Looking for something better

HBO's Looking has been renewed for a second season, news that comes as a huge relief to this fan. But not everyone gets the show, with critics and the audience divided over this tale of sex, love and friendship in San Francisco. It's been branded slow and boring, but if, say, Noah's Arc is your yardstick for gay TV drama, then Looking's slow-burning, nuanced, and unforgiving take on gay men's lives will inevitably disappoint.

Some will cry "but Noah's Arc represents us! Those white shows don't" but I wonder how many black gay men live the kind of life the characters in Noah's Arc live. Noah's Arc is many things (fabulously entertaining, for one) but no one could ever accuse it of being realistic or deep. It's pure T.V. bubblegum fantasy, as true to life as Lost In Space is representative of space travel, and some of its tropes (gay boy falling for straight boy) were tired and played out even in 2005.

On the other hand, Looking is a genuine attempt to shine a light on the lives of a group of gay men in San Francisco. It is slower than, say, Scandal, and if that's a problem for you, maybe Glee might fit you better? Looking is to gay T.V. drama what The Wire is to cop shows: profound, literary and cinematic (yes, it also looks visually stunning).

The characters hale from a variety of racial backgrounds, and manage to cover age and class, too. Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is the classic whitebread American WASP. His awful friend August (Frankie J. Alvarez) is a spoilt rich (Latino) kid. Their other friend, Dom (Murray Bartlett), is the daddy of the group, a man who's just hit the dreaded forty. Their friends and lovers are Britain's own (black) O.T. Fagbenle; Lauren Weedman, as the best fag hag ever ("he can sit on my face anytime"); and Raúl Castillo's painfully sensitive blue collar Richie.

Patrik-Ian Polk - demonstrating a disappointing grasp of professional courtesy - said of Looking, "It's dull as ditchwater." That's ironic, coming from a guy whose entire oeuvre consists of rehashing the same storyline: a group of conservative gay college dudes, one of whom falls for a "straight" guy. In Polk's world, "racial diversity" amounts to a token (hot slut) Latino dude. There's nothing wrong with being a hot slut, but if I was a gay Latino, I'd question why Polk thinks "hot slut" encapsulates the entirety of my identity.

Some people can't accept the fact the central character is a WASP, and yeah, I'd love to see a gay drama of this calibre about a black dude who is neither a stereotypical thug, or one of Patrik-Ian Polk's pearl-clutching elites. But you know what, in the gay community, there's many, many more dudes like Jonathan Groff's Patrick than there are that smart, blue collar black dude we've yet to see represented on screen. Looking's writers have written about a WASP, but they've written about a WASP who's in love with a blue collar Latino, and who is, at the very least, on the road to recognising that his background doesn't make him a better person. That's infinitely more relevant in 2014 - that juxtaposition of economic background and class - than Polk's tired obsession with the HBCU down low brotha.

Noah's Arc may be about black gay men, yes, but it also happens to be about a particular kind of gay man; that privileged, college-educated, gay man who looks down on blue collar men as, at best, sexual playthings, and at worst, inferior beings. Looking, at least, has the grace to call into question the assumption that class, background and education make a better man. In Noah's Arc, the lead characters consistently use and dispose of "blue collar" men - T-Money, Wade's boyfriend Dre - as if their lives are of less value than those of Noah, Wade, Ricky, Alex and Chance. Noah's Arc flirts with the issue of economic disparity and class privilege, but is terrified to face it head on, and so we end up with scenes where Chance is stranded - terrified - in the ghetto. If Chance had been a white character, the audience would rightly be appalled at his prejudice, but because he's black, it's somehow okay to denigrate the denizens of the 'hood. Looking faces up to it in blistering detail; an entire episode is devoted to Patrick and Richie's first date (none of the other characters appear) and we're allowed to fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other. That makes the subsequent car crash even more brutal: Patrick's cringe-inducing snobbery about Richie's job, and rich kid August's stomach-churning snideness towards his fellow papi. Patrick hates that side of him, and fights it. As a working class boy, I love that; the characters in Noah's Arc seem to not only embrace their class privilege, but positively revel in it.

Back to Looking, which ended, beautifully, on a nod to The Golden Girls. Me and my boy were watching together, laughing out loud at Blanche and Dorothy, laughing along with Patrick in the final moments of the surprising and heartreaking season finale. The credits rolled over The Golden Girls theme tune, a genuinely clever and touching move: these guys know what they're doing.

Looking, like HBO sibling The Wire, feels more like a novel, or arthouse cinema, than the conventional network T.V. we're used to. It forgoes intrusive background music and the tedious plot conventions viewers are usually force-fed. It goes deeper, and some people just don't get that. Looking isn't just the best gay T.V. series I've seen in a long time, it's one of the best T.V. shows in recent years. Look no further.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more about Looking.

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