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HBO’s ‘Looking’ Offers an Excitingly Fresh Portrayal of Gay Life in San Francisco

HBO's 'Looking' Offers an Excitingly Fresh Portrayal of Gay Life in San Francisco

Looking” begins with a scene in which Patrick (Jonathan Groff) has this amusingly terrible casual encounter in the park. He’s nervous, and when a guy comes up to him and starts grappling with his clothes, it becomes evident that cruising is just not something Patrick’s had much experience with — he introduces himself and he goes in for a kiss, neither of which his anonymous beau has any interest in. When Patrick’s phone rings mid-handjob, he leaps at the excuse to scurry away for the mortifying encounter. It’s a funny sequence that introduces the character’s awkwardness, but also stakes out the particular contemporary territory in which “Looking” takes place. When the American “Queer as Folk,” the last big scripted cable series to focus on gay men, premiered in 2000, it opened with the camera zooming through a big nightclub full of shirtless dancers gyrating to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” The characters in “Looking” exist in an age of OkCupid and Grindr, and if it’s hard to imagine them at a club like that for anything other than novelty value. 

The 2010s San Francisco in which Patrick and his friends Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett) live is portrayed as largely, if not perfectly, post-gay, and they’re all secure in and open about their sexuality, the issues they face ones of dating, monogamy or careers rather than coming out crises. While the primary characters are gay, they move comfortably through a larger world that isn’t explicitly, one in which they’re as likely to go out in the Mission as the Castro, in which Patrick’s straight co-worker Owen (Andrew Law) teases him about the amount of time at the office he spends looking for guys on dating sites, in which their orientation is only one of many identifying qualities about them. “Looking” feels, bracingly, like a show about a collection of gay characters rather than one that treats their sexuality as its own uniform subculture.

It also feels a bit like “Girls,” the show preceding it on HBO — Patrick’s got some Hannah to him, though he’s less nude and less abrasively self-concerned, which leaves Agustín to be Marnie and Dom to be, I guess, Jessa — but leavened with many of the sensitivities that made Andrew Haigh’s 2011 film “Weekend” so very good. Haigh is an executive producer on “Looking,” and in addition to directing the first three episodes also served as a writer on the series with creator and fellow EP Michael Lannan (filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Joe Swanberg direct later episodes). The show nicely underplays its dramatic tensions, letting something like Agustín’s restlessness bubble under scenes of his watching TV with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle). Via the able lensing of DP Reed Morano (“Kill Your Darlings,” “For Ellen”), “Looking” serves up a San Francisco that’s all warmly lit nights and hazy days of afternoon sunlight.

All three of the leads are, as the title suggests, in search of something, though it’s only Patrick, 29 and with only one serious relationship under his belt, who’s looking for the love one might expect. Agustín, an artist, has finally moved out of the apartment he and Patrick shared as roommates for years, and moved in with Frank, though the prospect of settled monogamy is worrying him. Dom, on the cusp of 40, is trying to get away from his life as a waiter at a high-end restaurant and start a new, more serious stage in his career. It was actually Dom’s storyline that had me the most intrigued after four episodes, though Patrick’s sweet/excruciating flirtation with Richie (Raúl Castillo), whom he meets on Muni, lead to the most memorable moments in the first half of the eight-installment season.

“Looking” includes characters of color and of different economic backgrounds, though like most people, its protagonists exist in somewhat of a self-selected bubble. They are, unlike Hannah and co., no longer in their early-to-mid twenties, which means they’re less awful but also less exciting, the mistakes they make more grown up and less kamikaze. Which isn’t such a bad thing — Patrick, Agustín and Dom are a promising bunch, and they’re navigating a San Francisco that, tech assholes and all, feels like a living city and not a postcard (though an episode set around the Folsom Street Fair manages to have a slight feel of tourism to it). For a show that in so many ways feels new, “Looking” is invitingly mellow — it doesn’t set out to define gay life in 2014, but in trusting its characters and the different paths they’re on,  captures a sense of how the world has and continues to change.

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