It’s Not TV, It’s ‘Looking’: HBO’s Gay Dramedy Is Like Nothing Else (and That’s the Problem)

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Months before anyone saw clips from Looking, the new comedy-drama hybrid that premieres this Sunday on HBO, plenty of people were calling it the gay Girls. The show, centered around a young man and his circle of friends in San Francisco, is, on the surface, very similar to Lena Dunham’s comedy series. But the romantic and professional existentialism of its protagonists are the only things that Looking shares with its supposed female counterpart. The team behind Looking seems to have considered all of the criticisms thrown at Girls — that it’s too white, too absurd to be realistic, too gratuitously sexual — and avoided them at all costs. There’s quite a diverse cast, a sober sensibility, and a pretty tame treatment of the dating practices of single gay men in the modern era. Perhaps it is the deliberate avoidance of any agenda that resulted in an awkwardly paced and exceedingly dull show.

Looking follows Patrick (played by the cute-as-a-button Jonathan Groff), a 29-year-old video game developer whose increasing frustrations with his dead-end romantic pursuits has left him looking searching for something — anything — that’ll make him happy. Naturally, he goes to the wrong places to find it. The pilot episode opens with an awkward encounter between Patrick and a stranger in the woods (he later tells the story on a terrible first date with a self-assured smile, insisting that what ended up being a foiled handjob was “a joke”). It’s a clever move on creator Michael Lannan’s part as a setup for how emotional and physical connections have changed throughout time, especially now that social media and the Internet have provided a new way for gay men to find each other (not to mention the obvious progression in how publicly gay men can live their lives). Patrick forces himself to experience what was once a commonplace activity for gay men — public cruising — which occurred during a time before he was born; it turns out he’s just as uncomfortable making a connection with anyone face-to-face as he is online via OKCupid.

Meanwhile, there’s Patrick’s roommate, Agustín, and their friend (and Patrick’s former fling), Dom. Agustín announces in the first episode that he’ll be moving in with his boyfriend, Frank, to which Patrick remarks, “Congratulations, that’s huge!” While Agustín’s move is an odd choice for the show’s setup — it’d work much better, perhaps, for the two friends to still live together — it does open up the possibility for him and Frank to explore their relationship, especially after they have a threesome with another man who, like Agustín, is an artist’s assistant. (In what becomes a narrative trend, the third guy vanishes after that scene, not to be seen again in the following three episodes.) Dom, on the other hand, is older than his two friends. About to turn 40, he feels professionally unfulfilled (he is a waiter with a long-held dream of opening his own restaurant) and emotionally stunted. In a particularly self-aware line — either on the character or the writer’s behalf, or possibly both — he admits to his roommate, “I am such a cliché” after a Grindr hookup with some nameless twink.

The show’s many problems are rooted in the packaging. It’s a half-hour series, one that is not quite completely a drama, yet very far from being a comedy. To make the comparison to Girls (which is unavoidable at this point), the writing does not have the punchy, clever moments of Lena Dunham’s show. It’s not even biting or cringe-inducing in the way that Nicole Holofcener or Alexander Payne comedies tend to be. Instead, to compare it to a classic Woody Allen line, it’s a dead shark: it doesn’t move anywhere, mostly because for most of the show the three protagonists sit around — in cars, on public transportation, over the phone, in Patrick’s apartment — and describe what has happened to them off-screen, sometimes alluding to things in their own backstories, sometimes setting us up for things we will later see. While it’s fresh, I suppose, to watch a TV show in which men discuss their emotions and feelings and desires, Looking quickly falls into a trap: it’s all telling and no showing.

On top of the clumsy writing and the poor timing of the first four episodes, there’s the problem with the cast. Jonathan Groff is incredibly miscast as Patrick, who is nearly overcome in every episode by his own physical awkwardness, despite the fact that the actor is incredibly handsome and physically fit. In one episode, he follows his friends around the Folsom Street Fair wearing a leather vest over his shirtless chest. He appears uncomfortable in his own body, despite it being chiseled and nearly hairless, as if it belongs to an actor straight out of a ’90s gay porn film; it’s preposterous to watch Groff try to shrink his broad shoulders inward and clasp the vest to hide his abs.

Are we to believe this man, with the large biceps, flat stomach, and symmetrical face, finds himself too socially inept and weird-looking to attract anyone else? It’s impossible to know: there’s no explanation of his family, his past relationships, or why he’s a 29 year-old man-child. The first four episodes offer little information about Patrick’s character — or any of the other characters, for that matter. We know that he plays video games, that his longest relationship lasted six months, that he can replicate his mother’s mac and cheese recipe, and that he’s never seen an uncircumcised penis (and is, for some reason, obsessed with the prospect). After four episodes — half a season — one would hope for more emotional attachment to a show’s protagonist. Patrick, however, exists solely within the vacuum of the show — a vacuum that is pretty empty.

The supporting cast, Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett, occasionally try to break free from the confines of the clunky dialogue, but there’s little about their roles, motivations, or actions that are truly compelling. The sole standout is Lauren Weedman, who offers some actual comic relief in the role of Doris, Dom’s ex-girlfriend turned roommate. Unfortunately, Doris is the stereotypical fag hag, spouting off lines that resemble Chelsea Handler’s stiff-lipped, vodka-soaked zingers. (In the fourth episode, Doris affectionately quips that she’d like to douse Agustín’s boyfriend in gasoline. Considering the etymological origin of the word “faggot,” one would think the writers would have come up with a less aggressive one-liner.)

This is a shame, when after years of hoping to see more LGBT characters on TV, we’ve finally received what is by all accounts a “realistic” depiction of gay men in an urban setting. There will be much to pedantically critique about the show — that the characters are overwhelmingly trim and straight-acting, that queens appear only on the characters’ laptops rather than in “real life,” that there’s an undercurrent of the misogyny that exists very openly within the gay community which is represented by the ideal of the “masculine” gay man, and so on. But Looking is overwhelmingly non-controversial, even if the audience it’s supposed to be serving is pretty unclear. Are urban-dwelling gay men desperate to see people exactly like them on television, represented by what New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum described as “ordinary, not outrageous” characters? Possibly.

But there must be something in between the ordinary and the outrageous that is, simply, “interesting.” Maybe it’s because I’ve given up on finding a “relatable” gay character to be a prerequisite to my enjoyment of a television program; maybe it’s that I can find bits and pieces of characters — straight men, straight women, gay men, trans individuals — who, when written well, exhibit characteristics representative of the larger human experience. (Take a look at Treme, an HBO series with no LGBT characters and one that was dismissed by many viewers as boring, but a show that was written exquisitely and realistically and, you know, actually had a strong plot).

I’m not sure, exactly, what I’m supposed to get out of Looking, and I’m not sure that its creative team knows, either. It feels like a show about gay men that simply exists for the sake of being a show about gay men. And, frankly, we deserve something a little more well-developed than a flimsy series that proves TV executives aren’t sure what they’re looking for, either.