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A Straight Guy Takes a Look at HBO’s Very Gay Comedy ‘Looking’

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A Straight Guy Takes a Look at HBO’s Very Gay Comedy ‘Looking’

The more time spent looking away, the less time one spends participating in the rites that keep a community alive. 

By Michael Thomsen

Looking, HBOs newest show and the first all-gay show on TV since The L Word, follows the meandering stories of a small group of friends in San Francisco, who somehow orbit around the weakest and most neurotic of the bunch, Patrick, a level designer at a videogame company (who for some reason is shown animating character models and not designing level geometry whenever at work). Not coincidentally, Patrick is the only one in his friend group who has a stable job, freeing him to romanticize his social anxieties because there is so little else to be anxious about. 

Newly single, the first episode opens with Patrick in a park about to get a handjob from a bearded stranger, an anachronistic lark he and his friends were doing ironically. Just as his penis has been grasped his phone rings. Patrick is the type of person who cares more about the messages sent through his devices than his sex organs, and he uses the intrusion to free himself from having to go through with a ritualistic act sprung from century old tradition that drew men to parks. 

History is an anxiety-producing punchline in this opening moment, and the rest of the episode, and those that follow, occupies itself with the paradoxical desire to rush from these predictable rituals into a future of self-actualization, happiness, and inevitable wealth. The irony of the show’s title, and the source of inevitable self-defeat for all its cast members, is there is nothing specific they are looking for. Like so many modern friendship serials before it, the idea of looking is purely metaphysical, the practice becomes more important than any end it might lead to. This structure makes it possible for Patrick to spend hours worrying about whether he’ll be able to handle the aesthetic revulsion if a new date turns out to be uncircumcised, or his friends Augustín and Frank wonder about what kind of couple they’ll be after having a threesome. 

“Are we one of those couples, now?” 

“One of those couples? We can be whatever we want.” 

“Yeah, but what if we don’t agree on what we want to be?”

The operating principle in all of these friendships is uncertainty transformed into endless identity anxiety. It’s hard not to compare Looking to the old vocational sit-coms of the 70s and 80s like Barney Miller, Night Court, Taxi, and Newhart, all of which trapped different groups of people together in offices and workplaces and drew out a ritualistic comedy from the pettiness of personalities clashing within social institutions that guaranteed they couldn’t withdraw from one another.

Looking is structured around the opposite idea, with every scene taking place in a different location, the characters wandering rootlessly through a series of shops, restaurants, discos, and workshares, oscillating between self-doubt and doomed enthusiasm for some new idea that temporarily distracts from it. The moral of these shows is known from the start, that the friend group is the secret blessing, and once those in it accept their obligation to this community, they’ll be supercharged for success and happiness. The comedy is what happens along the way, looking for something that isn’t actually missing, which is obvious to everyone save the show’s characters. The villain is the cultural pathos that makes searching its own metaphysic, more important than engaging with history. The more time spent looking away, the less time one spends participating in the rites that keep a community alive. 

In an interview between queer writers James Baldwin and Audre Lorde in the mid-‘80s, Baldwin confessed a belief in the American Dream. “[W.E.B.] du Bois believed in the dream. So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here.” To which Lorde responded, “I don’t, honey. I’m sorry. I just can’t let that go past. Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it.” In Looking, that inescapable American Dream is still alive, and the joke is on everyone, gay or straight, who has the misfortune of wanting to believe in it, searching for it at the expense of everyone around them, believing happiness is something that needs pursuing and not defending.

Image via HBO