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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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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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