There was much to love about Looking, the short-lived HBO series about a group of gay friends in San Francisco.
But when asked about the show’s legacy at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival, creator Michael Lannon and actor Daniel Franzese focused on one issue: HIV education.
“I’m very proud of our HIV storyline with Eddie,” said Franzese, who portrayed an HIV-positive character of size. “Eddie was the first character in six years to be on television as an HIV-positive character. I was told from the first time by [executive producer] Andrew [Haigh], he was never gonna get sick. And it was never going to be something that hindered him from living his life.”
Due to his stereotype-defying role, Franzese discussed how the show’s HIV legacy affected him personally — he is now an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, a fact that received applause from the post-screening audience at the Directors Guild of America.
At the Q&A, which was moderated by critic Alonso Duralde, Franzese also praised the show for being the first to discuss pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. As discussed in a GLAAD Award-winning series produced by The Advocate, 31 Days of PrEP, the daily administration of an HIV-fighting drug can be up to 99 percent effective in preventing HIV-negative people from being infected with the virus if they stick to the routine faithfully.
In the film, which screened at Outfest, Eddie weds another gay character, Agustin, who takes a drug for PrEP. Franzese proudly announced that it was Hollywood’s “first serodiscordant marrage” — that is, between HIV-positive and HIV-negative characters. He later stressed the importance of such representation by recounting a story, in which a serodiscordant couple thanked him at an event called the Texas Bear Roundup in Dallas.
“I hope that my relationship lasts forever,” one of the partners told him, as recalled by Franzese. “But if it doesn’t, I will always show Looking season 2 to anyone I ever date and say, ‘If you can handle this season, then you can handle me.’”
Franzese told this story to illustrate “how important it is for people to be able to see their stories and see different types of people,” pointing also to his character’s body-positivity as another point of pride for the show’s legacy.
An audience member, who said he was a Los Angeles resident, also told Lannan and Franzese that the show had educated him about PrEP— he contacted his doctor shortly after an episode aired in which characters debate using PrEP. As in real life, PrEP has generated controversy among members of the LGBT community. Some, like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Michael Weinstein, worry that gay men will use it as a substitute for condoms. Its supporters, which include the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, see it as another tool in the toolkit of HIV prevention.
In response, Lannan revealed he had heard about Looking’s PrEP impact from his own health care provider.
“My doctor told me that after that episode aired, he said like tons of people came in for PrEP. I’m really pleased about that,” he said. “I will say we didn’t think too much about the consequences of that. We wanted to tell an interesting story. And I think we always shied away from making this show a public service announcement. It’s really easy to slide into that territory. “
Lannan added that it was “hard for us to know what people knew and didn’t know. Like, I think in the writers’ room, we had been talking about PrEP for a couple months or a while. Somebody had brought in an article about it. And so by the time it aired, we thought, everyone knows about this. But they didn’t.”
Franzese then pointed out that 32 percent of general practitioners are also uneducated about PrEP. “So ask your doctor for it. Don’t expect them to be telling you about it,” he concluded.
More than HIV and PrEP, however, Lannan said that Looking was meant to capture “a moment in time” during an era of rapid advancement of LGBT rights.
“We wanted to sort of just have people living in their lives in a time of great change,” Lannan said, adding “I think you feel San Francisco changing during the show. It literally changed during the show. The world changed with gay marriage. These characters grow up.”
The Looking movie premieres July 23 on HBO. Watch the Outfest panel with Lannan and Franzese below.