As a gay audience member, there are few things more bittersweet than a character who "just happens to be gay."
On the one hand, this is progress: A character's sexual identity has become incidental — not his or her one defining trait, not a problem to overcome, not the impetus for the narrative. On the other hand, it's a cheap way to avoid any actual discussions of what it means to be a member of the LGBT community. The character exists simply so the show can proclaim its own diversity, and that kind of tokenism no longer flies in 2014.
Enter Looking, Michael Lannan's HBO series — which begins Jan. 19 at 10:30 p.m. — about gay men that has found that seemingly unattainable balance: This is a show about characters who just happen to be gay that is also about their gayness, insofar as it explores their romantic and sexual relationships. It's a series where the queerness is intrinsic but not limiting, offering characters who are fleshed out enough to not be dismissed as mere gay types, while also putting their sexuality front and center. In terms of representation of gay men on screen, Looking stands alone.
To call Looking the "gay Girls" is to seriously diminish the essential work that it's doing. Jonathan Groff stars as Patrick, a successful video game developer who struggles in his romantic life. At his side are friends Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), an artist's assistant, and Dom (Murray Bartlett), an aspiring restaurateur stuck in limbo as a waiter. These are rich, complex characters — not to mention the San Franciscans they interact with — and they speak to the question that has daunted entertainment for decades: How do you make a gay TV series without making it just about being gay?
Like Girls, Looking is about a very specific subset of people. (Just as Girls feels innately Brooklyn, Looking is inextricably tied to San Francisco.) It is not a show about every gay man, but it is a show about particular gay male experiences, which is ultimately more valuable. Whether or not you see yourself in these characters, their journeys are grounded in reality. In the first four episodes, Patrick tries to impress his new crush Richie (Raúl Castillo), Agustín navigates non-monogamy with his long-term boyfriend, and Dom contemplates leaving behind his dead-end job while courting a potential investor, Lynn (Scott Bakula).
Showtime's Queer as Folk deserves credit for its ballsy early 2000s approach to LGBT representation, but it was a vague approximation of gay life. Looking is honest, from the awkwardness of cruising to the sweat and leather of the Folsom Street Fair. Patrick's uncomfortable date with a doctor in the first episode, during which he naively admits he experimented with cruising the night before, is a painfully accurate depiction of a twentysomething's romantic foibles.
That true-to-life quality, particularly in terms of sexual encounters that aren't as smooth or softly lit as Hollywood led us to believe, is the strongest link between Looking and Girls. (It's also why both series are well suited to HBO, which allows this kind of sexually frank representation without network constraints.) Tonally, however, Looking is a very different show, closer to 2011's Weekend, a film written and directed by Andrew Haigh, who directed Looking's pilot. It's a bit more melancholy — still funny but hardly a comedy. It's a show about searching for a connection, and while that's standard joke fodder, Looking mostly takes a subtler approach.
Subtlety is key to Looking's success: It's what makes these characters feel like real people. It helps that all of the performances, led by Groff, are restrained and believable. These men are complex and flawed but in small, relatable ways. They get stoned and say the wrong things on dates and completely flub sexual encounters — and they do so without pausing for a speech about what it all means. As Looking reminds us, a series can be resonant without being a '90s-style "issues" show in the vein of Thirtysomething and Sisters. These characters could opine about marriage equality and the state of gay life in 2014, but there is something even more powerfully transgressive about their casual but completely open existence.
This may be disappointing for some, who expect Looking to be a broader representation of the queer community, complete with serious discussions of issues like workplace discrimination and AIDS. (To be clear, these are issues very much worth discussing! But Looking is not that show.) It's important to remember how rare a show like Looking is. There have been all-straight shows about "nothing" — or more accurately, shows about straight people simply living their lives — but this is one of the first of its kind for gay men. Queer as Folk and The L Word were so much more about the bigger picture than the details, focusing more on grand arcs about coming out and gay bashing than on realistic character development.
Just as Lena Dunham is not the voice of her generation but a voice of a generation, Looking is a gay series. Hopefully many others like it follow — not mimicking Looking but expanding on its scope to bring us stories about other LGBT men and women in other cities, dealing with day-to-day life in their own distinct fashions. It is a major step forward for representation, but it is not the end point — and that's OK. For being a smart and honest series about three gay friends in San Francisco, it's already worthy of celebration.