Op-ed: In Defense of Looking
It’s hard to be fan of Looking — HBO’s landmark gay dramedy that ended its first season Sunday — without constantly having to defend it. Several critics wrote it off from the beginning. Slate called it “unbearably boring.” The New York Observer stamped it “egregiously boring.” And the straight-skewing Esquire opined that “it commits the sin of being gay and boring,” as if gay men needed to be associated with “sin” anymore than we already are to some people. These b word comments are echoed on social media after every episode.
Each time I read one of these rote dismissals, I want to respond like Adam from Looking’s timeslot roommate Girls: “Boredom is bullshit. Boredom is for lazy people who have no imagination.”
It’s not that watching Looking takes imagination per se, but in order to fully appreciate the show, it does take imagination’s more inward-looking sibling, introspection.
Unlike any show before it, Looking raises provocative questions about who we are as gay men. It invites us to apply these questions to our own lives. The show is filled with intimate conversations, but watching it also feels like having an intimate conversation, one that brings on epiphanies that are sometimes freeing and sometimes terrifying, but never boring.
Looking is the story of three gay men in San Francisco who are at some transitional point in life. Patrick (Glee’s Jonathan Groff), on the cusp of turning 30, is trying to figure out what he wants from life and love. As he tells one date: “I’m more of, like, a relationship person always, usually … ”
Patrick’s college best friend, Agustín (Frankie J. Álvarez), lives with his musician boyfriend but finds himself fascinated by a freewheeling male sex worker. And Dom (Murray Bartlett), a 40-year-old wannabe restaurateur, is struggling with what it means to be gay and middle-aged. He’s lost in a world where he’s no longer a desirable predator or valued prey.
I think the premise of a group of best friends gave folks the impression that Looking would be a queer remix of Sex and the City or Girls. But Looking’s tone couldn’t be more different. At its core, Looking is an unyielding dissection of a subject that is very difficult for people to talk about: gay shame. By this, I don’t mean guys who are ashamed to be gay. I’m talking about the residual shame that we all harbor, to some degree, simply by living in a society that still devalues us as men.
(If you don’t believe this type of thinking still exists, just look at how astonished people are that out football player Michael Sam has excelled in such a macho sport. This is the queer equivalent of remarking that a well-spoken African-American is “so articulate.” It’s a compliment grounded in a damning stereotype.)
Even the most well-adjusted among us sometimes struggle, not necessarily with the idea that being gay is bad, but that some aspects or ways of being gay are bad. Looking confronts this within two minutes of its first episode. Patrick tells Agustín and Dom about the time his cell went off while he was cruising in a park: “The minute my phone rang … I immediately thought that it was my mom … and she was calling to stop me from becoming one of those gays who hook up with people in a park.” Patrick has no problem with being gay, but he doesn’t want to be perceived as “one of those gays.”
Each following episode has uncovered the ever-deepening layers of Patrick’s shame, from the way he frets over a voice mail message (“It’s not gay; it sounds completely normal”) to the choices he’s made based on his perception of his parents’ approval. During the show’s brilliant fifth episode, “Looking for the Future”—a flirty, 28-minute dialogue between Patrick and his Mexican-American love interest Richie (Raúl Castillo) that A.V. Club critic Brandon Nowalk called “essentially a gay Before Sunrise” — Richie asks Patrick, “Do you think you’d be embarrassed if your parents thought you were a bottom?”
“Maybe a little bit,” Patrick reluctantly admits.
This scene reminded me of a moment from the late black gay writer E. Lynn Harris’ groundbreaking novel Invisible Life. In the book, Raymond, a successful attorney, recounts being confronted by his father:
“You didn’t let them sc —” My father stopped mid sentence and quietly stared at me, his face creased by a question that he was struggling to articulate.
“Screw me, Pops? Is that what you want to know? Would that make me more of a man in your eyes, if I’m the doer? I felt my rage returning. Why did my father’s question cause my anger to return? Should I tell him that I didn’t let men enter me? Would his knowing this make my sexuality easier to digest?”
Looking has gotten a lot of flack for having a 20-something white boy as its main character, but by exposing the shame behind his Best Little Boy in the World act, the show becomes applicable to the experiences of nearly every gay man on the planet. Shame researcher Brené Brown once said, during a TED Talk, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” Sadly, “secrecy, silence, and judgment” are the conditions under which most gay men — across cultures, nations, races, and ethnicities — are still raised to varying degrees.
So it makes perfect sense to me why a lot of gay men refuse to engage with the show by dismissing it as “boring.” Shame is a difficult thing to face.
Looking is brave and unprecedented, because, rather than being a crowd-pleasing salve, it forces us to confront some of our most painful and unexamined truths. In the past, gay shows and storylines have focused on the damage done to us by outside forces (homophobes, AIDS, etc.). But Looking dares to explore the damage that we repeatedly do to ourselves.
CRAIG SEYMOUR, a writer and photographer is the author of All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C. (Atria/Simon & Schuster). He is an associate professor of journalism at Northern Illinois University and has written about pop culture for The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Vibe, and other publications. He blogs at CraigsPopLife.com and tweets at @craigspoplife.