HBO’s new series Looking, about a community of gay men living in San Francisco, opened during an interesting weekend. The biggest cultural event on Sunday was football player Richard Sherman’s instantly-viral post-game interview, which I’d like to say has opened up a reasoned discussion of professional athletes, role models, African-American life in 2014, and even the vague notion of “class” (not referring to economic status but to “proper” demeanor), but which instead elicited a sadly predictable explosion of virulent online racism. Meanwhile, an article on Grantland about a woman who had invented a new golf club became something more when the piece gradually transformed itself from a discussion of new-fangled putters to exposing the private lives of people against their will. Even with a strong editorial process as the piece was written, the article was published, despite its seemingly clear intrusion into the life of its central character. The publication happened in part because a group of individuals, all of whom as far as I know are good people, apparently lacked the ability to understand how their piece presented an extremely problematic vision of outing and the lives of transgender people. In this case, at least, the ensuing discussion has been more illuminating than hateful, although that discussion should have occurred before the article was published (which points to the way cultural hegemony clouds the vision of the best of us).
Looking was dropped into this unanticipated set of cultural disruptions, and was greeted by a snarky Esquire review that seemed proud of attitudes that the folks at Grantland have at least begun to question. I’m not sure which part of the article’s title is more indicative of how the review goes wrong. Is it the basic title, “A Straight Man’s Guide to HBO’s Looking”, or the subheading, “A show about three boring gay men”? The basic argument seems to be that Looking is boring because the men on the show don’t fit the stereotype of “funny, mincing guys with witty one-liners and put-downs.” It’s like complaining about The Wire because there were no Stepin Fetchits.
In all of these examples, we’ve seen representatives of dominant cultural thinking missing huge chunks of what is actually happening, because what they see doesn’t match up with their expectations.
I am not immune to this. After watching the first episode of Looking, I thought that a quickie take on the show was that it was closer to Tales of the City than to Queer As Folk. Looking is pretty matter-of-fact about the lives of its characters, which feels a lot like how Tales of the City came across, especially during its initial serialization in the San Francisco Chronicle. Meanwhile, I always liked Queer As Folk, even as the plots turned sillier and sillier over the years, because of the in-your-face presentation of gay sexuality and the visceral pleasures of the thumpa-thumpa. You could argue that Queer As Folk was necessarily confrontational, but that doesn’t change the fact that I liked it in part because it fit into my own stereotypical views from outside the community.
For this reason, I think the approach of Looking (based on the pilot) is just as necessary as was Queer As Folk’s. We still need reminding that there is not just one narrative about gay life (or the life of any other community), and that stereotypes exist in order to close off the idea of limitless possibilities. It is a good thing that Looking is not the same as Queer As Folk.
One of the strengths of Looking is that it doesn’t seem to be presenting the banal notion that “gay men are just like everyone else”. Looking is an attempt to take an honest look at the culture of the characters in the series, which requires specificity. It is not a show about people who just happen to be gay; it’s a show about gay men in San Francisco. To the extent that it is successful, the “straight men” of Esquire’s fantasies won’t say “these people are just like me”, but rather, “I am like these people”. In the end, my own connection to Looking will depend on how well-drawn the characters are. The first episode was a good start, but I admit at this early stage, I haven’t learned enough about those characters to differentiate them. That will come with time. Grade for pilot: B+.