Conor Behan takes a look at the first four episodes of HBO’s new gay drama series Looking.


When it comes to gay stories on the small screen a gay-lead show is still something of a rarity. Plenty has been made about how Looking (which started this week on our screens thanks to Sky Atlantic) is the first big gay TV show since Queer as Folk exploded in the late 90s / early 2000s. That misses the growing visibility of gay characters on shows like Glee or the enduring appeal of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Still, Looking is clearly going for something a tad more highbrow and critic friendly. Less wigs and one-liners more bearded guys and ruminations on whether monogamy is possible.

The show centres around three gay guys living in San Francisco. Lead character Patrick, played by Jonathan Groff (fresh from his role in Disney’s Frozen and the latest musical theatre star to go stellar) is a 29 year old mix of bumbling idiot and leading man looks. Augustin is in a long-term relationship and has lived with best friend Patrick for 8 years while Dom is the 39 year old who seems to be struggling with his casual sex habit and dead-end job as he reaches 40.

The team involved with Looking, including Andrew Haigh who wrote and directed critically acclaimed gay movie Weekend, have been at pains to push the show as taking a more relaxed approach to the character’s sexuality. That extends to the cast too, who have an easy dynamic and the mix of ages and backgrounds is refreshing.

Looking is desperate to offer up a different kind of gays to the ones we usually see on TV, whether it’s camp guys who spit one liners on RuPaul’s Drag Race (a spoof of which plays in one scene) or the “Gay man as accessory to a woman” trope that was at the heart of Will and Grace.  In one way it’s commendable and important that shows can look at different kinds of gay experience.

But with Patrick one stereotype has been swapped out for another. In the place of the “over-sexed fashion-conscious” gay stereotype we’ve been handed a male take on the “klutzy hero who just needs to shake out her ponytail and take off those frumpy glasses” at the heart of many a rom-com cliché.

Patrick is attractive, has an amazing body and a job that he clearly enjoys and pays well. And yet he’s presented as a blundering fool throughout. It’s hard to take seriously and the show never convinces you it’s made the right move in portraying him that way.

In fact for all the attempts at wit and have broader discussions about gayness Looking rarely kicks into high gear during it’s first four episodes. Having a home on HBO gives creators room to play with a full half hour, something it doesn’t seem to do with much zest. Were there stereotypes about gay life in Queer as Folk? Absolutely. But in both it’s UK and US incarnations it understood the point of an enjoyable TV show was to entertain and urged you to keep watching.

There are issues too with such a small group of characters. There is only one significant female role in the first four episodes in the guise of Dom’s room-mate Doris. Given how Orange is The New Black takes place in a women’s prison and still has several interesting male characters and looks at the lives of both lesbian and trans women it seems strange that a show on HBO would ultimately focus on a handful of men and little else.  It is the curse of much mainstream gay entertainment that it’s meant to represent everyone but perhaps this show will allow different parts of the LGBT experience to appear on other series.

That Looking wants to play off of indie-cinema tropes with it’s camerawork and hazy Instagram filtered take on San Francisco is fine but it’s all tasteful critic-baiting trappings and little entertainment value. Looking is by no means a bad show (in fact if it was a “so bad it’s good” stinker it would have a campy relish that this clean cut show could do with) and by the end of episode 4 it’s slow burn method of building the relationship drama suggests it might finally be getting somewhere.

A relaxed, lived-in approach is fine but Looking is confusing bland, yet-to-be-good drama with being real. And that’s a disservice to audiences both gay and straight.

Looking airs on Sky Atlantic Mondays at 10.35pm

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