By Josh Parham
Full disclosure: I am not somebody that spends a great deal of time watching television. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the medium. There are many shows that feature great content that I absolutely adore. However, films have always taken the higher artistic priority in my life, and in order to devote as much time as possible to see as many films as I can, that ultimately means that my free time watching television becomes severely limited. That is why, when I do watch tv, I become very selective in what I choose to see. When I’m devoting many hours of my time to a long-form story, I want to know that time will be invested in something that I value.
This mindset is especially true now, but it was also the case for me five years ago. The television landscape has changed so drastically in that time, but I still found it important to seek out only the shows I felt worthy of my investment. For me, there was no doubt that one of them was definitely going to be HBO’s “Looking.” Premiering in January 2014, the show was an intimate, multi-character study about the lives of a group of gay men living in San Francisco. By no means, the first show on a major network to deal with such subject matter, the amount of content that did traffic in these kinds of stories were few and far between at this point. Obviously, this rallied the attention of many in the LGBTQ community as an important cultural moment to note.
”Looking” only lasted for two seasons and then awkwardly ended with a made-for-television feature film. During its airing, and the years following it, the conversation surrounding the show has been one that has endlessly fascinated me. The support for the show seemed to be in equal numbers of those who detested it, particularly from members of the community is was supposedly representing. There is so much to be said about what this series did right, as well as wrong, and why its perspective holds so much importance. I wanted to take the time to look back on many of the discussion points this show brought up, and make the case for why it is so valuable. I don’t want to necessarily review the entire series, but more so discuss what that show was attempting to do, and why its legacy is deserving of notice.
I want to start right away with one of the major criticisms the show faced during its initial airing. I remember the multiple conversations happening that complained about the lack of likable characters in the stories. Chief among them was Patrick, played by Jonathan Groff. Patrick was a neurotic young man who let his own worst instincts influence him down the path of one terrible decision after another. This was particularly felt in his romantic relationships, which ultimately pitted him between Richie (Raúl Castillo), the sweet-natured “true” love, and Kevin (Russell Tovey), the complicated affair with a committed man who possessed a looser moral code. So many people grew frustrated with Patrick’s decisions that guided him away from stability and into the arms of a far more toxic relationship. I myself even joined that chorus on many occasions. However, where I differed from most of the pack was that these were frustrations I actually welcomed.
Many times, I saw these characters make decisions that grew irksome to witness. At the same time, it felt so refreshing to watch a show that wanted to approach its themes in a realistic manner, even when presenting content that wasn’t pervasive in the popular culture. The creators of this show didn’t feel the expectation to conform to traditional sitcom rules where disagreements are mild, fights are quickly resolved, and the tenor of every relationship generally resets by the end of the episode. This was a world that stuck to the idea that decisions had consequences. It didn’t matter how much we as an audience wanted to see two characters end up together, or make different choices along the way. If they messed up, they had to deal with that fallout.
I came to appreciate that approach so much, particularly as a gay man in my mid-twenties having a firm grasp of my own identity in some aspects, yet completely out to sea in others. Lord knows that the decisions I was making at that time were fraught with complicated emotional turmoil. As much as it would have been nice to see gay men on television embody the ideal of what the community was telling me to aspire to, I was so glad to watch a show that felt confident enough to portray its characters in a more human light. We all have a circle of friends who indulge in choices we advise against but are helpless to correct. It does not change our love for them nor subside the pain when those consequences show themselves.
That choice to stick to a realistic approach with the characters came across in the show’s overall aesthetic. Andrew Haigh, director of 2011’s absolutely brilliant film “Weekend”, did not co-create the show with Michael Lannan, but his role on the series nearly constituted that. He served as executive producer and wrote and directed many of the episodes. It seems obvious that the intimate setting he crafted for “Weekend” was brought to this show as well. Like his film, there is a heavy emphasis on sex and intimacy, particularly how both of these can inform the other. Character depth is mined through sexual encounters, and it helped to bring an emotional sincerity to many of these scenes. This is especially poignant when representing gay sex, and Haigh and the other creators understood this delicate balance needed to have an authentic representation.
However, I don’t want to give the impression that the show got everything right in its depictions, and there was plenty to legitimately criticize. No matter how good the intentions, “Looking” ultimately came from an inherently white, cisgender perspective. While the writing staff did have people of color contributing to numerous episodes, the series struggled to find narratives that pulled away from the predominantly white ensemble. And when it chose to look beyond, its scope was still limited in terms of diversity. Even ignoring that this perspective excluded conversations about lesbians and transgendered persons, there were still problematic elements the show wrestled with in terms of representation.
The most prominent faces of color in terms of the characters were embodied by Richie and Augustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), the other troubled friend in the group who constantly struggled with substance abuse and commitment issues. Both of these actors are Latino, representing Mexican and Cuban heritage respectively. However, their characters’ stories rarely reflected back into their own ethnic identity. Only one episode featured Richie’s old neighborhood, and it’s a brief glimpse into a different culture that fades away as soon as this supporting character exited the narrative. Augustín didn’t receive any kind of lip service concerning his familial background. All of this doesn’t even mention that the show had almost no representation of Asian Americans, despite taking place in a major city where a third of its population identifies as such.
The most disappointing aspect of this is that these subjects could have served potential for greater exploration. The fact that the only people we see Richie dating are white men can be perceived as both a failing of the show but also a missed opportunity to explore the more nuanced racial commentaries that continue to plague the gay community. The fact that this group of friends didn’t know any gay Asian men could have been utilized as a mirror to reflect on the internalized segregation. These are just a few elements that showed it lacking in a certain depth, and maybe if it had been allowed to continue, there would have had the opportunity to explore these themes and evolve into something deeper. As it is, we do not have these hypothetical corrections, so it remains a significant deficiency.
I think it’s really important to remember that “Looking” premiered in a world that is very different when it comes to stories about the gay community. Gay marriage was not legally recognized by the Supreme Court until the following year, and having this show exist in a time when civil rights were not guaranteed in every state informs a lot about one’s perspective. Five years may not seem like such a long time ago, but so many strides and setbacks have been made since then. For me, this show represents a particular of view in the gay community. This was right on the cusp of its civil rights fight to gain a mainstream victory, but not quite achieving it yet. I think that allowed the show to try for more difficult subject matter to tackle, particularly in its sex and drug depictions. It’s a perspective that seems to be evaporating when it comes to American stories on queer relationships, and I like that this show wasn’t shying away from it.
I will also freely admit that the show is rooted very much in my own personal nostalgia. While there are many things I do not relate to in Patrick, there were enough that personally connected me to his plight. The year the show premiered was the first time I ever came close to pursuing any kind of romantic relationship with another person, having been way too timid and scared to try it before. Having this important event in my life take place at the same time I was watching a piece of pop culture that even slightly mirrored the anxieties I was facing conjured up very strong feelings. Perhaps it is the reason I rush to defend it so much, but I still think it isn’t completely unwarranted.
Many previous writers, ones more scholarly than myself, have referred to the idea of “the burden of representation.” When your landscape is not filled with many voices and faces of an underrepresented group, the few occasions you do see them now comes with the expectation to reflect on every experience within that group. This is always a shame because it has a habit in shackling characterization and limiting nuance. With not many television shows from major networks about gay characters at the time, “Looking” was forced to represent an entire community to a large group of outsiders that had limited experience. If it failed at all, the pain from that community was more sharply felt. I completely understand this viewpoint, but art should not have to conform to what the culture wants from it, especially when it concerns the depictions of a community that may not always be entirely flattering.
With so many more options now in terms of the content people can watch, there really isn’t the complicated obligation many felt back then to support a show they have mixed feelings about. That is, simply for the chance of exposure. One can log into Netflix right now and find hundreds of different films and tv shows that deal in similar content in a more tailored fashion to your taste. But it’s still important to appreciate where “Looking” came from, and I will always argue many elements that numerous pointed out to be faults were actually the show’s greatest assets. I like it when stories force us to look at the world we live in and expose the unsettling yet realistic truths we deal with. I wish the show had gotten more time to explore much more, but I am still grateful for what we did get. Like the show itself, the legacy of “Looking” is messy and complicated, and that is precisely what makes it so special.
You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Emmys and TV on Twitter at @JRParham