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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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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.