It’s been about 10 years since the (American) Queer as Folk, The L Word, and Noah’s Arc all went off the air. Looking, for many people, promised to be a return to that world of prestige gay drama(dy) where queer characters weren’t just tertiary window dressing, they were people.
Then Looking aired, and it was exactly HBO had said it would be: A show about a group of fairly regular (if upper middle-class) people living their lives in San Francisco beneath the blue haze of some fabulous color correction. The sets were gorgeous, the men were moustachioed, and everything was lit wonderfully. Looking at Looking proved to be an easy enough task. Watching Looking, on the other hand, quickly bored the hell out of a lot of people.
The thing about Looking that we tend to pick up when we describe it as “listless” or “boring” is that it’s primarily a show about being an “authentic” gay person. Though we tend laud things described as “authentic” we often forget that actual authenticity runs the risk of coming with a sizable chunk of banality. Being gay, much like being straight, or bi, or cis, or queer, is an inherently mundane experience.
Occasionally we may have affairs with our bosses or spend a weekend at Russian River, but generally speaking being gay is a rather uneventful. Looking captured that essence perfectly, but it didn’t make for very compelling television.
When people talk about what made Queer As Folk a hit series, they almost immediately bring up sex, and rightfully so. Where Looking was a languid daydream about chicken windows and WASPS, Queer As Folk was a manic circuit party fueled by camp, coke, and dizzying crash-zooms.
Beneath the show’s debaucherous veneer, though, was a genuine effort to normalize depictions of authentic gay sex. The club Babylon served as a social focal point around which queer sex in all of its forms could be explored and unpacked for what they were: good, bad, pleasurable, scary, and sometimes dangerous. As perilous a storytelling device as “authenticity” can be, sex scenes like Queer as Folk’s were something new and provocative for American television. They proved that authenticity, when handled appropriately, could be both familiar and provocative enough to capture an audience.
Looking was not without its fair share of scenes, but it never quite figured out how to use queer sex as the powerful storytelling tool that it can be. As is often the case with shows about gay men, Looking decided to stick with milquetoast sex scenes that acknowledged the fact that gay men lust for one another, but did little to explore the concept.
Sure, Patrick went cruising and had sex in the woods, but to what end? How had he heard about it? Had he been before or was it just a fluke? Stigmatized though they may be, cruising areas and the culture that’s evolved around them are a fascinating and integral part of where today’s gay community comes from. Looking explored none of that.
There are few things that nearly every gay man has in common with his brethren other than sex. While we rightfully bristle at being reduced down to our sexual desires, it would be odd to ignore that sexual physicality--in whatever form it may take--is something that nearly all of us have experience with an can relate to. For a show that wanted to be a glimpse into the life of we, the Gays, Looking didn’t thoroughly engage with the current state of sex within the gay male population.
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