This winter, I binged on an HBO original series that spoke to my personal experience in a way that I’d never encountered in serialized television. It beautifully emphasized the process of looking for love, connection, purpose, meaning and self-knowledge in a cynical, unforgiving world. It described events that only a small portion of the population has really lived and universalized them with an open heart.
You might assume that I’m talking about “Looking.” But I’m not. I’m talking about “Enlightened,” the recovery saga helmed by Mike White. After two years of dismal ratings and lackluster promotional efforts, all we have left of Amy Jellicoe are memories (Laura Dern has a Golden Globe).
When “Enlightened” was canceled, there were think pieces. There were petitions. Fans and champions of the show made their best arguments about how audiences, awards bodies and network executives had failed the series.
We’re seeing that again, though it’s turned much uglier with the cancellation of “Looking.” An unfortunate charge is that the gay community has cannibalized its own creation with indifference, skepticism and unfair dismissals.
I’ve watched the amount of “Looking” that a TV critic might see before reviewing a debut series. That is to say, I’m not devoted or averse to the show, or even ambivalent. My feelings about “Looking” aren’t mixed, they’re just neutral. I’m more interested in the conversation that surrounds “Looking” than the show itself.
To be clear, I feel for “Looking” fans. To paraphrase the inimitable Molly Lambert of Grantland (in the context of Jennifer Aniston) it’s awful to have the rug pulled out from under us, just to be told that we never should have bought that rug in the first place because we can’t afford it. Cancelled-too-soon series have gained cult followings and the occasional Netflix reprieve because viewers just can’t let go.
The problem with defenses of “Looking” over the last week is that those justified emotional responses (anger, sadness, denial) have been redirected as cultural outrage. To say that “Looking” had a feedback problem all along is an understatement. When critics piled on, fans sanctified the noble work of watching a television series because progress. They elevated “Looking,” in life and in death, to be More Than Just a Show™.
Because it’s groundbreaking. Because it’s authentic. Because it doesn’t attempt to make itself palatable to straight audiences. Because its fans are passionate. I admire all of these things, but they should not shield a show from criticism or cancellation. They don’t render legitimate critiques or even a lack of viewers impertinent or regressive, because “Looking” is just a series.
Saving shows because they’re important sets a flimsy precedent. If gay series are to be disproportionately nurtured beyond their return-on-investment or industry-standard shelf life, how many network executives will champion them in the future? Granted, it may always be an uphill battle to match gay shows with a significant audience. It’s just that the more we tokenize the political and personal value of series like “Looking,” the more siloed those creative efforts will become.
If the cultural importance of “Looking” merits extraordinary resuscitation in a ratings vacuum, perhaps advocates should lobby PBS to pick it up. I’d prefer to see what’s next instead.
Like every other show, “Looking” has had a lifespan. And like many others, it existed on a timeline that die-hard fans found unacceptable. If networks are expected to capitulate to the duration of time fans deem “enough,” we’d still be watching new episodes of “Cheers.” In an unprecedented programming space, one season is not a failure. Two seasons is not one season. Two seasons and a goodbye movie is generous.
Instead of focusing on what “Looking” didn’t get to do, let’s focus on what it did. The show talked about Grindr and PrEP. It took a creative risk by depicting gay lives to be as mundane and deeply felt as any. Interpreting cancellation as a verdict on taking those chances is unthinkably cynical. I’m reminded of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech in 2008 when despite losing the nomination, she proudly announced there were “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling.
“Looking” was a beautiful flower that wasn’t equipped to survive the soil in which it was planted. But it marks an important step toward developing media that is not just sincere and realistic, but also competitive. Grief is not processed overnight, but I hope that the conversation around “Looking” ambles toward acceptance. We can do better, and history shows us that we will. Compared to “Queer as Folk,” “Looking” indicates that we will.
I can’t imagine thinking so little of our own capacity to tell stories to believe that “Looking” represents our best or last shot at doing so.
To be reflected in media, we first have to project ourselves. And our mirrors have to be viable.
I’m still waiting for my “Enlightened” goodbye special.