Brow Beat

HBO Started Out as One of the Best Networks for LGBTQ Representation. How Did It Become One of the Worst?

Jonathan Groff and Frankie J. Alvarez in Looking.

Melissa Moseley/HBO

In addressing HBO’s cancellation of Looking last year, Michael Lombardo—a gay man, and the former president of HBO programming—described his decision to end the series as “very painful” on “a personal level.” He believed that the show, in authentically portraying the lives of three fictional gay characters living in San Francisco, took a creative leap for representation on television, adding that it was something you “hadn’t seen on any other show, particularly [those] dealing with gay lives.” From the beginning, Looking was plagued by anemic ratings and threatened by HBO’s robust lineup of half-hour series in development. In the end, despite the network’s penchant for sticking with low-rated critical darlings, it decided to cancel the show after only two seasons—albeit with the offer to wrap-up with a feature-length finale, which aired this Saturday night.

With the imminent end of Looking, the recent death of Game of Thrones’ most notable gay character, and shows like Enlightened and Getting On—both of which were created by gay men—pushed off the air in recent years due to low ratings, HBO is as hetero-centric as it’s been in a generation. The only programs to feature a prominent gay character on its current slate are Veep, in which first daughter Catherine Meyer began dating her mother’s (former) bodywoman, and Girls, in which Elijah finally received his own storyline in Season 5 after four years of playing sidekick. (In addition, no HBO showrunner is LGBTQ.) For a network that made a name for itself with films like And the Band Played On, series like Six Feet Under, and miniseries like Angels in America, this is a sad and surprising turn. Looking was not an ordinary queer show; its languid pacing, graphic but sensitive sex scenes, and nuanced approaches to theme and character development hardly screamed “commercial.” But the fact that HBO’s sole LGBTQ programming was a niche show—one that was never going to be broadly watched in the first place—makes its cancellation speak all the more directly to the network’s crisis of representation.

Looking has inspired spirited debate among LGBTQ writers and audiences through its entire run. While I’ve advocated for the show’s importance in the past, my colleague J. Bryan Lowder, as well as many others, have offered productively critical takes on the series. Indeed, one barometer of its cultural significance was the way it allowed critics to negotiate and articulate a range of perspectives on a relatively nuanced queer narrative. And it made sense that HBO was the network providing a space for such discussion; the pay-cabler has been nothing short of a pioneer in shifting television’s heteronormative standard, right up to more recent projects like The Normal Heart and Behind the Candelabra, both of which were initially rejected by film studios.

But on the series side, HBO has started to corner its gay-centric shows into the “niche” category, a regressive move compared to the days when the network pushed LGBTQ issues and characters into the mainstream. And the cancellation of Looking—which, again, was never the most broadly appealing series—wouldn’t sting as much if it were not the only one of its kind.

This speaks in part to profit motive, but complacency too is an undeniable factor. The groundbreaking platform that HBO once gave to LGBTQ voices reflected a desire to really stand out, to truly redefine the aesthetics and cultural value of television. Only recently, as a more established brand, has the network gotten pointed criticism for the increasingly male, white, and straight faces behind and in front of its cameras. To be fair, of great concern to HBO (not to mention other veteran cable channels like Showtime) is the rapid disaggregation of audiences and distributors; it goes without saying that the network is not intentionally dismissing queer stories and voices. But it’s still unsettling that queer stories and voices are being pushed aside simply because they aren’t reaching a broad audience or netting major awards recognition. In many ways, this is a structural problem rooted in what we culturally associate with “popular,” with what accessible mainstream programming is supposed to look and sound like. Like certain political figures, HBO long considered itself outside of the establishment—until, rather quickly, it was the establishment.

Meanwhile, fledgling power players like Amazon and Netflix have burst onto the cultural scene with revelatory queer narratives like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black. Hulu’s push into more ambitious programming began last year with the cunning Difficult People, which stars the gay comic Billy Eichner as a loosely based version of himself. The new, youth-oriented Pivot is preparing for the fourth season of its flagship series Please Like Me, an excellent if underwatched Australian import from gay comedian Josh Thomas.

Looking has always lacked the zeitgeisty spice of those series. As envisioned by director Andrew Haigh and creator Michael Lannan, the show focused intently on relationships—sexual and platonic, comfortable and passionate. The 84-minute finale that aired Saturday continued that pattern: Conversations between friends remained long and revealing, old lovers caught up with a twinge of regret and the potential of rekindling, and wounds from years past resurfaced with near-silent explosiveness. By maintaining this low-key intimacy, Looking: The Movie honored what made the show distinct—and what also doomed it to low ratings.

Looking is surely not the last show with a gay protagonist that HBO will ever air. Its fate is not emblematic of any grand discriminatory impulse at the network. Rather, its very existence, from its unassuming launch to its unassuming exit, reflects an unfortunate reality in prestige television programming: LGBTQ shows, deemed unprofitable, have seemingly been placed back within the confines of “niche” TV. But what happens when newer “networks” like Netflix and Amazon become the TV establishment themselves? Will they be able to keep innovating in the same way when their interests lie less in stirring up buzz with “adventurous” new content than in maintaining commercial dominance? Looking’s premature end is a reminder that even as culture becomes more tolerant and inclusive, the economics of culture can remain stagnant—and in need of a structural overhaul.