Film and TV | Frankie J. Alvarez | Jonathan Groff | Looking | Murray Bartlett | Review | Television

HBO's 'Looking' Puts Gay Reality On TV: REVIEW


Don't be surprised if the premiere of HBO's Looking already feels oddly familiar. That's partially because the media has been relentlessly talking about the show since it was announced last year. In fact, if you've been following along with all the hype, you've already got a good sense of what to expect in the first episode.

7_lookingAs many have said, the San Francisco-based story focusing on three gay friends is a revolutionary piece of pop culture because of its frank portrayal of gay men. But for such a purportedly radical television show, it's hard to watch without thinking it's something you've seen before.

While the characters on Looking don't necessarily represent every gay man, they do provide a pretty precise portrait of the kinds of pseudo-hipster city gays woofing on Scruff, right down to the facial hair and leather bracelets. For a large segment of the Looking audience, the casual sex, casual drug use and casual conversation are going to feel commonplace. These characters are people many of you know (if not people you're particularly excited to hang out with), and many viewers will have seen their stories play out in real life. 

BartlettYou can easily spot executive producer Andrew Haigh's influence. The show drips with the same subtlety of his brilliant 2011 film Weekend. Looking is another instance where Haigh helps tell a story that's uniquely gay while staying matter of fact. There's sex, but it's not salacious. The steam room on Looking, for example, looks like a steam room, and not the sort of glistening, dramatically lit carnival of flesh that wouldn't seem out of place on Queer As Folk. The dialogue is clever without being quippy. (Comparisons to both Girls and Sex and the City overestimate the amount of comedy here.) The accuracy is impressive, but what's the fun in that?

Haigh's straightforward approach would make a fine sort of diorama, but is it an entertaining TV show?

Dive deeper into what makes Looking worth tuning into, AFTER THE JUMP ...

5_lookingReality may be Looking's strength, but its ordinariness is also its weakness. The first four episodes drag on without any real gasp-inducing or even laugh-out-loud moments. While Weekend's whirlwind romance unfolded over a compressed time frame, stretching out a similarly understated story into an ongoing series loses a lot of the electricity that made the film so compelling. Sure, getting such true-to-life gay stories in front of such a wide audience (as opposed to Weekend's indie crowd) is an undeniable feather in this series' cap, but it needs to raise the stakes a bit to sustain interest week to week. Just a little outrageousness would go a long way. 

Despite the lack of drama, there is a charm here that makes me want to keep watching. The chemistry that permeates the friendly (and more-than-friendly) characters only amplifies the series' authenticity. When Dom (Murray Bartlett), Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Patrick (Glee's Jonathan Groff) share a scene, their ease and warmth together radiate from the screen. The way Agustín puts his feet up on Patrick, or how Patrick and Dom throw their arms around each other while walking around the city just feels so natural. You want to invest in these guys, because they seem so genuinely invested in one another. 


The most persuasive argument to stick with Looking is the show's choice to smartly establish each of its leads at the threshold of change. Patrick is rapidly approaching the end of his 20s and ready to embark on a real, adult relationship (or at least figure out what that means); Dom, on the cusp of 40, is confronting his waning desirability; and Agustín is figuring out what it means to settle down. While these characters are sorting out their own evolution, the culture around them is also in the throes of change as well. These guys are finding themselves as the gay community (and society as a whole) is redefining the gay experience (through things like increased acceptance, marriage equality and the impact of technology on sex and dating -- elements touched on by the series). 

The potential for stories to emerge from all this personal and cultural upheaval is exciting. Even if Point A for these characters isn't thrilling yet, it's clear this is still just the beginning of their journeys. 

Considering the transformative experience Weekend gave us in just about 48 hours, that's reason enough to stick around.

Will you be tuning in for Looking's premiere Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO?

(photos: David Moir - HBO)

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  1. This looks fantastic: I am so in.

    Having gotten HBO for Game of Thrones, I'm there. 10:30 is an odd time to start, but GIRLS is a good lead-in -- I hope it gets the numbers.

    Posted by: Strepsi | Jan 17, 2014 9:19:21 AM

  2. I am LOOKING forward to the new series. However, I hope there's not too much facial hair in it. That seems more Amish than gay to me.

    Posted by: JonnyNYNY2FLFL | Jan 17, 2014 9:23:10 AM

  3. How can it be 'a revolutionary piece of pop culture because of its frank portrayal of gay men' a decade after the US 'Queer as Folk' and fifteen years after the UK trailblazer? How can'something you've seen before' be revolutionary?

    It looks old-fashioned, to be honest, like 'Tales of the City' but whiter, maler, more narrowly aged and stylistically informed by Lena Dunham. I doubt there will be any characters as vivid as Anna Madrigal or any plotting as wildly Baroque and romantic, as San Franciso, as Maupin's

    Posted by: Charles | Jan 17, 2014 9:24:43 AM

  4. PS: 'Game of Thrones' is the best reason to get HBO since 'The Wire'.

    Posted by: Charles | Jan 17, 2014 9:25:39 AM

  5. "However, I hope there's not too much facial hair in it. That seems more Amish than gay to me."

    Exactly. For far too long, America's slighting of the smooth and fit has been a nightmare from which I thought we'd never wake up.

    Thank GOD for you, JonnyNyNy2FlFl. You're the Rosa Parks our generation needs to end the tyranny of the Bearded.

    Posted by: Mike B. | Jan 17, 2014 9:33:17 AM

  6. I've seen the first four episodes and agree with some of what the writer of the post says....not a lot happens and, yet, there is something about it that makes you want to keep watching.

    Posted by: Joe | Jan 17, 2014 9:44:02 AM

  7. I watched the promo on HBO. It's embarrassing mostly because the director takes part in gay shaming. "The fact that the characters are gay is the least interesting thing about them." Sad.

    Posted by: MARCUS BACHMANN | Jan 17, 2014 9:46:56 AM

  8. "How can'something you've seen before' be revolutionary?"

    Sigh. It's like people form their opinions before bothering to actually read the review. The answer is because Queer as Folk was about the experience of being gay with the requisite coming out and gay bashing and HIV testing stories, whereas Looking seems to be about the experience of being human in an era when being gay is not that unusual or even interesting. The revolution here is that gay men have career aspirations that don't involve hooking up in the corporate bathroom.

    And for the record, Queer as Folk wasn't that good. It was a heavily stylized world that, like Sex and the City, doesn't actually exist, and the characters were wan stereotypes who don't resemble anyone in real life. Looking looks to be about real people, boring as they may be, and that is refreshing.

    PS: There is not a single thing here that resembles the delightful murder mysteries, political scandals, and whore houses of Tales of the City. Give me a break.

    Posted by: crispy | Jan 17, 2014 9:56:27 AM

  9. Oh for godsake Bobby must ALL gay shows be full of camp and fawny entertainment?

    Maybe the show should not have tried to pitch it as some mainstream show to gays?

    But it's about time we get more indie, intelligent and creative shows/films about LGBT people. About time.

    I have enough shows to make me LOL. Just let a show be a show.

    This reminds me of crazy stans that always try and change shows-mainly in the US-to make it fake feel good rubbish. It's like saying the girl with the dragon tattoo did not have enough jokes or that you wish Downtown Abbey had more slapstick.

    NO. Let a show be a show it's supposed to be.

    Posted by: Rowan | Jan 17, 2014 9:59:58 AM

  10. What made Tales of the City so great--both the miniseries and the novels on which it was based--was how the characters immediately drew you in, and how fully fleshed it was. There was intrigue, humor, mystery, and dimensionality. I just don't see that here: it's the same gay white male cliches, dressed up with the current trends.

    Posted by: atomic | Jan 17, 2014 10:01:13 AM

  11. What struck me about this show, the trailer anyway was the utter awfulness of the very first line.

    If you can't isolate one good line from a whole season with which to banner your first trailer, then it bodes ill.

    Posted by: Charles | Jan 17, 2014 10:19:14 AM

  12. Well, Atomic, if this isn't your cup of tea, you can always not watch it, and go watch Dante's Cove instead. There you get all the ethnic fun and dimensionality you can stand.

    Posted by: Hrm | Jan 17, 2014 10:22:11 AM

  13. White people.

    Posted by: Trust | Jan 17, 2014 11:06:15 AM

  14. Wah wah wah wah wah.

    If you don't like it, don't watch it.

    "It's too straight. It's too white." Wah!

    If you want some multicultural queenfest, go watch RuPaul's drag race or whatever PC show makes you comfortable.

    Posted by: jazzy | Jan 17, 2014 11:08:52 AM

  15. Yawn I hope it bombs. Their filming crews were obnoxious.

    Posted by: MikeSin | Jan 17, 2014 11:11:26 AM

  16. omg white peeple! thatz so racist!

    Posted by: jaker | Jan 17, 2014 11:19:39 AM

  17. The other reviews of Looking have stated the show, unlike other HBO dramas, doesn't feature sex. Whereas Game of Thrones, True Blood, and Girls feature nudity and lovemaking, Looking quickly pulls away from sex scenes.

    Why? Game of Thrones and True Blood have had gay sex scenes with nudity. Doesn't that seem odd?

    As for the show's first four episodes being boring, doesn't that seem stupid? Why invest time in a TV show to watch just the ordinary boring aspects of life, straight, bi, or gay? Good dramas have conflicts. Characters take journeys. There's nothing wrong with a little melodrama especially if you want to hook an audience have them come back.

    Posted by: alex | Jan 17, 2014 11:28:28 AM

  18. Game of Thrones has never shown a gay sex scene with nudity.

    Slurping noises, on the other hand...

    Posted by: crispy | Jan 17, 2014 12:08:38 PM

  19. I'm really, really excited about this! Andrew Haigh (who wrote and directed the film "Weekend") is part of the creative team. "Weekend" is just superb. Can't wait!!

    Posted by: Geoff | Jan 17, 2014 12:10:10 PM

  20. Everyone keeps talking about how white this show is. There are three leads, one of whom is Latino. There are other characters of color in multiple episodes. Are people really harping on a show because at least one third of the featured cast aren't black or Asian?

    Posted by: Eric | Jan 17, 2014 12:13:36 PM

  21. I look forward to seeing how many things they show gets wrong about San Francisco.
    First of all, you would never see a creative person and a "hot" waiter hanging out with a techie. We self segregate here and don't really talk to people who don't look like us.

    Posted by: David | Jan 17, 2014 12:39:19 PM

  22. For all you people hollering about a "white people show," Pay attention. Augustin, pleay by Frankie Alavarez, is OBVIOUSLY Latino. as is his partner played by Raul Castillo. I assume by complaining about "White people" you mean there are no black main characters. It is a show about a particular group of friends' experience. Not all groups of friends are Racially diverse. That is simply how it is in the real world. How many white or Latino or Middle Eastern main charactrs were on Noah's Arc? Where was the racial diversity there? Double standard much?

    Posted by: Gary | Jan 17, 2014 12:39:26 PM

  23. After seeing the first two episodes at the SF premiere, I have to say I simply do not get the hype. I found nothing compelling about any of the characters and nothing that made me care very much about them.

    Posted by: ScottCA | Jan 17, 2014 12:55:00 PM

  24. For the record, Tales of the City was far LESS ethnically diverse than this show appears to be. I can think of only one prominent non-white character (D'Orothea) and [plot spoilers ahead] even she turned out to be white! If anything, it would appear that this show deserves credit for at least pushing the diversity angle a little bit further.

    Posted by: Ian | Jan 17, 2014 1:33:11 PM

  25. I'm not encouraged by the reviews foretelling that basically nothing happens in the first four episodes. I believe there are only 8 to this entire "season," which may be the only season if the show is so "realistic," it's boring.

    That needn't be the case. Sometimes life is dull, and sometimes it's crazy fun and dramatic. But a TV show must lean a bit towards, ya know, drama. This is supposed to be entertainment, not a documentary. So I hope it has some kind of catch to it. It needn't be campy or uber-philosophical ... but it must be entertaining, and not simply a slice of dull life.

    That said, I have high hopes. And I'm eager to give the show a fighting chance. I'll watch the whole season of 8 entire half-hour episodes (sheesh, some movies are longer than that!) and I won't pre-judge. But the reviews have me a little concerned.

    Posted by: Zlick | Jan 17, 2014 1:47:06 PM

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