After months of anticipation, HBO's new series "Looking" premiered this past Sunday. Reaction so far appears mixed at best, with gays either loving its "honest and realistic" portrayal of a group of twenty and thirty- something, single gay men living and loving in San Francisco, or finding its merry band of rainbow boys and their "gay people problems" unrelatable, clichéd, and (perhaps worst of all for an HBO show) boring.
Show creators Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan get some things right (more on that later), but just as many things wrong. Like, really wrong. Asking someone if they're "drug- and disease-free" is, strictly Grindr-speak and unrealistic for an in-person conversation. I'm also sure all the hot, BART-riding Latino guys that picked me up in the 90s knew not only how to pronounce the word "oncology" without difficulty but also (shocker!) knew what it meant. Cancer and oncologia are not just white-girl problems.
Minor quibbles, perhaps, for a half-hour comedy, but queens have gotten the boot from "RuPaul's Drag Race" for far lesser offenses. That being said, "Looking" does get a few things right; namely, its honest depiction of the difficulties we face when it comes to finding our internal, moral, and sexual compasses as we make our way into adulthood.
All of us -- homo and hetero alike -- grow up under the influence of what society and our parents tell us, from the kind of sex we should have to the kind of relationships we should work toward. But for many gay men and women, these voices often carry an added level of shame and judgment. So, it was totally believable, to me, that in "Looking"'s first five minutes, Jonathan Groff's character, Patrick, stumbled awkwardly between two seemingly incongruous desires: having anonymous sex in a public park and logging on to OkCupid to arrange a "respectable" date with his future doctor-husband, played by Matthew Wilkas.
Like so many men in their twenties (and more than a few well into their thirties and forties), Patrick is caught between two competing worlds: a dominant gay culture that celebrates, even encourages, us to take pleasure in easy promiscuity and those not-so-silent voices from our childhood telling us to strive for a "meaningful" hetero-normative relationship -- preferably one with a hot doctor.
Patrick is clearly unsure of what he wants, where he fits in, and what kind of gay man he wants to grow up to be. Sound familiar? Is he the marrying type, the park slut or a bit of both? We don't yet know either, of course, but by the end of the first episode, he has at least made a choice to do something that didn't come from his friends or his mother, but rather from his own internal compass. He chooses to meet up with that aforementioned hot, BART-riding Latino, who may not be hooked on phonics but who clearly knows how to get what he wants.
My guess is that things between them aren't going to become a SF version of West Side Story. The good folks at HBO know there is more drama (and ratings) in continuously "looking" for something real, rather than actually finding it -- but nevertheless, it was encouraging to see Patrick take a first step toward exploring his desires on his own terms. It's a process that all of us must ultimately figure out as we stumble headfirst into adulthood, leaving our conflicted younger selves behind, where they belong.
We'll see if Patrick can make some 'good choices' in future episodes and if we'll get to see even a smidgeon of the nudity we see on Girls or GOT, Because apparently gay people in SF are having sex all the time... without ever having to take their clothes off.