A first glance at 'Looking'

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Looking scruff-tastic, but where's the beef?

Imagine a place where all the gay men are masculine, well-built, physically unselfconscious, and fashionably tousled; where young male artists and young male people of color mingle with young white male techies (yet are still happily banished to Oakland or work the door at Esta Noche); where having a "lazy eye" or being "slightly portly" renders you disqualified for relationships; where HIV, addiction, and politics barely exist; and where everyone is drenched in soft-spoken sophistication, vague existential ennui, and puppy-eyed cuteness.

This isn't quite San Francisco (yet), but it is the San Francisco of gorgeously produced, play-it-safe-so-far gay-themed HBO series Looking (it begins airing Jan. 19) -- at least the first two episodes, which previewed tonight at the Castro Theater. It's too early of course to pass any kind of judgment on the entire series, which in many ways may be an accurate reflection of current gay culture, and I maintain very high hopes, especially with such good actors, writers, and attention to detail involved.

But let me tell you: I have never wished more for a stereotypically sassy drag queen to stomp onscreen and break some shit in my life.

The dramatic comedy series so far is so polite, well-crafted, and unassuming that even though you gotta applaud the desire to produce a mainstream gay program whose mission is to avoid gay stereotypes -- no flaming creatures here -- the end result seems to be a warm apple pie with no teen dick stuck in it, let alone a Cockette. And while Looking is more representative when it comes to ethnicity than initially feared (two Latinos!), it doesn't seem too keen on taking any risks when it comes to social issues or body types. There is nothing remotely "queer" about Looking so far. Sad trombone!

Hopefully, Looking isn't shooting itself in the expensive workboots with its own good intentions: to present gay men as basically "normal." Trouble is, normal gay men at this point on our yellow brick road toward complete assimilation are basically just straight people with an extra hot dog between them. It's simply not enough anymore to have gay men do normal things -- like experience typical relationship problems or worry about getting older -- and consider it interesting just because they're gay. There have to actually be interesting things. And so far the most interesting thing here, besides the yummy SF-centric particulars, might be the characters' varying degrees of facial hair. (Is contemporary gay exceptionalism hiding behind its own beard?)

Here are the dilemmas the three hunks we're following on Looking face so far: the young, cute videogame designer keeps flubbing dates by saying the not-quite-right thing; the beautiful artist and his beautiful boyfriend just moved in together and one's worried they're not going out enough; and the smokin' hot late-30ish career waiter is having mild symptoms of a midlife crisis and ambient ex-in-the-picture anxieties. Except for the primly presented three-way, a fumbling public hand job, and a brief Grindr hookup, we might as well be inside a Cathy cartoon. Seriously: one of the characters even ends up guiltily diving into a late-night bowl of naughty starch to eat his problems away. ACK.    

To be sure: this show is also in many ways a scruffy dream date, all scrubbed up for dinner at farmerbrown. Hot Chip and Hercules and Love Affair replace Britney and Rihanna at Castro bars. Characters who surely have never seen a real backroom before wave around coffee mugs from The Cock in NYC and other super-insidery gay culture totems. There has been no gym scene. And some of the lines are pretty funny, especially from the requisite saucy gal pal. San Francisco looks absolutely perfect, and well-wrought local details abound. The Brit director is Andrew Haigh, whose dreamy, oh-so-indie "gay boys on fixies" romance Weekend (2011) was like a cool, refreshing splash of the Smiths -- or more like the Sundays, or, for the young'uns, James Blake -- onto an overheated gay film scene that seemed skewed more towards Katy Perry.  

But transplanted to TV mode, the yearning hipster mumblecore aesthetic isn't casting quite the same spell yet. 

Maybe I'm jaded/spoiled, but I remember the feeling of the top of my head being ripped off during the first episodes of the British Queer as Folk (still the high water mark of guilty-pleasure gay television) and parts of The L Word and Six Feet Under -- that wondrous sense of audacity that fully dimensional queer people with epic faults, uncanny similarities, and infuriating differences were being flaunted in plain sight. Even the severely problematic American Queer As Folk and Will and Grace, with their flaming stereotypes and frustrating pop culture naivety, at least gave us some fascinating characters. I hated the fact that Middle America probably thought all gay men were like Jack, but I really couldn't wait to hear what outrageous zinger would come flying out of his mouth next. 

There isn't much of that so far on Looking, although it's still holding my curiosity. (An after-screening Q&A with writer Michael Lannan indicated that there would be lesbian and trans characters as the series progressed, as well as some actual male nudity finally -- come on, HBO). I realize that the show owes as much verisimilitude to the actual San Francisco gay scene as Queer as Folk USA owed to Pittsburgh. But for goddess's sake, someone protest a condo eviction, somebody get blocked on Grindr for being too fem, someone eat a whole burrito drunk on a unicycle, somebody be nude or pagan or Asian, hopefully all three!

Again, this is just the start of a show whose initial demographic may quite possibly be a swath of gay men hoping for nothing more than to look hip and fit in. But if fitting in means blanding out, we might want to start Looking for something different.        

Comments

on mainstream depictions of GLBT life, whether in the movies or TV. He's inevitably very defensive on the topic and invariably falls back on the excuse that the vision presented doesn't measure up to HIS queer and transgressive take on GLBT life in San Francisco. Marke's view of gay life in SF is one built around GLBT culture in clubs and bars - which is a really great and awesome thing but it's not cultural or political criticism. His strength is in reporting on wonderful dance music and the great nights that go with it - not in cultural theory or political criticism, he's yet to bridge the gap between the two. So when he tries he's usually way out of his element and appears overly defensive and critical - as in this case. The sad thing is pulling the glittering drag queen and the leather daddy out of his Jack Spade bag and shoving them into the argument as justification for his views illustrates not the strength of his case but the weakness. It just makes him appear snide and not a little bit angry, in over his head and pretty juvenile.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

Couldn't agree more! I feel this review putss this show up to the impossible task of exemplifying and embodying his perception and experience of gay culture. Selfish and juvenile.

It's interesting because I feel that most in the GLBTQ community are placing this impossible expectation on the show. It will inevitably will not measure up to everyone's perspective. The opening satirical, "imagine a world where..." comment says it all, and really weakens the review. In two episodes , the show is expected to create a world containing HIV, political unrest, unattractive "portly" people in happy relationships, angry flaming drag queens, etc, etc, etc.

I do hope it spices up a bit, but this review reads like a trolling blog.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 20, 2014 @ 10:49 pm
Posted by Guest on Jan. 20, 2014 @ 11:25 am

"The sad thing is pulling the glittering drag queen and the leather daddy out of his Jack Spade bag and shoving them into the argument as justification for his views illustrates not the strength of his case but the weakness. It just makes him appear snide and not a little bit angry, in over his head and pretty juvenile."

NONSENSE. I think Marke, like myself, wants to see something other than bland and boring, which is what the GLBTQ community has become unfortunately. I've read personal ads that read, "I'm not the least bit alternative." Bragging about it, when "alternative" used to be what much of the GLBTQ community was about. But in their attempt to be heteronormative and as "straight" as possible (as opposed to "masculine"), they've abandoned "alternative."

Posted by GuestInTheCastro on Jan. 20, 2014 @ 5:59 am

narrative isn't illustrative of anything other than a weak justification to begin with.

Anyway - none of the guys on Looking seem interested in being heteronomative to me. Participating in alternative sexualities like cruising the park for gay sex and having a three way is hardly heteronormative. But then again you wouldn't know that since you're celibate.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 20, 2014 @ 10:57 am

Being yourself, whoever that is, is what is important. Not trying to fake some persona that you think is more interesting.

If you want society to buy that being gay is normal and ordinary, rather than weird and suspect, then start by not being contrived and artificial.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 20, 2014 @ 7:21 am

As a proud Myopic-American, I am frankly LIVID that "Looking" doesn't incorporate any characters who wear glasses. Therefore I cannot possibly, in good conscience, watch -- much less enjoy -- it, no matter how unbelievably hot Murray Bartlett was in that Grindr hookup scene.

Posted by Peter on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 11:29 am

You're jaded.

I loved the sneak peek of Looking. It's not porn and it's not reality tv. It's fictitious entertainment. It has to be a little glossy and MOST gays are vanilla with the kind of drama to their lives as depicted.

The drag queens, leather fetishists and trans people the author longs for authenticity are actually the tragi-comic relief of the queerdom village.

Trans people!?! How about autistic queer deaf-mute midget albinos? Stupid fringe.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 17, 2014 @ 10:28 am

Would you make such a comment in a public place for anyone and everyone to hear? Would you make such a comment at a GLBTQ gathering with Drag Queens, leather and transgender people present?

Or would you only feel comfortable making such a comment hiding behind a keyboard where you're anonymous?

"and MOST gays are vanilla"
Translation: Sheep. And Sheep are part of the status-quo problem.

Posted by GuestInTheCastro on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

How exactly do you determine someone's degree of assimilation by evaluating their outward appearance against your standards?

Posted by marcos on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

I don't do that. You misunderstood something.

Posted by GuestInTheCastro on Jan. 20, 2014 @ 6:04 am

It's not mainstream comments that you do not hear in public. There's no stigma to going with the flow.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 5:51 pm

Yes god forbid a side of sf is shown that is slightly groomed and following the slightest standards of hygeine. Because the best SF should strive for is representing the fringe of the fringe of the fringe "a pagan eating a burrito on a unicycle"
Sfs drive to represent itself as the vanguard of the alternative is as boring and false as the next generic cities frat culture.

Posted by Greg on Jan. 16, 2014 @ 5:02 am

You must not live in SF. You completely missed the point.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 17, 2014 @ 5:07 am

"I have never wished more for a stereotypically sassy drag queen to stomp onscreen and break some shit in my life."

Yes! What the "gay community" has become depresses me: Bland, boring, corporatized. They've gone overboard to be just like the straights, begging to be accepted. "Alternative" is out and frowned upon. "Homogenized" is in.

Ted Rall wrote about it:

DuckDuckGo:

Gays and Lesbians: Sucked in by the Far Right
What Happened to the Wild, Free Gay Movement of the 1970s?

Posted by Guest on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

It seems that gays are like everyone else after all, and it makes you mad?

Posted by maybe a guest on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

Maybe you missed the point? (You did). Maybe you're the Buffoon? (You would know).

Posted by Guest on Jan. 18, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

That was a long time ago and we had this thing called "AIDS" which kinda changed things.

Posted by guest on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

Your response is a non-sequitur. Read Ted Rall's article.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 16, 2014 @ 3:59 am

It doesn't reflect his Benetton rainbow consciousness and WHERE ARE THE TRANS PEOPLE?

Posted by guest on Jan. 15, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

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