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Why Three Weeks In, I Still Look Forward to Looking

It seems every gay man… along with every reader of gay romance and his or her pet has an opinion on Looking, the new HBO drama series created by Michael Lannan. Also getting a large chunk of the attention – rightly so – is writer/director Andrew Haigh.

I’m not exaggerating when I call Haigh’s feature film Weekend perhaps the best gay romance of the past decade (yes, I’m including a certain Oscar-nominated cowboy movie in that statement). Weekend is about a short-lived romance between two everyday guys that’s about as far from a scrubbed up gay Hollywood fantasy as you can get. That’s precisely what’s so great about it, and why even those voices that initially slammed it for being too downbeat or not ‘gay-positive’ enough soon came to appreciate its intelligence, sensitivity and cultural significance. Weekend doesn’t patronise us with a happily ever after that was clearly never on the cards. It simply explores the effect that one chance hookup-turned-fling has on these men’s lives. The end result feels very real and moves us in unexpected ways. It’s a sweet film, but also hazy and ambiguous, forcing its protagonists – and us – to cherish what little they’ve had by the movie’s end because there simply will be no more. This is kind of what I’m referring to in my guest post over at The Novel Approach when I mention stories about ‘moments of happiness’ rather than the feel-good idealism of HEA. Stories that force us to live in the now and take what joy we can. Weekend is absolutely one of these stories.

But does that approach translate to Looking?

Hailed as something of a revelation before it even premiered, Looking has proven... divisive, to say the least. Some are calling the show brilliant and subversive, some are calling the show boring and unchallenging, some are calling the show brilliant, subversive and challenging because it’s boring. It can’t be denied that the steady pace of Looking can be… challenging, particularly for those weaned on more colourful, dynamic, event-driven shows.

Unlike Weekend which wraps one simple, short-lived but utterly immersive relationship up over 90 minutes, Looking asks us to invest in three major characters within a 30 minute timeframe each and every week. The show’s consistent ‘slice-of-life’ tone means we sometimes come in on events in the characters’ lives that might not seem that important or interesting. Yet through this naturalism, we’ve become intimately familiar with what preoccupies each of these characters at this point in their lives and – shock – it isn’t necessarily the search for love.

Patrick, the youngest, most awkward, and at this point I’m tempted to say most annoying of the three (though I kind of like him anyway), is the exception, seeing potential flames, flings, husbands and hotties at every turn and – because he is cute – quite often catching their eye before becoming undone by his own uncertainty about what he actually wants from a relationship and why. I sometimes get very frustrated with romance narratives that never address this question. Looking on the other hand makes it Patrick’s central dilemma, has it destroy something potentially wonderful with an extremely likeable character by episode two and now has it throwing sparks in the tinderbox by casting Patrick’s new boss (played by one of my favourite young British actors, Russell Tovey) as his latest fixation.

Agustin meanwhile dares to threaten the happily misguided notion that a relationship cures sexual wanderlust. In fact, the series starts with Agustin moving in with his boyfriend right after the pair’s first impromptu threesome. The series has so far done a wonderful job of depicting Agustin’s gradual separation from the traditional measures of success. For me at least, he’s shaping up to be the most interesting of the three characters just because we do so often hear this message now that all gay men should aspire to this ‘model’ relationship that typically includes marriage, monogamy by default, gym-fit bodies, security in high-paying jobs, and perhaps even responsible child-rearing. Now, all of those things are valid choices of course, but they are choices Agustin is starting to tear away from, either consciously or by coming to realise who he is now that he is in a live-in relationship. It’s all the more interesting because his relationship is such a far reach from these myths. He and Frank aren’t rich, they live in a basement apartment, they’re interracial, and Frank doesn’t flip out over the unplanned threesome, though it clearly bothers him. A lesser series might have turned these situations into ‘issues’ episodes and tried to school us on how to feel about them. In Looking, they’re just what Agustin happens to be dealing with.

Finally there’s Dom, the show’s nod to the slightly older gays among us, but without the generational divide of say Queer as Folk (a great series for different reasons, yes, but also one that tended to cast anyone over 40 as the protagonists’ parents). Okay, Dom hasn’t quite hit that milestone, but he’s getting close. His main problem at this point seems to be commitment – to anything, not just love. His every action is tentative and uncertain and while he always seems on the cusp of completion, he frequently defaults back to old, safe habits – like Grindr. His attempt to call out a trashy ex on his BS is aborted mid-rage. He also clearly hasn’t yet begun the work required to turn his dream of opening a restaurant into anything more than that. However, when he’s eyed by an interested hook-up at the bathhouse and follows the advice of an older patron to ‘go get him’, it feels like a new chapter.

Aside, I may never watch Star Trek: Enterprise the same way aga… No. I’m joking. I never watched Star Trek: Enterprise. Did anyone?

Every single one of these plot developments and characterisations feels so utterly free of contrivance that it might be easy to assume it’s also free of direction when the opposite is true. Looking’s cohesive structure not only allows each of the central characters to evolve naturally, but keeps their stories parallel so that they retain a common thread in each episode. Disappointment about relationships, or career for instance. These themes are universal enough to be instantly recognisable, yet nebulous enough to ensure Looking remains a show about characters, not issues.

Instead, the show allows those issues to slowly emerge without footnotes, so viewers can form their own opinions and feel their own feelings. That in and of itself makes Looking a subversive show, about gay men living their lives and facing these dilemmas. If you don’t like that, then so what? There is no ‘message’ we’re meant to take away here. Nobody in Looking pleads for tolerance or tries to represent. There is no ideological evangelism in Looking, and that’s why it works.  

In an age of 'us too' gay representations like Modern Family, Glee, or the late New Normal, it’s incredibly refreshing to see gay men on television never have to mimic straight people or fight homophobia or change (or worse, redecorate) the world and also never having their love lives played for cheap laughs. And hallelujah, they’re allowed to be openly and confidently sexual. That makes Looking probably the most honest and sincere representation we've seen/had in a long, long time.

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