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.
As 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.
You 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 ...
Reality 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)