The first season of HBO’s Looking came to a close on Sunday night, not with Patrick (Jonathan Groff) embracing Richie (Raúl Castillo), the hairstylist he’d been pursuing on and off since the pilot, nor with Patrick falling into the arms of his partnered boss Kevin (Russell Tovey), although the two finally gave into their palpable sexual tension earlier in the episode.
Instead, Looking ended its first season with Patrick in bed with four women: Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia. Watching The Golden Girls on his laptop, Patrick laughed as the screen faded to black and the credits rolled. The familiar music began to play: “Thank you for being a friend, travel down the road and back again…”
Early on, I praised Looking for its honesty and relatability, but I had not seen a clearer snapshot of myself in the series until that final scene.
I know I’m not the only gay man who feels that way. The Golden Girls, which premiered in 1985, remains one of the most popular sitcoms within the LGBT community — particularly among gay men. And while some credit the raunchy humor and female characters for its appeal (surely part of the equation), I think its enduring power speaks to something larger. Its pervasive themes are innately queer, which is why the show has been and continues to be a comfort to men who are gay or just questioning. The Golden Girls isn’t just a TV show: It’s family.
“I’ve loved it since I was a kid,” Groff told me over the phone. “Even sort of before I knew I was gay, I loved The Golden Girls.”
The presence of The Golden Girls on Looking couldn’t have come about in a more organic way. Earlier in the season, Patrick and his former roommate Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) said goodbye to each other by quoting the lyrics to The Golden Girls theme song, “Thank You for Being a Friend.” The scene happened spontaneously, the result of a shared passion among the cast and crew.
“That scene was written differently,” Groff recalled. “We were quoting Friends, the scene in Friends where Rachel moves out. Rachel’s leaving and Monica’s like, ‘It’s the end of an era. It’s the end of an era.’ That was what the scene was originally written as. And then we got there on the day, and we were just talking about The Golden Girls and our obsession with The Golden Girls and our obsession with the theme song of The Golden Girls, and we were saying how the characters are kind of like Rose and Blanche and Dorothy. We were making this joke on set about how we should recreate the theme song of The Golden Girls with our characters, and Andrew Haigh [the show’s co-executive producer, who wrote and directed the episode] was like, ‘We should shoot it.’”
The final scene of Patrick watching The Golden Girls was similarly off-the-cuff and inspired, in part, by Groff’s own habits.
“I would come home from a day of shooting Looking and — all the episodes of Golden Girls are on YouTube — and I would YouTube some Golden Girls and watch it while I ate a salad and went to bed,” he said.
According to Looking creator Michael Lannan, Haigh had a similar habit, because The Golden Girls, in addition to living on via YouTube, was on late every night where he was staying. (When I spoke to Lannan, I neglected to tell him I know exactly when Haigh would have been watching The Golden Girls, between midnight and 2 a.m. on The Hallmark Channel, because that’s when I, too, watch it, every night before bed.)
The Golden Girls has gotten me through some of the toughest times in my life, from break-ups to my stint in outpatient rehab. I’ve referred to it, quite seriously, as one of the few things in my life that keeps me sane. Silly as that may sound, the soothing power of the series cannot be underestimated. On one level, it’s nostalgia — for those of us who grew up watching The Golden Girls, it’s just nice to sit back and rewatch the episodes, remembering which jokes went over our heads as kids. And, of course, there’s also a certain nostalgia to simply watching a good multi-cam sitcom, of which there are so few these days: While the style of joke-telling feels distinctly ’80s, the punch lines remain laugh-out-loud funny.
But beyond that, the transgressive power of The Golden Girls is that it’s a show about the construction of a chosen family rather than a biological family, a very queer conceit.
“It’s a really fun, great world of friendship between those characters,” Lannan said, when asked on the show’s appeal. “Looking, too, is a show about friendship at its core … [The Golden Girls] has to do with creating your own family and creating your own circle of friends out of the people around you, having a family that’s perhaps nontraditional.”
The Golden Girls may not be as overtly gay as Looking, but remember, it took a long time for us to get a show on TV about gay friendships and dating. The four central women are our stand-ins, which is partly why we have so much fun trying to figure out which Golden Girl we are. They’re queerly coded — women who live together without men, who are even, in the hilarious episode “Goodbye, Mr. Gordon,” mistaken for lesbians. Their concerns are not unfamiliar to gay men: finding the right guy, getting older, and dealing with loss.
These issues can be frightening, but on The Golden Girls, they’re handled with humor. And perhaps more to the point, the series reinforces the lifelong bonds of chosen family above all. Therein lies the comfort — for Patrick, for me, for so many gay men from the mid-’80s till now. Men come and go. Good looks fade. But the friendships that matter — the nontraditional families we cobble together — are always there.
I think writer, director, and actor Dan Bucatinsky put it best, writing to me in an email: “Like every gay guy with a Lifetime habit — everyone needs a bunch of gal pals and some loose pants.”
Even in 2014, being gay in a predominantly straight world isn’t always easy. It helps to have true friends by your side, the kind who won’t judge you for taking an extra slice of cheesecake or going home with the wrong guy.