A great TV series requires a great ensemble. Our most popular TV series may boast an outstanding lead character, whether it’s Mad Men’s Don Draper or The Soprano’s Tony Soprano, but they’d amount to little without a Roger Sterling or Carmela Soprano to add fuel to the fire. I’d wager, in fact, that we derive far more from characters’ interrelations and disputes than we do from the story arc of one individual.
And when it comes to romantic comedy and drama series, groups of friends on TV shows make for an even more intricate story. Take Sex and the City: Carrie’s misguided flings may have been entertaining enough on their own, but would they have been the same without Samantha’s insatiable sex drive or Charlotte’s anal-retentive approaches to love? Of course not. The interplay of all four characters made Sex and the City an entertaining watch, where Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda were broadly-drawn stereotypes in a perceived spectrum of women’s sexual and romantic lives (circa 1999, of course). Girls was arguably drawn along the same lines, though it’s a tad less chic and far more depressing.
Here’s where Looking comes into the picture. HBO’s newest series, which chronicles the complicated and intermeshed lives of three gay men in the Bay Area, is clearly a follow-up to the (relative) success of Girls. The cinematography feels similar, the spirit of the show pays homage to the interior angst of late 20-somethings, and the setting is one of those “isn’t everyone moving there?” locales. But most importantly, it plays to the ensemble genre. Three gay men star in Looking, and it may enticing to see them as encompassing at least some, or perhaps all, of the spaces in which gay men in a progressive urban setting live today.
So what are the gays of 2014 up to? Well, there’s Patrick (Jonathan Groff), who we’d be most likely to recognize on Yale’s campus. He’s a not so recent Cal graduate hailing from Colorado, off to San Francisco to work as a video-game designer and find the husband of his dreams. He’s innocent, and awkwardly so. His poor attempts at flirting are equal parts groan-worthy and “haven’t I done the exact same before?” Looking has created a well-balanced sense of empathy for Patrick, but with a hint that all is not as rosy as it may appear for him. Next in line is Agustín (Frankie J. Álvarez), Patrick’s best friend and ex-roommate. In terms of maturity, he’s a few years ahead of Patrick, with a long-term boyfriend in tow and the realities of hitting thirty years of age ahead of him.
And then there’s Dom (Murray Bartlett). Poor, poor Dom. Dom’s the guy who can’t seem to get off of Grindr even as he approaches 40, who’s been having sex at least four times a week for the past twenty years. But he’s far past his prime, and he knows it. Here Looking really seems to flex its muscles: this isn’t just a show about disaffected, alienated young adults, though that’s likely the audience it wants to draw in. It’s a cross-section of the lives of gay men, considering each character’s context of age, ethnicity, class, and upbringing. Where Patrick is meeting guys at clubs and bars, Dom is still heading to the San Francisco bathhouses, where he’s told, “you’re sort of an institution around here.”
In the end, however, I think it’s unfair to see the characters of Looking as definitive representations of what it means to be a gay man. There really is no one, singular story about the lives gay men lead today, and Looking knows that. So while it certainly tells stories we can identify with, and while we might occasionally call ourselves a “total Samantha,” “a mix of Jessa and Hannah,” and in the future even “a little bit Patrick,” it’d be wrong to assume that this show attempts to broadly stereotype “characters” in the gay community. The series ultimately yearns for something deeper. It’s about the expansion of the gay lifestyle into a freer space, where sexuality adds color to the narrative, but never overwhelms it.
But enough intellectualizing: when it comes down to it, Looking is a heartfelt and honest show about three men. The series’ strongest moments surface when friends are smoking weed together, when it’s willing to focus on moments of non-sexualized intimacy and markedly personal struggles through life. Does being gay ever play into this picture? Yes, of course! They live in San Francisco, for God’s sake. Looking’s approach to sexuality adds dynamism to the story, taking familiar scenarios like a bad OKCupid date or the engagement of an ex, and framing these within a gay man’s world. It opts for quotidian anxieties over the exoticism of an “alternative” lifestyle, because it’s not just a show about the legacy of the AIDS crisis or the sex-driven party culture of San Francisco. It’s 2014, and the gay community has come so far in becoming a respected and self-sufficient social group in many parts of the US. Looking is the show it needs. Like its spiritual predecessors, it’s a show about friends, uncomfortably but resolvedly riding together through the shitstorm of life.