Picture you’re a slim, smart 22-year-old gay man named Jimmy, free to live and love, with little threat, in a modern, tech-booming San Francisco. You make eyes one night at a man named Patrick, a 30ish choir boy who’s in town from Denver for his best friend’s wedding. He’s cute, this Patrick, and nice — maybe a bit of a Chatty Kathy, maybe prone to self-interest and oversharing. But you’re not privy to any of that: You haven’t seen the show Looking. And the reach-around you get in bed suggests he’s generous — to the contrary, that he’s selfless.
Understandable, then, that after sex you make the mistake of encouraging Patrick, played by Glee’s Jonathan Groff, to talk about himself. He spills his guts to you — the guy he just rimmed but doesn’t know, really — talking you through the messy love tangle he’d left behind in San Francisco, his decision to leave because he was tired of his life “not moving forward,” his need for a “reset button.” He leaves out the “Dear Diary” and the “Previously on Looking,” but maybe you sense them there. And maybe you sense that Patrick will confide these things without asking questions about you as he’s sitting on your couch, eating your leftover takeout, and soliloquizing to the sound of your assenting grunts, polite follow-ups, and hungry slurps.
So much for that reach-around! Like many of the people on Looking, Patrick isn’t particularly curious about you, or most other people, or much of the world outside of his heart or his bedroom. This is the impression one gets from bingeing on the show, at least. It’s an impression unchallenged by HBO’s new Looking: The Movie, directed, like much of the series, by Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years). The movie is a parting gift to fans of the short-lived show, and it shares in its predecessor’s virtues and flaws. Since the beginning of his career, Haigh’s strength as a director has been his talent for sculpting a sense of lived-in intimacy into his scenes and performances. That’s what made his 2011 feature Weekend, about a random weekend tryst between two very different men — one out, one closeted, one political, one afraid — so popular. It’s also a signature of the show and a secret to its appeal and, potentially, its lack of endurance.
The show, created by Michael Lannan, was criticized from the start for being boring, and for lacking diversity. (Two recurring characters are Latino, at least, and there’s one black boyfriend per season.) Were these also assets? The show was “a stealth breakthrough,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, for depicting its characters’ woes “as ordinary, not outrageous.” The Guardian lamented, after the show got canned, that its sensitivity to “what it’s like to be a gay man in modern America” would be missed, though in defending the show, that writer wrenched a wide plethora of selves and experiences into something singular and representable: a gay man.
Maybe that man exists. But for all its integration into the Western mainstream, gay life remains at the fringe for gay and straight people alike, something worth appealing to and representing for its lack of integration into everyday life. When Looking was canceled last year, its small but devoted following, which averaged under 300,000 same-day viewers (about half as many as Girls, its lead-in), protested the decision by appealing to its unique commitment to that fringe. “Looking features story-lines and characters that depict the real emotional complexity of people living with HIV,” an online petition to renew the show read, “and tackles tough issues like transgender homelessness.” Ordinary?
Trans issues and HIV are marginal to the show, by the way; their importance to its ideas, plot, or sense of its characters’ inner lives is noteworthy, but overstated. The issues are part of the fabric of the show, but the show never quite goes there. It’s telling, however, that those side threads bear mentioning up top in the petition, pointing to the difference between what the show is and what many of us want it to be. Looking’s most immediate subject, from the start, was the trio of gay men at its center — Patrick, Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), and Dom (Murray Bartlett), aged 29 to 39 in Season 1, 30 to 40 by the time of the movie. These guys have worthy problems, for the most part, messy personal hangups to sort through, failed ambitions to reckon with, selves to discover. They live lives resembling those of most city-dwelling people their age; HIV and the trans teenagers creep into their everyday problems the way they might for anyone else.
There are thus two forms of gay life in Looking. There are the lives of the main characters — the ordinary. And then there are the lives those main characters bump up against, the lives more definitively, inescapably queer: the lives touched by the long legacy of HIV, the T of LGBT, effeminate men, men of color whose lifestyles do not obscure this fact, men of size. These are the people a braver show might have been about. But does bravery have its limits? Would that show have been on HBO? (Does it matter?) Would it have lasted longer than two seasons? Would more queer people, and possibly even straight people, have watched it?
Those are the questions haunting this feature-length finale. They’re questions about the worth, and the limits, of normalcy — Haigh’s home terrain, it seems, as it’s a concept his art, at least, endorses. That’s not a problem offhand; his politics are his business. But what’s at stake in art is representation, not just personal belief, and anyone who supports the show for its depictions of gay life implicitly admits as much. Normal or not, queerness has become an immovable fact of public life, if not of public acceptance. The desire to make it ordinary is a part of that, but it’s a specific part, and as a desire, it’s in conflict with the world Haigh’s art is about. Ordinariness defines the world he depicts, however. And that says as much about us as it does about him, as much about Looking as about its lookers-on.
Why do Looking’s best moments — a detour to a funeral on behalf of a friend, for example, or a lover’s memories of a partner who died during the AIDS crisis — feel extraneous? These side stories feel almost alien to the central trio’s boy problems, even as they’re part and parcel of those problems and of who Looking’s men are. Romance is what these guys think about, longingly, in those persistent, quiet close-ups tacked onto the end of every important scene. But what do they do, where do they go, when they aren’t thinking about themselves or their love lives? Even their working lives get colonized by romance. When we last saw them, Patrick, a game designer, had moved in with his boss, Kevin, with whom he’d been having an affair for several months while simultaneously designing a game app. Dom had gone into and then out of business with his loving older partner, Lynn, who helped him make forays into the restaurant business. Agustín, whose marriage occasions the movie finale, had begun dating his HIV-positive boyfriend Eddie (Daniel Franzese, of Mean Girls fame), his coworker at a homeless shelter for trans youth.
What you do is, for better or worse, a part of who you are; for a TV character, it can become inseparable from who you are. Picture (to name a few overtly canonical examples) Tony Soprano, Carrie Bradshaw, Walter White, Don Draper, Olivia Pope, and on and on, divorced from their working lives. You can’t. This is a deliberate difference between Looking and much of the rest of television: There’s little sense of life beyond romance and “finding oneself.”
That corresponds to a lack of interest in the show’s setting, too: Looking inward means missing what’s around you. It’s set in San Francisco, a vibrant, changing city, a destination, still, for many young, queer people across the country (but good luck affording it). Patrick has lived in San Francisco and Oakland for almost 10 years, but after two seasons and a movie’s worth of Looking, it seems we still haven’t gotten much of a feel for the place he ostensibly loves so much. What are the neighborhoods they visit? Whom do they interact with in the city beyond the friends they aren’t fucking and the strangers they occasionally are? They have a regular bar, Esta Noche, but it stands out in the show as a place that could be any place, in a town that could be any town. It’s a gay San Francisco devoid of what makes San Francisco gay: not merely freedom to fuck whomever, in the age of PrEP (the present), but a sense of history, substance, and presence that cannot be mistaken for anywhere else.
This isn’t done without reason. Haigh and his collaborators blanch out the specifics of the show’s context to, presumably, see its characters on their own, highly individual terms. These men are bright, vibrant strokes on a blank canvas of time and place: Utopia is what the show is after. Is that normalcy? The show’s motivating ideal is that in a better world, the people of Looking might be free to live and be who they are anywhere they want to be. It’s a worthy, loaded idea — a political idea, all the more so in light of the historic turn of events at the center of the new movie: the Supreme Court decision making gay marriage legal nationwide. That decision, Obergefell et. al. v. Hodges, was announced in late June last year, three months after Looking the series ended. For some, many things ended with the gay marriage ruling, chief among them the sense of an outsider culture, of a set of legitimate alternatives to the most pervasive definitions of self, family, sexuality, expression, and much else.
This is difficult to understand without acknowledging the pride some people take in difference, a pride in their own ability to persist despite conditions designed to make that impossible. We are reminded by his friends that Agustín was once a leftist queer: for him, marriage was once antithetical to his identity. Now he’s getting married. This is a broad crisis — a fork in the road for gay culture. Looking renders it into personal melodrama and leaves it there. “I’m not who I thought I’d be,” Agustín tells an always-ready-to-encourage Patrick. “I’ve become who I rallied against.” Patrick helps him blow it over. And that’s that.
This is an essential conflict, like so many of the conflicts that bubble up in this show. It’s a conflict over not only who they, the characters, are, but who we, as queer people, are and where we are in the grand scheme of political self-making, in the age of civil rights and mainstream acceptance. Do Andrew Haigh’s characters know it? Do they live outside themselves? You suspect Haigh feels that saddling his characters’ lives with too many ideas would be too political, that his characters might get lost in Tumblr jargon at a time when breaking into character-driven, auteurist prestige means treating his characters like real people rather than like ideological scarecrows. Maybe that’s true. Maybe not. But the question that remains, post-Looking, is whether you can render the extraordinary ordinary, whether you really can be both gay and like everyone else. This is what the show wants; it’s up to us to decide whether it’s what we need.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.