What are we looking for in Looking?

By nature, the gay community is contentious with a long history of disagreement, controversy, and conflict. We agree on our destination but we’ve been arguing over the route we’re taking for at least a century – if not longer. The reaction to HBO’s new “controversial” show, Looking, bears that out. Typically these things are tempests in teapots ignored by most of the straight world, but I am concerned that if the negative voice prevails the show will be snuffed out and with it the chances of more shows like it.

Personally, I like the show. It’s a bit slow but I’m actually beginning to enjoy that for that a change. A gay version of Lost where a rainbow-colored polar bear shows up in the Castro at the fifteen minute point and the episode closes with the revelation that the characters are really zombies from Uranus might move along more quickly but would also be a whole lot less interesting, at least to me.

I loved executive producer Andrew Haigh’s film Weekend and can clearly see his influence in the pacing of this show and the sense of reality and intimacy that it attempts to capture. In fact, I think it may be the show’s realism that is so challenging to parts of the gay community.

One of the most frequent complaints about the show that I see in comment threads and even articles is basically, “It doesn’t represent me.” I don’t quite get why people keep making this comment in various forms. It’s a half an hour show that will have six episodes total in its first season. Three hours. The gay community is so broad and so diverse that if your goal were to actually represent each kind of gay person in those three hours you would be reduced to using flash cards. And then, of course, the complaint would be that the show uses too many stereotypes and the characters aren’t well developed.

Because the show is so realistic, the temptation to look for yourself in the characters is strong. So, the question is, should you really be looking for yourself in a half-hour HBO show? Do young women really see themselves in Girls? I don’t see any women I know in that show that’s for sure. And any woman who does see herself is someone who has my sympathy.

As viewers we need to look beyond externals and look at universals. I am not like the guys on Looking, they would not hang out with me – in fact they’d probably make fun of me behind my back. However, the date that is almost a job interview in the first episode was an experience I’ve had and was, for me, very relatable. The experience of saying the wrong thing in bed and completely ruining everything is also something I’ve managed to pull off, at least once. Well, probably more often than that.

The fact that gay men are having trouble looking beyond the externals might be a head-scratcher for some. Looking beyond externals is something we’ve been doing forever, right? We are big consumers of mainstream entertainment and in those TV shows we look beyond externals all the time. Maybe some in the gay community were hoping for a show where they wouldn’t have to do that. And certainly a small section of gay men in San Francisco don’t have to. But the rest of us still need to look beyond the externals and connect with the universals.

I just looked at an article where someone wrote in the comments, “This show is garbage.” Maybe that was the comment of a troll, but it could be something else. With the exception of a handful of films, most gay films are very poorly made. That doesn’t mean the gay community doesn’t enjoy them or that they have no value, but it does mean that gay men are trained to find enjoyment in poorly made entertainment. Looking is well made and so is not produced in the kind of lingua franca so many gay men have learned.

And then there’s the way we watch TV shows. My roommate loves a popular, supernatural cable TV show. I watched a few minutes of one episode this season and said, “This is really dreadful.” Because it was. My roommate responded with, “Yeah, that’s what makes it so good.” I’m certainly not saying that gay men as a rule have lousy taste in films and TV series, but I do think that there is a real attraction to the awful. And the rules are really different depending on what the project is and where it comes from.

Looking was certainly over-hyped as the new “gay” series. I think for a lot of people there was n expectation that it would be the show that defined us (in a half an hour) and satisfied everyone in the community. Instead, it’s a small, intimate little series about some specific people within the community – and not the community as a whole.

My roommate will not even watch the show. He used to live in San Francisco and is only a few years older than the guys on the show. But, he hates the entire idea of it. I think he doesn’t want to see the show because he’s afraid they won’t get it right; but more than that I think he’s also afraid they will get it right.

While people complain that they’re not represented on the show, I have to wonder what would be their reaction if they were? Do gay men really want to see themselves on television? Or are they so trained to identifying with witches and vampire slayers and straight female comics that they don’t know how to identify with characters who are similar them?

We have to be honest with ourselves. The gay community does a crap job of supporting it’s own artists, whether it’s musicians or actors or filmmakers or writers the gay community would rather trample over them on its way to supporting this years pop diva or some straight guy who can’t manage to keep his shirt on then support its own artists. This may be a very cynical thing to say, but maybe the biggest problem the community has with Looking is that it’s not about idolizing heterosexuals.

I do hope Looking gets another season, and that the producers don’t give much credence to the complaints and start altering their storylines to appease the haters and trolls. Another season will allow them to touch on more aspects of the gay community and I think they deserve that opportunity. I also think they deserve the opportunity to continue developing plotlines that are universally relatable. Given time, I hope the gay community puts aside it’s expectations and preconceptions, in order to give the show a shot a chance on its own merits.

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