'"Looking", Thinking', by Dion Kagan

image

Illustration by Grace Helmer.

Looking is a recently aired HBO series about three handsome gays who live in San Francisco. They are: Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a 29-year-old corn-fed computer-game designer skating on the thin outer edges of twinkdom; Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), Patrick’s best friend and long-time flatmate, a jaunty but basically belligerent artist; and Dom (Murray Bartlett), their other best buddy, a waiter and ageing stud who Patrick once hooked up with in the distant past.

All three are in varying states of clement to inclement flux. Patrick and Agustín have been roomies since their early twenties, but Agustín is moving on to live with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle). Patty is a bit thrown by Augie’s departure and the news that his ex-boyfriend is engaged, plus his apparently clueless approach to hooking up and dating. I say ‘apparently’ because if there’s one imaginative obstacle in the setup of Looking, it’s the proposition that a man as handsome as Patrick exists in gay San Francisco in the era of Grindr and has managed to remain so coy and awkward about sex and dating. But it’s not unsurpassable. Patrick, in any case, is still trading on a wholesome boy-from-Colorado, adorkable ingénue shtick, though he appears to be finding its limitations. It’s a defence against deeper anxieties he has about mansex and what type of guy he might be happy in a relationship with.

Dom is single and one of the top three hottest homosexuals in TV’s short history of out gay men, but he has problems too. He is still waiting tables at thirty-nine and isn’t happy about it. He loves casual sex but knows he’s using it as a palliative for unfulfilled longings. He’s about to turn forty which is superannuation time for gays. “You know”, he says “at forty Grindr emails you with a death certificate?” To many, Dom will be the most recognisable of these three gay characters. His tagline: “I’m such a cliché. Thinking that sex will make me feel better. I mean, it does, but still.”

And Agustín. Oh Agustín. Augie is an artist who basically makes no art. He’s full of potential but has gone along charming everyone—including himself—and then failing to deliver the goods. Now he’s thirty-one and still just full of potential. Either through abject denial or a mildly chilling lack of insight, he doesn’t externalise much about this state of affairs to his friends or boyfriend, so naturally he’s bitter and confused, and this is exacerbating some pre-existing tendencies toward arsehollishness. Therapists call this ‘acting out’. For Augie it includes teasing Patrick to make himself feel better, having sulky tantrums and initiating threesomes with boyfriend Frank. Eventually he pays a sex-worker to hang out with him and have sex with Frank, ostensibly as part of an art project, which is quite a lame and unoriginal idea and also imprudent because he has no job or money. Poor Augie, he’s really behaving like a douchebag and it’s not clear what Frank—or anyone—get out of their relationship with him. It gets pretty hard to feel sympathy for him, even though he’s very cute, and hence writers on the internet have published articles with titles like ‘Why Are People Friends with Agustín?’.

Dom has a thick seventies clone-style moustache that gives his face a sort of permanently randy look. No words can do it true justice. Agustín has a shiny black, almost mountain-man beard. Patrick has no facial hair, so there is something here for everyone.

Because it raises the bristly issue of gay representation, HBO’s new series has been the subject of endless online commentaries and so-called think pieces. I say ‘so-called’ because a lot of these articles have actually felt not-so-thoughtful, which isn’t necessarily the fault of the writers, but mostly, I presume, an effect of having to produce pull-quotable critical proclamations under tight deadlines, maybe based on watching only a handful of episodes. In the case of Looking this procedure is especially unconducive to thoughtfulness, because it’s a restrained, slow-burning, un-ostentatious kind of show – not necessarily what we’ve become accustomed to from HBO (outrageous predicaments, staggeringly sprawling novelistic narratives, mythical structures, baroque generic compilations, etc.). Looking works with quite a small, intimate canvas. As Alessandra Stanley wrote in The New York Times, “the show makes a virtue of its lack of virtuosity.”

If quality TV is about ‘high concepts’ and gay people are kinda normal now, and this is quality TV about gay people, where is the high concept? Answer: there isn’t one.

I don’t mean to disparage the clever and interesting things that have been said about the show by clever and interesting critics, but some of them have already recanted their early verdict that Looking is boring. ‘Boringness’ has been a telling flashpoint in the debates about Looking. I think in some instances, critics who say that it’s boring are expressing confusion about the show’s unspectacularity. If quality TV is about ‘high concepts’ and gay people are kinda normal now, and this is quality TV about gay people, where is the high concept? Answer: there isn’t one.

In other instances, a supposed boredom is the critical and emotional upshot of a politico-aesthetic perspective that feels disappointed with the show’s bland portrayal of gay life. For example, Rich Juzwiak in Gawker wrote that “in Looking, gay men get to be boring on TV at last. They get to look for love in barely different ways than straight people.” The Daily Beast’s contribution was titled: ‘Yes, Looking is Boring. It’s the Drama Gays Deserve’. What’s vexing these critics is that to them the show feels like yet another portrayal of homo life for people who aren’t living it. It’s an unsatisfying demonstration that gay people are essentially the same as straight people: normal, boring, yawn. None of those undignified queers—meth-addled barebackers, ugly lesbian butches, screaming queens—are present to challenge audience sensibilities. The characters love sex unapologetically, but they’re all handsome, presentable, relatively straight-acting men. No fats or femmes. Brian Lowder in Slate called it ‘a PSA for how the mainstream increasingly expects gayness to look – butch enough, politically apathetic, generally boring.’

And while for some it is allowed to stand in for a particular type of political and aesthetic disappointment, Mike Stingley’s declaration of ‘boredom’ addressed to the straight male readers of Esquire provoked accusations of homophobia. In ‘A Straight Man’s Guide To HBO’s Looking: A show about three boring gay men’, Stingley wrote—ostensibly irreverently—that Looking ‘commits the heinous sin of being gay and boring’. He prefers his gays with more sass and more show tunes, “funny, mincing guys with witty one-liners and put-downs”; he’s bored by Looking’s “three ho-hum characters you wouldn’t hang around with if they were on SportsCenter”. So although on the surface he’s coming to the same conclusion—that Looking is a boring show—Stingley’s screed inspired a bunch of outraged responses and an insincere apology from Esquire, all demonstrating that when it comes to the issue of who decides what examples of queer TV are boring and what boring actually means we are in high stakes territory.

Looking has hit a cultural nerve. Even Andrew Sullivan has chimed in and, unsurprisingly for the man who wrote the bible of homonormativity (Virtually Normal, 1995), he loves the show because:

“the characters are not minstrels; and they are not eunuchs. They are for the first time recognizable human beings who happen to be gay. […] Gay life in 2014 is … well, finally just life… I loved the show. It is the first non-cringe-inducing, mass market portrayal of gay life in America since the civil rights movement took off”.

For someone like Juzwiak or Lowder, the platitude ‘just happens to be gay’ is basically the most irritating thing that you can ever say. Talk about boring. And fair enough. It’s a valid critique and one that especially applies to a lot of what has come before Looking. I’m sympathetic to it. I myself have a very tightly wound homonormativity meter. I too want to rail against the disappointments of gay images in this post-gay marriage, after-normal pop cultural milieu.

…in the words of my housemate Jasmine, “it’s so fucking subtle and nuanced how can anyone think it’s boring?”

But, I think some of what is happening in some of these reviews is that the problematic politics of ‘normative’ are getting confused with ‘ordinary’ and then papered over with ‘boring’. It’s not quite a critical sleight of hand as much as a series of subtle conflations. And because ‘boring’ is an assertion of taste and feeling—a subjective appraisal as well as a political one—it’s harder to defend against. To my mind, the producers of Looking are far too switched on and self-aware to incidentally produce a show that is (homo)normative: what they’re actually doing is dramatising the ambivalent feelings and effects of this normalisation of gays. In an excellent essay in Grantland, Wesley Morris writes that:

“the anxiety about normalization courses through the show. It also courses through the criticism of the show. We’re all paying attention to Looking because it’s on HBO, which tends to warrant notice and puts it in both the enviable and unenviable position of being a bellwether”.

On the boring question I tend to agree with Craig Seymour who, in the Advocate, expanded on the aphorism that “boredom is for lazy people with a lack of imagination” by suggesting that “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”. Or, in the words of my housemate Jasmine, “it’s so fucking subtle and nuanced how can anyone think it’s boring?”

The executive producer of Looking, and director of multiple episodes, is Andrew Haigh. Haigh wrote and directed the swoonfest indie romance, Weekend (2011), about a hot hook up between two men who talk, fuck, and take drugs together in real-time increments over the course of one weekend, and ultimately fall for each other in a way that is so much more credible and compelling than you could ever make a description of it sound. Weekend is also where Haigh developed the Instagram-filtered homo verite naturalism that to a large extent describes the aesthetics of Looking. Weekend’s narrative conceit resembles the prototypical hipster romance, Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995), to which it has been much compared, and Looking owes even more to this precursor: its stock scene arrangements are witty everyday walkin’ and banterin’ sequences from which dimensions of character and occasional pearls of wisdom emerge. Like Weekend, Looking adds drugs, casual hook-ups and facial hair to the mix, although in its twenty-four minute-ish episodes it has less time to languish in brooding hand-held camera shots of gritty urban landscapes and tasteful thrift-shop furnishings.

What distinguishes Weekend and Looking from other hipster romances is that there’s a more palpable razz between onscreen lovers and potential lovers. As I’ve written elsewhere, the performances of Weekend’s bewhiskered leads, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), together adds up to a strong argument for the verity of ‘onscreen chemistry’, something which in the casting and direction of Looking, Haigh proves he has an ongoing knack for. In other words: sexy. The frisson between Patrick and his dangerously flirtatious boss Kevin (Russell Toovey) is a case in point. My entire lounge room swooned when Kevin finally declared he was hot for Patrick:

“Do you know how much effort it takes to be around you every day? It takes all of my willpower not to lunge and kiss the fucking shit out of you, and I can’t seem to stop thinking about you, and it’s becoming a real fucking problem”.

Workplace power-relations, sexual harassment implications and general sleaziness aside, this is the moment we’ve been wanting-not-wanting for several episodes and it’s so-wrong-so-right you can feel it in your loins.

Haigh is basically pioneering the genre of sexy homo-mumblecore realism, until someone comes up with a better name for it.

Haigh has been called the gay Ken Loach, and I would say that yes, he’s the gay Ken Loach but less depressing, which suggests that realism and authenticity doesn’t always have to be synonymous with melancholy. People have wildly sexy moments in their lives as well as miserable ones. Haigh is basically pioneering the genre of sexy homo-mumblecore realism, until someone comes up with a better name for it. Looking is what realist queer indie cinema looks like when it gets whipped into the TV dramedy format. What sets his work apart from other doyennes of the hipster romance—like Sophia Coppolla, Miranda July, Xavier Dolan, or even Woody Allen—is, I think (and this is where critical evaluation meshes indivisibly with personal feelings and the question of who or what you identify with onscreen and how you relate emotionally to the prevailing culture of irony and whimsy), this commitment to sexy authenticity.

A footnote here: the best thing I have read thus far describing the conventions of the hipster romance is a post by Christopher Smail on Gorilla Film Magazine called ‘Hipster Love in the Movies’. “If you want to be classed as a hipster couple on screen,” he explains, “then there are certain criteria that you have to meet”. This includes chic clothes (“It can be flea market panache as Diane Keaton did so well in Annie Hall or a more refined, elegant look”), no openly expressed feelings (“Because being overly romantic with red roses and candy hearts is so lame, you know? It’s all done by metaphor and the occasional longing glance”), and romance unspooling in urban centres (“preferably in some kind of art gallery or a swanky hotel bar like Sofia Coppola did in her Tokyo anti romance Lost in Translation.”). My favourite—and the most excessive—examples are some of the films of French Canadian hipster auteur, Xavier Dolan, the most handsome and successful twenty-five year old in the OECD, of whom Smail says:

“The man has done more for the hipster romance genre than anyone on this blue dot. In Heartbeats three preposterously beautiful twenty somethings prance around Montreal in heart shaped sunglasses with sculpted Everest quiffs. They are far too cool to express their feelings for each other in mere words so must resort to an assortment of tricks: writing letters full of French poetry and buying expensive wicker hats par example.”

Smail doesn’t talk about Andrew Haigh or Weekend, but by his account of, for example, Miranda July’s The Future (2011), if we feel somewhat alienated from the central relationship of the hipster romance, it’s because the “world [the film] explores is so insular and the two main characters … are so egotistical that you end up feeling no sympathy for their deluded misadventures”. In Before Sunrise (and its sequels Before Sunset and Before Midnight), the lovers “keep their passion for each other hidden behind their beautiful façade”. This is because, Smail argues, attraction conveyed as cool restraint is what “define[s] hipster love in all its glory”. On first appearance Looking may appear to be in the same school and does indeed share sensibilities with these hipster romances—an unhurriedness, an attention to quotidian detail, an emphasis on cinematography— but the difference, I think, is it’s actually more sensuous, more sexy, and has more romantic grunt, even if its feelings about sex are a bit icky and confused.

Have you seen the urban gays getting around San Fran, New York, or Melbourne for that matter? I’m pretty sure they have meet-cutes all the fucking time.

I guess you could say that Looking isn’t in fact realistic because people don’t have meet-cutes on city buses (which is where Patrick meets Richie, his Latino lover-cum-boyfriend), or look as pretty as Dom, or talk in witty repartees. And to that I would say, well, some people do. Have you seen the urban gays getting around San Fran, New York, or Melbourne for that matter? I’m pretty sure they have meet-cutes all the fucking time.

I guess you could also say—and this has been said—that the show isn’t sexually adventurous enough. Not enough envelope pushing, more coy than both UK and US iterations of Queer as Folk that, now over a decade ago, featured oral and anal sex and—wait for it—rimming in their very first episodes (Showtime in North America weren’t quite as bold as Channel Four in the UK where this sex scene happened between characters who were on drugs, and one of whom was legally underage). Juzwiak says about Looking that “it sucks that this supposedly forward-thinking, and self-evidently important series is deferring to straight society’s repulsion at the idea of two men having sex”. But that envelope has been pushed and Juzwiak is wrong. In the first episode alone we get park cruising, a threesome, a bathhouse visit and a Grindr hookup. And that isn’t even the point: Looking isn’t sexually squeamish, it’s sexually adventurous in different ways. When Augie teases Patrick about his crush on his boss, Kevin, he comments on “those ears you want to pull when you face-fuck him!” (I basically blushed while I was typing that). Earlier in the same episode, a conversation between Patrick and this big-eared Adonis boss of his is so loaded with chemistry it’s basically off the charts, despite the fact that this is several episodes before these two actually kiss, and despite the fact that they are mainly talking about arseless chaps, whilst looking down at San Francisco’s Folsom Street Leather Fair from their office windows. As Dan Callahan noted in a Vulture recap of that episode: “it seems appropriate that the sexiest scene so far on Looking is this teasing, electrically charged conversation between two fully clothed men stealing glances out a window at debauchery down below”. The leather-scene backdrop to this dangerous flirtation between workplace superior and inferior is a clue about both the trouble and the hotness of mixing sex and professional workplace relations.

Perhaps most uniquely, Looking has arrived at a ‘post-pride’ moment in which it is freer than ever to examine the subtleties of sexual shame; it’s more eloquent on that topic than anything I have ever seen on TV before. Richie asks Patrick, “Do you think you’d be embarrassed if your parents thought you were a bottom?” It’s a gentle but leading question, for Patrick hasn’t been fucked by Richie yet, although he says he wants to be. “Maybe a little bit,” Patrick admits. Looking isn’t deferring to a social queasiness with the idea of butt-sex but rather gently teasing out the effect this queasiness has on the gay men who internalise it. The shame politics of bottoming are so delicately and powerfully dramatised that, by the time Patrick gets fucked by boss Kevin in the final episode, we have a very intricate sense of what this might mean for him, as well as a powerful impression of the complex politics of office liaisons. The work/sex equation is also happening in Dom’s unresolved relationship with Lynn (Scott Bakula), an older gay man who is helping him get a restaurant idea off the ground, but who he insists on kissing despite probably knowing better. Looking is fascinated with the intermingling of romantic and professional lives, which of course we’ve seen in everything from LA Law to Mad Men, but not when it happens among the gays.

Patrick acts out competing sexual impulses, responding to competing messages that the culture sends gay men. He can’t go through with a hook up in the park: when his phone rings, he imagines it will be his mother, and he doesn’t want to be ‘one of those gays’. And yet he desperately wants Augie to acknowledge that he’s hooked up before, he’s not as sexually naïve as he appears to be, he knows what to do with an uncircumcised cock. He’s 29 and he’s still nervous about sex which obviously isn’t so unusual, but clearly, for Patrick, it’s embarrassing.

Gay shame is a subtle and many-splendoured thing.

There is a picnic for Dom’s fortieth birthday mid-way through the first season that is basically a set piece in gay shame and gay shaming. Patrick gets teased that his voicemail recording sounds girly (“It’s not gay; it sounds completely normal!”). Dom feels old. Augie shames his boyfriend Frank when they’re buying food (“You’re going to be the black guy who brings Cheetos to the party?”), then he teases Patrick some more by telling everyone “he spends all his time pretending to be a power top because that’s what all men are supposed to be”. Then he shames Patrick again for dating Richie, a working class Latino, by declaring that he is “slumming it”. (See, Augie is really acting out now!) Finally, Richie and Patrick bump into Patrick’s boss, Kevin, and his boyfriend who are as white and broad-shouldered and straight-acting as you can imagine. Kevin’s boyfriend tells them he is a sports doctor for a basketball team; Richie tells them he cuts hair, to which Kevin responds: “for a living?”. Gay shame is a subtle and many-splendoured thing, and its deep embeddedness in other orders of race and class and gender is delicately interwoven into these exchanges.

Like a cynical shithead, my attitude going in to watch Looking for the first time was ambivalent, much like the attitude I approached Weekend with in 2011. I wanted to enjoy it but clearly some part of me wanted not to enjoy it too. Two competing parts of me: one looking for gay drama that I could connect to, and the other part having read one too many gay representation think pieces. While I gradually, surely perceived that I was indeed enjoying the show, appreciating its quiet rewards, steadily perceiving the emergence of its characters, I sieved my excess ambivalence into hating on Agustín.

Poor Agustín. When a fetching young man I was looking to romance—vaguely, uncommittedly, in the hipster romance style—sent me an SMS in which he revealed “I am all about Agustín, all round pot-smoking babe”, I responded with irritation. “Agustín?! We hate Agustín. He’s hot, but I hope he gets run over by a bus”. After that I shaved off the lame beard I’d been trying to cultivate and, ironically, the fetching young man said I looked better for it. Now I realize that Augie is a loveable rogue who is just really in a deep, deep rut and I love Looking wholeheartedly.

Dion Kagan is a lecturer in gender and cultural studies who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He’s a regular voice on fortnightly culture podcast The ReReaders.

This article originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #22. Get your copy now!