The Universal Specificity of HBO’s Looking

HBO’s new series, Looking, isn’t groundbreaking material and perhaps that’s what is most striking about it. This nonchalant attitude just makes the show all the more charming. Looking follows three gay men in San Francisco, romantically in flux Patrick (Jonathan Groff), his best friend Augustín (Frankie J. Álvarez) who moves in with his boyfriend in Oakland, and their friend Dom (Murray Bartlett) who is nearing 40, but still has dreams to open up his own restaurant.

The show doesn’t set out to represent “the gay experience,” or even “the San Francisco gay experience.” Not that there is a “gay experience,” but popular culture narratives can over-generalize more often than not. More mellow than drama, Looking simply presents their lives as they are. The characters are gay men, but their lives are not dictated by being gay. Sexuality isn’t presented as revolutionary or high-concept. After watching the first two episodes, it’s clear that this a diverse slice-of-life series that is worth examining.


Frankie J. Álvarez, Jonathan Groff, & Murray Bartlett

Looking‘s strongest feature is its great sense of character, both in the city of San Francisco and of the three central characters. The stories benefit from their specificity, but they also tell a broader story of relationships, which in turn, makes the show relatable to all viewers. The characters feel like real people and this comfortable nature eases right out of the gate. From Patrick checking himself out in a restaurant window before a promising first date, unbeknownst to the customer on the other side, to Augustín and his boyfriend snuggling on their living room couch debating on whether to go out or stay in, the show is universal in its specificity.

The dialogue is carefully observed and the scenes are well-inhabited. There is so much history presented in such little dialogue, one might feel that they might have missed an episode. And perhaps that’s part of the problem, if there is one, with Looking. The show is not as confrontational as other series, say HBO’s Girls, but rather, it operates at a deliberate pace. Is the show almost too lived-in? Are the situations almost too ephemeral to take hold?

For me, the answer is no. I can see how the cultural weight of Looking‘s expectations may overpower what the series is actually trying to do: present meaningful stories about these three characters who have reached a point of reflection in their lives. The show is concerned with how these characters assess their lives upon reaching transition and in its searching, there’s a wonderfully understated intimacy wrapped up within the heart of Looking. This warm intimacy eschews flashy explicitness (be it sexual, confrontational, provocative, or otherwise), but that doesn’t mean Looking doesn’t have anything to say. By embracing the specificity of its characters’ world as it is, Looking gives voice to stories worth telling.


3 responses

  1. I agree that specificity is this show’s biggest strength, but I don’t think that negates Looking being about “The Gay Experience”. Going to a bathhouse or hooking up with somebody you met on Grindr are very specific experiences only gay men have in 2014. Not all gay men, probably not even a majority, but definitely no straight people. There’s plenty of storylines relatable to both straight and gay people, but if this isn’t a show about what it’s like to be a gay man in San Francisco, then it’s not a show about anything.

    • Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, swankytrash!

      To be sure, Looking is about the friendship between these men who happen to be gay. But I don’t think Looking is necessarily a show about what it’s like to be a gay man in San Francisco. Maybe I’m being a bit too short-sighted, but the show’s diverse viewpoints from characters like Richie (and hopefully others) expands its world beyond representing any one “gay experience.” I see it as taking notes from Girls’ diversity detractors.

      To clarify what I wrote, through its narrow focus on its three leads, Looking is a show about what it’s like to Patrick in San Francisco. What it’s like to be Augustín. What it’s like to be Dom. And yes, through their experiences in SF, the show sheds light on gay culture. Looking’s world-building has been nothing but solid. But I don’t see that as Looking saying that “all SF gays do X.” And as a gay man living just a couple miles outside of SF, I found that inclusiveness to be a highlight of the show.

      • I think that’s a really great point. Being a gay man in San Francisco means different things to different men; Patrick is very different than Augustin and both of them are very different than Dom. But the three of them have experiences that unite them that make them a specific type of community. For instance, that opening scene. Straight people can relate to Augustin’s struggle with domestic life all they want, but none of them are going to wander around a park cruising for a handjob. I think success for Looking will depend on how univeral they can present their stories, without losing what makes the show uniquely gay.

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