Lynn, the muscular, good-natured and greying paternal figure of HBO’s Looking, owns a flower shop in the Castro. For those of us who have seen Dustin Lance Black’s Milk (or who knew their gay history before it received the Hollywood treatment), the show’s setting gives an added gravitas to its intention. A gay ghetto in the ’60s and ’70s, it gained legitimacy with Harvey Milk’s appointment as city supervisor in 1977, and remains a cultural hub in the gay world. So, like Russell T. Davies’ pioneering Queer as Folk, set in Manchester’s infamous Canal Street in the late ’90s, Looking focuses on the lives of three gay men who just happen to live in the centre of the world. This increases its burden of representation immensely. If Girls prophetically (and sardonically) announced itself as “the voice of my generation, or at least a voice. Of a generation”, Looking sets itself up to do the same. But, you know, gay.
The opening of the series is extremely telling. We’re given a close-up of Patrick (played by Jonathan Groff), with leaves rustling in the background, a little out of focus. A man walks towards him and, you guessed it – he’s cruising. The episode ends with his friend Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) having a threesome with his boyfriend and a stranger he works with. Sex, and particularly the promiscuous tradition of gay sex, establishes itself as a dominant theme of the series. But what makes Looking smart is that its characters are aware of their own tradition. Patrick spends the episode hyper-scrutinising his trip to the park, while Agustín and Frank have a serious discussion about how the threesome impacts their relationship. If Looking is supposed to be representative of gay life in the present day, it’s saying sex happens and it’s messy in more than one way.
The strange paradox of this kind of representation is that the show is evidently also trying to portray its characters as individuals, with sexuality being only one aspect of their identity. As the series progresses, the plotlines move from recounting individual sexual encounters to tracing long-term personal relationships. Patrick’s plotline in particular, as he finds himself in a love triangle with his boyfriend Richie and boss Kevin (played by the frequently naked Russell Tovey), does a great job at giving gay relationships a complexity that we don’t often see on TV. It’s a shrewd move, acknowledging the need for a programme of this nature to be prophetic, while trying to move towards something more particular and naturalistic.
Looking, in its predominant appeal to gay audiences, finds itself in a ghetto like the one in which it’s filmed. Every viewer comes to it expecting to see something familiar presented to them. It’s not unintentional that it avoids the ‘big themes’ of gay media: it plays with the stereotypes just long enough to abandon them. So Season Two might dive straight into individual lives already established for the viewer, and do away altogether with saunas and florists and orgies. I for one won’t mind very much, as long as I still get to see Russell Tovey’s bum.