If you came across Looking’s profile on Grindr, you’d want to talk to it. A cute face pic would catch your eye as you scanned the grid of indistinguishable sculpted torsos, and you’d click to expand. Kind, earnest eyes and a charming embarrassed-to-be-on-here smile would draw you in, and you’d scroll down to read the details. There’d be a moderately clever quote from an actual book or a personal description written in refreshingly solid grammar. “This guy seems worth a chat,” you’d think. It’s only after saying “Hi there :)” and receiving a smattering of dull replies and tired, dead-end questions that you’d begin to gather that this dude, though aesthetically appealing on the surface, is about as interesting as yesterday’s porn clip.
Though at least that bit of film had decent sex scenes.
I am not the first to make this point, that HBO’s Looking is an almost unbearably boring television show. Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times and Rich Juzwiak of Gawker have said so directly, and more positive reviewers have still intimated as much. But the adjective, one I would normally consider critically lazy, is so apt in this case that repetition is warranted. Looking is so boring, so utterly flat in terms of narrative or characterization, so in need of occasional pauses in which to perform a few jumping jacks to bring one’s heart rate up to resting, that I would opt out entirely if we gay men—or at least gay male culture critics—weren’t contractually obliged to watch.
Some of this, of course, is a matter of taste. Many viewers will undoubtedly find the muffled aesthetic that writer Michael Lannan and director Andrew Haigh have poured like molasses over their subject—the lives of Patrick, Agustín, and Dom, three San Francisco-dwelling gay guys between the ages of 29 and 39 who are all looking for “something real”—pleasingly subtle and sweet. For me, it is stultifying. Both positions are reasonable. In any case, after trudging through the first half of this season, I’ve realized that the profound boredom brought on by Looking does not stem from aesthetic disagreements, at least not entirely.
Juzwiak, a gay guy, compared his experience of watching the show to “paging through a magazine in a dentist’s office.” That sounds about right. But why is that magazine in that office in the first place, and for what kind of customer was it intended? What are the cultural conditions that make a show with the characteristics of Looking possible or even desirable? How can a show so conservative in sensibility be lauded by critics as a progressive step forward in gay representation on television? To be blunt, how can a gay man watch a gay show this boring in 2014 and call it, with a straight face, “shocking”?
The answer, I think, has something to do with what exactly this show imagines viewers, gay and straight, to be looking for.
* * *
Let’s start with the gays.
If you don’t have HBO (and can’t find Looking through other means), you might find a good substitute in the YouTube show Will & RJ. Looking is, in spirit, a more expensively produced and slightly more coherent version of the Web serial, in which a gay couple records some part of their daily activities—a “slice of life,” as Haigh would put it—and presents the footage, without irony, as being worthy of your time. The explicit mission of Will & RJ is to prove that gay people are just like everyone else—which is to say, when they are playing with their pets or driving to the airport, just as unremarkable.
There was a time when this obvious truth may have needed stating—indeed, when speaking it might have been seen as a striking political act. But surely that time was at least 20 years ago. And yet, the fact that most gay people are “normal,” “real,” “the same,” or whatever other version of just as-lame-as-most-straight-people you prefer continues to be trumpeted by a certain contingent of the gay movement as if it were both a revelation and a passcode to the gates of utopia.
In a certain sense, Looking is what happens when you try to expand this argument—the core of the “post-gay,” nothing-unique-going-on-here ethos—into 30-minute chunks of television. But even if a gay person honestly holds such a limited view of themselves and their community (and many do), the question remains: What can be the appeal in watching a show that amounts to a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straights?
An oddly defensive Out magazine feature story provides a clue: “Looking does not rely on glittering wit, slick fashion, or edgy transcendence to power its storyline. It relies on the joy of recognition that sometimes accompanies viewing a well-calibrated reproduction of daily life.” By design, the show eschews elements that might be seen as artful or entertaining and instead depends on the peculiar idea that gay audiences should find “joy” in watching gay characters move from one (maybe slightly stressful) quotidian situation to the next. Looking’s great joy, in other words, is little more than the pleasure of the selfie.
Of course, seeing one’s identity group in media is important for all kinds of reasons—a bolstering sense of being a welcome part of the larger cultural imagination chief among them. But sifting through the more positive gay responses to the show, you get the feeling that Looking is being looked to not just for affirmation, but as a repository of insight into the modern gay male experience. If you believe the tag lines floating around, we are desperately seeking “real” images of ourselves, and Looking promises to be the place to find them.
But consider the “real” aspects of gay male culture that Looking so bravely interrogates in the first four episodes: open relationships, the potential difficulties of interracial dating, office flirtations, and aging. The last theme, embodied in the plotline involving Scott Bakula’s older character, Lynn, and 39-year-old waiter Dom, is the only one that feels remotely fresh, and I suspect much of that has to do with the quality of Bakula’s acting compared with the rest of the cast’s. Otherwise, it seems to me that if gay men find Looking’s perspectives on gay life in any way novel—forget “shocking”—it can only be because they have assiduously avoided becoming familiar with other (perhaps older) gay people and gay thought in general. All these issues have been openly discussed within the community for decades now, with a level of nuance and intelligence that, frankly, seems hopelessly beyond the kind of grown gay men who, as we see in upcoming episodes, have nervous breakdowns about foreskin or titter like teenagers at an institution as venerable as the Folsom Street Fair.
And so, back to boredom. It is not Looking’s somber lighting or idle pacing that truly bores me; rather, it is the laughable basicness of its presentation of gay male life and culture. For a gay viewer who has any real connection to that title, there is just nothing new to see here.
Indeed, the greatest irony of Looking may be that a show that is the apotheosis of the post-gay ethos has brought us characters about whom the only thing vaguely interesting is their homosexuality. Ask yourself honestly: If they were straight, would characters as thin and tedious as Patrick and Agustín still be on HBO? In attempting to escape the dreaded “stereotype,” Looking has run headlong into something worse—a cynical tokenism, a gay minstrelsy of another kind.
* * *
Of course, the majority of HBO’s viewership are not gay men. This, in turn, means that the majority of those watching Looking may, in fact, be new to gay male romantic and social customs and thus not share in the boredom I’ve described. Still, though I cannot quite imagine what Looking looks like to the straight eye, the impression I’ve gathered from reviews by straight critics is disconcerting.
My Slate colleague Willa Paskin captures the critical gist in her review:
Here we are, simultaneously in completely familiar and unfamiliar territory: the bad first date that is, also, the bad, gay first date—and a bad, gay first date that is not the B storyline, will not be followed by scenes starring straight people, and does not feature stereotypically campy gay men. This would be enough to justify Looking’s existence on purely sociological grounds.
Paskin finds other artistic virtues in Looking, but I can’t shake the feeling that she and other critics are being unduly gentle because of the “sociological” work they think the show is doing. It’s true that having a program in which gay storylines are not tempered with straight ones as a matter of course is probably a good thing, but then, it’s worth considering what kind of gay storylines we’re talking about.
The continued bashing of “campy gay men”—who despite being somewhat overrepresented in older media, are just as real as (and far more engaging than) Patrick—is grating but de rigueur at this point: Neither Looking nor its audience need fear the queen—she has already sashayed on over to the isolation of Logo. Indeed, what’s fascinating about the show is how far its characters are pitched in the other direction; so far that, after Patrick’s two-second hand job or Dom’s brief and horribly photographed standing fuck is over, it would be pretty easy to forget that these guys have a queer bone in their bodies. Conveniently so, in fact. Patrick’s and Agustín’s and Dom’s couplings—with other men and to any sense of a larger queer culture or politics—are so ephemeral that calling Looking “progressive” in terms of gay representation is a joke. Queer as Folk, which premiered more than a decade ago, offered a vision of gay life that was more complex—and certainly more queer—than Looking even approaches, outlandish soapiness and all.
Yes, straight critics and viewers seeking liberal cred will find an easy tool here; Looking is, after all, gay without any of the hard parts (dick included), gay that’s polite and comfortable and maybe a little titillating but definitely not all up in your face about it. And in that, the show may represent the greatest victory to date of those who strive not for the tolerance of queerness in straight society, but for its gradual erasure as we all slide toward some bland cultural mean. Beneath the modern platitudes like love whoever you want and all families are beautiful, there’s a quiet, insidious demand that you blend in as quickly as possible. Don’t harp on the struggles of coming out beyond gay meccas, don’t complain about rampant homophobia and increasing gender policing, don’t lament the ongoing health crisis in your community—that stuff is too old-fashioned, too dramatic. Because some gay people can get married now, we’re past all that. And anyway, it gives your so-called allies a case of the sads.
You see, released in this moment of assimilation, Looking cannot just be a show about a specific circle of gay men; it is also unavoidably a PSA for how the mainstream increasingly expects gayness to look—butch enough, politically apathetic, generally boring.
That said, is Looking where the long and righteous campaign for decent gay representation ends—in, as Juzwiak put it, “gay men [getting] to be boring on TV at last”? The show itself could, of course, improve; the second half of the season remains a mystery. But if not, I can only hope it’s a misstep along the way to something better. For if the campy Stanford Blatches of old were, on some level, products of a culture that needed to see gay men as clowns, Patrick and his Looking companions are the product of a culture that doesn’t really want to see them at all.
Disclosure: Slate deputy editor Julia Turner’s husband works on the show.