If you want to get a feel for how truly dull Looking is, try to imagine how long Will & Grace's Jack McFarland would have tuned into the show before rolling his eyes, turning off the TV, and grabbing Karen Walker's killer rack for better entertainment. I'm guessing he wouldn't have made it past the first scene of the first episode, a "hand job" moment that had all the sexual pizazz of Richard Simmons in gym shorts.
Keep in mind that Will & Grace premiered in 1998, on network TV as opposed to cable, on primetime as opposed to after 10 p.m., and you might get a better idea of just how clueless HBO's new dramedy is.
Looking tells the story of three gay men who live in San Francisco, a sentence that could also describe the show's entire conceit. The guys, who might as well be named Nerdy, Horny and Oldie (that latter's turning 40, which, if you remember your clichéd stereotypes, is about 80 in gay years), are the big new stars of this big new gay entertainment show, plopped down in front of us with tons of teasers, tons of "a show for the rest of us" blurbs, and tons of nothing underneath. Watching an episode of Looking feels less like viewing a TV series and more like staring at a new Facebook page, complete with status updates and a homo newsfeed. Click "Like" if you agree.
Gay characters, apparently unbeknownst to Andrew Haigh (who did a wonderful job with the film Weekend) and the other creators of Looking, have been making headway on TV for over a decade now, and they are no longer in need of dissection. Much like -- surprise -- the rest of the world's population, they are in need of stories and situations. I don't know how the pitch meetings for the show were conducted ("Hey, I've got a great new idea for a show: It's about gay men who do gay things and..." "Sold!"), but watching the end result makes you wonder if the people at HBO even bother to pay attention to the evolving world around them.
Like those mostly forgotten, cheesy 1990's "gay" movies that we watched because they put us in a fishbowl and were pretty much all we had as media representation and also had dark sets and muted tones and lots of Erasure songs (seriously, guys, in 2014 Erasure's the band you pick to give your show its Episode Two finish?), Looking spends all of its time telling us what we already know: We are men, we are gay men, and we like to have sex with other gay men. If the show were about straight guys it would be 60 seconds long and a beer commercial.
The subject of Looking goes no further than this breakdown: 20-something Patrick (Jonathan Groff) wants a date, but despite his obvious good looks and obvious charm and obvious "anyone in Northern California would fuck him" appeal, does silly things like drink two whole glasses of wine when he's on a blind date and wonders if an OK Cupid dude has a lazy eye. As a friend of mine said, Patrick's most daring trait is that he's the only guy in San Francisco with no facial hair. He also has no real imperfections so the believability factor is absent. Good thing Carrie Bradshaw never had to write about him; she'd still be staring at her computer.
Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), the second friend, is less good-looking and therefore the promiscuous one. Remember, heartthrobs like Groff are not allowed to sleep around. Agustin has a new boyfriend and a new idea -- three-ways. No need to make mental Cliffs Notes or DVR from the beginning because that's the extent of his character breakdown. He did have an entire scene on Episode Two where he and his boyfriend sat on the couch and contemplated going out for the evening as opposed to staying in. Charlotte York had a more provocative social life.
Then you have Dom (Murray Bartlett), who's upset because he's still working at a restaurant and chasing everything that doesn't have a skirt. Think Sam Malone but, here's the dull rub, gay! And no Diane or Rebecca to serve as his foil. If he seems familiar to you, it's because you've already met Dom in every clichéd gay movie and book and play ever made. When The Boys in the Band made its theatrical debut in 1968, pre-AIDS and pre-mainstream acceptance, the archetype was new to us, and tragic. The character's gone from self-loathing to self-ho-hum in one fey swoop. Samantha Jones would pity his pettiness.
Looking does show us what Cable TV can now do without boycotts or excessive Right Wing threats: Explore gay sex and culture. Each half-hour episode peppers in gay lingo like SEO tags. Tune in and you'll hear about rimming, sucking, meth addiction, fuck buddies, finger fucking, Grindr hook-ups, social media, The Golden Girls, and the apparently too-hot-for-primetime topic of whether or not to date an uncircumcised man. (It was a major plot-point on Episode Two). But in today's Internet age, a few clicks of the keyboard will get you all you need in the sex department, and that other HBO show True Blood will give you all you need in the homoerotic department -- the sexual gay teasing on the vampire series is as hot as it is skillfully executed.
What Looking doesn't do is to use our newfound liberties to advantage. In its half-hour format (too short for this kind of character-exploration series), the show fails miserably in providing a narrative for its audience. The gay men on Modern Family are struggling to raise a child amid a group, and a world, unaccustomed to non-traditional relationships. TV Land's Happily Divorced gave us the unique premise of a gay man coming out late in life and still living with his ex-wife. And, while never a particularly great show, the American Queer As Folk did touch on the underside of too much sex and partying in a community that has often refused to grow up amid the shadow AIDS. On Looking, an early narrative involved the three leads nervously driving their car up and down one of San Francisco's steep streets while they said gay things. San Francisco, you see, has big hills, and, judging by the characters' reactions, they were clueless of this geographical fact. The Gay City by the Bay has not come a long way, baby.
Will & Grace, the Daddy of gay-themed TV, introduced two sitcom characters, Will and Jack, who were not struggling to figure out what being gay means -- they'd already passed Gay 101 -- they were struggling and fumbling and stumbling along, trying to figure out what being a person meant, and keeping us laughing the whole time. Will and Jack were human first, gay second, and that put them in the company of great classic TV characters from the past 50 years. That they did it without nudity or vulgar language made the accomplishment even more impressive.
The media hope and hype surrounding Looking was that it would be the gay version of Sex and the City, also from groundbreaking HBO. But SATC did something unprecedented for the 1990s: It showed us strong women sharing their carnal viewpoint. The girls were friends and they wanted men and they wanted love and they wanted sex, and we witnessed these desires expressed by a gender that previous TV generations had silenced. They were also relatable, despite your sex or your age.
SATC had one other rather important ingredient that Looking lacks: It was funny. Compared to the three dullards on HBO's new show, straight-laced and hard-ass and too-serious Miranda Hobbes was a Laurel and Hardy film-fest.