story arcs. Beautiful, insightful, inspiring, groundbreaking great. Please don’t be Queer as Folk redux.”)

On the other end of the spectrum, shows that are oriented toward mainstream audiences have, by and large, painted their gay protagonists as either walking, talking stereotypes—what Condon describes as “the sidekick or the comic relief”—or neutered model minorities created for the sole purpose of teaching the characters around them a lesson in humanity. Modern Family’s Cam and Mitch are not only completely sexless, they’re also continually plagued with gay-related anxiety, despite the fact that they’re approaching middle age. Glee, perhaps by virtue of its adolescent subject matter, has scarcely given its gay characters room to exist amid the After School Special–style moralizing about the ills of homophobia. And Brokeback Mountain, which with Philadelphia made history as the first decidedly gay movie to attain critical and commercial success, takes its narrative tension not from problems internal to its star-crossed protagonists’ affair, but from the intolerant world in which that affair takes place. These works are, to paraphrase Salon writer Daniel D’Addario, about gay characters, sure, but ones who are “more gay than character.”

Looking, however, is different. It is, first and foremost, a good show— a great show, even: more than just gay great or HBO great, but simply, unqualifiedly great. And it’s also, inarguably, very, very gay. Most of its characters are, of course, gay. Much of what they talk about is screwing and dating. And it pulls no punches when it comes to explicit sex (this is, after all, HBO). “It was important to Andrew and Michael to really represent gay life,” says Condon, “and not the safe, cleaned-up sitcom version of gay life.”

But all that said, Looking is emphatically, willfully not about outreach or identity politics or how hard it is to be queer. All of its characters came out years ago and are, as Lannan notes, roughly as comfortable with their sexuality as anyone in his 20s or 30s can expect to be. Any angst that Patrick or the other characters experience isn’t gay angst—it’s single angst, or thirtysomething angst, or roommate angst, or career-waiter angst, or monogamy angst. It’s human angst. In a late-season scene between Patrick and his mother, the central conflict doesn’t derive from some overwrought battle for acceptance, but rather from the quotidian irritation that any 29-year-old might feel toward his parents.

“The whole idea was dropping in on lives in progress,” Lannan says, sitting outside at a very Mission district terrarium store–cum–third wave coffee shop up the street from the show’s Folsom Street soundstage. “It was not going to be about revealing your sexuality to your parents or the scandal of being gay. The questions were going to be about identity and living an authentic life. For gay people, those questions of identity are a little more acute and a little more constant, in some ways, but I think they’re the same questions that everyone faces now.” He ticks them off with the ease of someone who’s given all this a lot of thought: “Who am I gonna be with? How do I get by? Who’s there to support me? What do I want, and how are my expectations for myself not panning out?”

Lannan is far too low-key to give this philosophy a name, but you might call it a post–AIDS crisis approach to gay television, and Looking the first truly post–AIDS crisis show. This works on both a chronological level—Patrick would have been born around 1985, meaning that by the time he came out in his early 20s, America’s AIDS-related gay panic was largely a distant memory—and an existential one. Lannan, Haigh, and the rest of the show’s cast and crew are fond of using words like “contemporary” and “naturalistic” to describe the show, or at least their ambition for it: to convey gay life as it is lived, sometimes poignant and often funny, at this particular moment and in this particular place. And while being gay in San Francisco circa 2014 certainly isn’t always easy, it’s also not entirely identity-defining. Even that first scene in the park could be read as a self-aware, contemporary play on another cruising scene in which Louis Ironson, one of the protagonists of Tony Kushner’s 1993 play (and, 10 years later, HBO miniseries), Angels in America, enters Central Park after learning that his boyfriend has been diagnosed with HIV. “Keep going. Infect me. I don’t care,” he says when the condom breaks. Condon denies that the reference was intentional, but even so, it’s a potent metaphor for the way in which Patrick, Dom, and Agustín’s world has changed between 20 years ago, when gay narratives were necessarily about survival and gay sex was a dangerous act, and now, when the president is making It Gets Better videos and kids are coming out in middle school.

Page 3: Why Jonathan Groff makes the perfect Patrick.

 

 

“I think one of the things that we’ve been trying to achieve is, what is the most contemporary version of a show with gay characters?” says Lannan. Part of that, he adds, is wrestling with a new set of questions. “Marriage equality presents a really strange situation for people like me. I’m 36, and I grew up thinking that never in my lifetime would I ever be able to get married. And then everything changes, and I face the same pressure from my parents that my sisters face. We try to play on that in the show.” He points to a scene in the pilot in which two of the characters attend a gay bachelor party at the Mission district bar El Rio. It’s a significant inclusion: It’s hard to imagine a television show even six or seven years ago taking gay marriage as such a given as to be a source of situational comedy. “In a world where gay culture has gone much more mainstream, what do you do with that?” Lannan asks. “What would a gay bachelor party look like? Do you do it together? Who’s there? What does it mean if you’re doing it together?” If Brokeback Mountain’s central conflict involved the malaise that comes from lack of choice, Looking’s just might be the problems that derive from endless choice, whether it’s the unrelenting stream of potential partners presented by OkCupid or the newfound right to marry (or not), or even the ability to receive an abortive, awkward hand job in the park with minimal fear of arrest. 

For a show as convention-bucking as this, the process by which Looking went from idea to pilot was relatively painless. Around 2008, Lannan wrote Lorimer—an eight-minute short that would eventually become the inspiration for Looking—during downtime while working on Sons of Anarchy. At the same time, HBO was interested in what Condon calls “a gay show with a unique point of view, to really explore the notion that there are so many different types of gay men and so many different types of gay life now.” By virtue of a convoluted set of favors and connections, HBO saw Lannan’s script and brought him in for a meeting. That day, they asked him if he’d write a half-hour pilot script.

“We don’t tend to approach our programming in terms of looking to fill holes,” says Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming (who is himself gay). “But we all felt that there have not been shows that felt like they spoke to a gay as well as a straight audience. Looking was fresh, it was irreverent, it was about struggling to be whole people. We thought, ‘There’s a voice here, there’s a perspective here, that we haven’t seen before.’” From there, Haigh, who was perhaps best known for the critically adored 2011 gay romantic comedy-drama Weekend, signed on, followed by Groff, and then Frankie J. Alvarez (who plays Agustín) and Murray Bartlett (Dom) shortly thereafter. It was, by all accounts, a near-perfect setup from the start. Any cast and crew will claim closeness for the benefit of a reporter, but in this case, it’s palpable. By the end of the show’s 10-week shoot, show staffers were doing yoga together on weekends and going out for drinks even after grueling 12-hour days. On set in late October, toward the end of shooting, several cast and crew members spontaneously started sharing their coming-out stories with an astonishing level of intimacy. “I hope it translates—you never can tell—but there’s a genuine camaraderie,” says Groff. “There’s a connection between all of us. I think we all really believe in what we’re working on.”

In person, Groff is uncommonly warm, unerringly polite, and significantly less neurotic than his character—the kind of person who smiles easily, hugs near-strangers, and doesn’t so much as shrug (much less complain) when he finds a long blond hair in his macaroon at a Mission coffee shop that shall not be named. It’s telling that no fewer than three people independently described him as “available” to the project during my visit to the Looking set. “He’s a really incredible performer and person,” says Lannan. “He’s so game. He really makes the show live.”

Groff joined the project almost a year ago and talks about it with an evangelist’s zeal and a born performer’s steady-eyed persuasiveness. “The minute we got the first two scripts, Murray and Frankie and I called each other and were like, ‘Oh my god,’” he says, maintaining eye contact while lapping at a massive peak of whipped cream atop his hot chocolate. “I felt immediately connected to the character.” Indeed, Groff himself—who is 28 and, like many of the show’s cast and crew, gay—makes for an apt representation of the rapidly changing political realities that confront Looking’s characters. Though he came up through the uncommonly tolerant theater world and says that he never considered not disclosing his sexual orientation publicly, he’s still one of the few out actors of his generation, and he seems happily surprised by the pace of change. “I recently went back to my high school, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to see the [school] musical,” he says, “and a lot of the kids were out. I can’t even imagine being out in high school. It’s crazy.”

Page 4: The anti-Blue Jasmine approach to setting a show in San Francisco.

 

 

Looking was originally set in New York, not San Francisco. It is surprising, then, that perhaps more than in any San Francisco–set show in recent memory—Monk, Trauma, Full House, Nash Bridges—its characters seem like they actually live here. They take Muni. They complain about (and then, of course, later eat) “overrated cupcakes.” They work at Zuni and go on dates at Press Club and attend the Folsom Street Fair and get too drunk at Doc’s Clock. Perhaps most aptly, they move to Oakland to save on rent.

Call it a logical extension of Lannan and Haigh’s naturalism, or maybe just the anti–Blue Jasmine approach: On Looking, San Francisco isn’t merely used as a Generic Glamorous City That Isn’t New York. Rather, it’s a genuine, important, nonidealized element of the narrative, in the tradition of other HBO shows—The Wire with Baltimore, The Sopranos with northern New Jersey, Sex and the City with Manhattan. Shooting in San Francisco was a little more expensive than shooting on a soundstage in Los Angeles, but it was clearly worth it.

“It was very important to me that we shoot on location in San Francisco,” Haigh says over the phone from L.A., a few weeks after shooting has wrapped. “The city really is a character within the show. In a city like S.F., you really can be whatever you want to be.” His affection for San Francisco practically bursts from Looking’s seams, in the form of long, sybaritic shots of the bay, the hills, Sutro Tower framed by fog. But also: dingy basement apartments, the grayness of downtown, Mission Street on a Friday night, dirty and crowded. “There is the tendency to use San Francisco as sort of a nostalgic reference point,” says Lombardo, “to focus on the bridges and the bay and the Victorian houses. The San Francisco of Looking is not that.” Like the show itself, it’s real without being gratuitously, self-congratulatorily gritty, and, most of all, it’s stoutly contemporary.

Lannan, who lives in L.A., recalls taking a trip out here right after the show was green-lighted and being taken aback by the degree to which the city had changed since he’d left in 2002. “There was so much construction going on. It was the same city I knew, but it was growing in a way that I didn’t know what was happening. It made San Francisco feel like a boomtown—it feels like a big crossroads in our culture now. And there are so many great stories that only happen here and need to be told.” He notes that the decision to employ Patrick in tech was a considered one: “We wanted him to have a foot in both old San Francisco and new San Francisco. He sleeps around and has gay friends and lives in a world with a lot of gay people. But he’s upwardly mobile, too: He’s somebody who can choose, a little bit, what world he wants to live in.” 

All of this, from the no-holds-barred philosophy to the production values, is helped by the fact that the sui generis economics of premium TV allow for, even encourage, shows like Looking—shows that are small and subtle and specific, shows that could easily anger censors or alienate advertisers on another network. As Lombardo puts it, “We’re not taking swings to get the most number of eyeballs, like the advertiser-supported networks. We’re taking swings on values and point of view and great writing.” In television, specificity isn’t just an aesthetic choice, it’s also a financial one—one that a network like HBO can afford to make and, in fact, one from which it has profited magnificently. The Wire, Girls, and Sex and the City have very successfully mined their characters’ particular milieus—poverty-stricken Baltimore, hipster Brooklyn, upper-middle-class Manhattan, respectively—for universal resonance, and that, says Lannan, is exactly what he and the network hope to do with Looking. In fact, while the show is certain to draw comparisons to the latter two programs by virtue of its tone and subject matter, it’s The Wire that Lannan specifically cites as an inspiration. “We were hoping that by being specific, we could touch on some of the transcendent issues,” he says. “I read this interview with David Simon, and he said that he wanted to do a show that was so specific about Baltimore and that group of people that the people who live there would recognize themselves and be excited, and the people who don’t live there would be excited too, and would have a window onto it.”

It’s an odd connection to make, on the surface at least: It’s hard to imagine a set of stakes and cast of characters more different from Looking’s relationship dramas and upwardly mobile San Franciscans than the hard-hitting tales of drug dealers and compromised cops that populate The Wire. But both shows are clear-eyed, warts-and-all portrayals of marginalized minorities, and both bear the burden of representation based on that fact.

“People feel very proprietary about gay images,” says Lannan, “as do I.” You can tell that he’s steeling himself for a backlash, or at least for the flurry of think pieces that will undoubtedly surround the show. “But the thing is, we’re not trying to represent one single gay experience; we’re not trying to find a universal show that all gay people will relate to. Looking is about everyday lives, rather than being aspirational or about fabulous people. Our characters are messy characters, and they’re not, like, poster boys for marriage equality or perfect gay lives. But all we could really do is find these characters, feel like they were truthful, and let them lead us and follow them and see what happens.”

Everyone involved with Looking hesitates to call it a political show—and, to be clear, it doesn’t feel like one—but if you push them hard enough, you can hear faint whispers of an ideological agenda. “Acceptance in a wide scope,” says Haigh, “will only come when gay people are accepted for all that they are—for the people who want to get married and have two kids, and for the people who want to go get a hand job in the woods.” As Patrick says while walking up Valencia, debriefing that ill-fated hand job with Agustín and Dom, “The minute my phone rang, and it was you guys calling me, I immediately thought that it was my mom. Like she knew where I was and was calling to stop me from becoming one of those gays that hooks up with people in the park.” And then he turns to Agustín, and the tone switches back to easy, deadpan humor, this time at the expense of Patrick’s incurable dorkiness: “I’m not taking weed with you ever again.”

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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