"Looking," HBO's newest half-hour comedy, is a show about gay men, but that doesn't make it a gay show.
Which is not to say the series (which premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m.) doesn't have gay sexuality at its center. Its central characters are three out men living in San Francisco, the long-reigning epicenter of LGBT culture. And these guys –- video-game designer Patrick, artist's assistant Augustin and longtime waiter Dom -– are hardly shy about their sexual desires. The show's opening moments depict what may be TV's most stunningly awkward "helping hand."
But for all of its sexual candor, "Looking" is concerned with more than the pitfalls of Grindr or whether anyone still cruises. Unlike some of its LGBT-centric predecessors, "Looking" doesn't present men dealing with gay issues; it depicts gay men dealing with larger, more universal questions. That sounds like a subtle tonal shift, but it puts "Looking" in the remarkable position of feeling transgressive precisely because it's not.
Series collaborators Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh (the director of indie flick "Weekend," to which "Looking" bears a strong resemblance) have created a comedy about three friends facing transitional points in their lives. At the show's heart is Patrick, an insecure 29-year-old played by Jonathan Groff. He's the one who heads to a public park in the pilot's first scene, pushing back tree branches to find an older, bearded stranger who beelines straight for Patrick's belt buckle.
There's nothing particularly intimate or shocking about the whole encounter, which is characteristic of the straightforward attitude "Looking" takes to its sex scenes. In fact, Patrick seems befuddled by how businesslike the whole experience is. Even when doing something so inherently transactional as cruising in the bushes, a decidedly retro act which Patrick has clearly done on a lark, he won't stop talking and wants to connect. It's that awkwardness and emotional vulnerability which "Looking" focuses on during this introductory act. Physicality is an afterthought.
Balancing emotional intimacy with sexual desire seems to be Patrick's Achilles' heel, and his inability to do so is made worse by a lack of self-assuredness. He's hardly alone there. All three of the men of "Looking" appear conflicted between who they are and who they think they want to be. At the show's start, Augustin (played brilliantly by Frankie J. Alvarez) is trading San Francisco for Oakland, where he moves in with his longtime boyfriend Frank (O-T Fagbenle). But while he's eager for the prospect of domestic bliss, monogamy is another story entirely. Dom (Murray Bartlett), meanwhile, realizes he's spent the better part of a decade postponing the dream of opening his own restaurant and being distracted by casual sex. But even as he bemoans the foolishness of "thinking that sex will make me feel better," that doesn't stop him from browsing Grindr for a one-night stands or cruising at the gym. As the show's title drives home, Dom, Patrick and Augustin are looking for something. But they never seem quite sure what it is they're looking for.
"Looking" is fairly matter-of-fact about that point, but in a quiet way that's the key to its success. Early hype dubbed the show as "the gay 'Girls,'" but Lannan and Haigh take a more muted approach to their characters than Lena Dunham does to hers. Such subtlety is refreshing (especially in the wake of "Queer as Folk" and "The L Word," the last two LGBT-centric dramas to hit TV). It's the reason "Looking" feels so genuine and so complex, and why the show is a welcome addition to cable TV.
FYI: I'll be recapping "Looking" for b's TV Lust blog on Sundays. There's much more to say about the show, so I'd encourage you to head over there after each episode airs.