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'Looking' re-viewed: Did the polarising gay drama deserve all the criticism?
Looking at Looking again it's easier to understand - though not necessarily agree with - thebacklash that greeted the HBO show from some quarters of the gay community. Unlikeable characters? Check. Cheating boyfriends? Check. Guys trawling bars and bathhouses in search of a quick sexual fix? Check.
One blogger tore into the first season of the show because he couldn't stomach the characters and couldn't figure out the tone (was it a comedy? a drama?) but wished there were more nudity - which is shallower than anything anyone on the show might ever say or do. And besides, if said blogger had toughed it out until the end he would have been treated to lots of ass shots and at least one full-frontal moment. If he didn't think the show was pushing enough boundaries, he should have stuck around to see San Francisco-based video games designer Patrick getting nailed by his boss Kevin against a tree in the California woods.
Jonathan Groff - who played Patrick to adorable perfection, wearing his heart, his flaws, his aching need to be loved and his pattern for fucking it all up right there on his sleeve - welcomed the criticism, telling an interviewer as the second season aired: “I really loved all of the discussion about 'Does it represent the gay community? What are we saying about the gay community? What is it doing right? What is it doing wrong?'” But he was frustrated by people looking down on Looking when they'd only watched one episode or none at all. “I didn’t have time for those discussions. The people who watched the show and had an opinion about why they liked it or didn’t like it - that I felt was really interesting or engaging.”
Groff felt the show, which was labelled a gay Girls meets Sex And The City from the off, fixed some of its issues and found its identity in season two - and he was right. Season one is (as was the case with those shows Looking was compared to but had more time to grow) all about establishing the characters; so we meet Patrick, who seems a little spoiled, and his best friends Dom (a hunk of a man with a Peter Pan complex) and Augustin (aimless and with an addictive personality).
There's also Doris, who would have been called a 'fag hag' in Gimme Gimme Gimme's day but might now prefer 'fruit fly' or 'fag enabler' or whatever the current PC term is. (Side note: Why is “hag” offensive but “fag” isn't? Answers on a postcard please!) She's the rock they all circle around: straight, a tough talker and sharp as a knife - which makes her a little obvious as a sidekick until she begins seeking a life and a partner away from the gay scene.
Augustin can't be faithful, Dom's ego is rocked by the fact an older man only wants to be friends, and Patrick? He's torn between two lovers: Kevin (Russell Tovey, playing his native British), who is in a relationship but becomes smitten with him, and Richie, who is caring and loving and great in bed but also happens to be a hairdresser, which isn't that high on the social scale. (He's also not the uncut fantasy Patrick had been hoping for).
Patrick's paramours divided dedicated viewers as much as the show divided the gay community, resulting in “Team Patrick vs Team Richie” debates amongst fans and on social media. Personally, I was on Team Richie because, gorgeous and sexy though Kevin is, it's hardly a great prospect to date a) your boss, b) someone who says he'll leave his boyfriend for you but dithers about doing it and c) someone who cheats behind his boyfriend's back so may well do the same to you further down the line. Then he leaves his other half for you, you move in together and you discover he's been on Grindr checking out the other gays in the building. And he wants to discuss the possibility of an open relationship, even though it's never been mentioned before and shouldn't he have fucking mentioned it before you moved in together?!
Perhaps Patrick should have asked? But that's the beauty of Looking; it holds a mirror up to mistakes we all make, have made or will make. It's also about the ordinariness of day-to-day gay lives, with none of the high comedy of Sex And The City or Girls. And when these guys talk about big issues (like HIV testing) or smaller ones (like foreskin) they do it with the naturalness that Andrew Haigh – who co-produced the show and wrote and directed several episodes – captured so beautifully with his film Weekend.
So they sleep around? So what! Haven't you or don't you know someone who is or has? So they can be self-absorbed? Can't you or your friends sometimes be the same? Haven't you had conversations with friends where you start pouring your heart out and somehow it morphs into a chat about their problems instead?
And here's the big bugbear amongst the show's detractors: Where's the bigger picture, the broader spectrum, the look at LGBT+ lives, not just G ones? But that was never Looking's remit. It's about a specific group of people negotiating a specific lifestyle in a specific place. Transparent and Orange Is The New Black and Class and Modern Family and Empire are just a few of the TV shows that can help fill in the sexuality/gender/race gaps.
And if you want good old-fashioned camp, there's always British sitcom Vicious, which might be asking for trouble when it comes to stereotypes but Ian McKellen has declared he's only a stone's throw rather than a million miles from the character he plays on the ITV sitcom. And (my words, not Sir Ian's) if you think camp old queens no longer exist, you're head is buried so deep there's sand coming out of your arse.
The show's writer Andrew Haigh once told Attitude that he shared people's need to see themselves represented on screen but added: “It is frustrating when you create characters, whose stories you are trying to tell, and you come up against all of this anger and hatred. I had so many people saying ‘I hate that Patrick character, he is awful, he is just not me!’ And I’d look at them and think ‘You do know you are actually Patrick?!’”
Haigh went on to make the extremely valid point that “it is rooted in a fear where we want representation in the world but only of the best of us” and pushed buttons further by declaring: “If we want true acceptance then we should be accepted fully, as shitty people, who have emotional baggage and who do find it hard to be gay.”
Amen to that! And amen to Looking's finale – dubbed as a movie but really just one long episode commissioned after the show's cancellation as a way to neatly (but not too neatly) tie up the storylines. Augustin finds redemption in marriage, Dom gets his shit together and Patrick ends up with the guy he's meant to be with and - SPOILER ALERT!!! - it's not Kevin.
That's your lot; two series, one movie of sorts, then the San Francisco sun sets on characters some loved to hate, some hated to love and some of us just loved spending time with.
Jonathan Groff said when the flack was flying: “It’s impossible for this show to tick all of the boxes in what everybody would want to see.” But the boxes the show does tick it ticks brilliantly. Give Looking another look and you might just see I'm right.
Looking: The Complete Series And The Movie is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Words: Simon Button
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