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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.

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