THERE’S AN IMPORTANT moment in Looking that may slip by if not viewed carefully. In the episode titled, “Looking for the Future” Patrick and Richie stop at a planetarium in Golden Gate Park. The action is unremarkable. Their feet are up, it’s dark, they’re watching the galaxy orbit slowly overhead. There’s TV precedent for the planetarium date scene, meaning there’s homage to be paid, meaning in the intertextual world of the small screen this scene is bound to be self-aware. Our Looking protagonists, Richie and Patrick, bring up the Friends moment they’re accidentally re-enacting. (Ross and Rachel have their first date under fake stars, as well.) When Patrick tells Richie that he wants to be Ross because he’s the geek, Richie disagrees. He thinks his new boyfriend is more like Rachel because “she’s kind of like the boss, which is kind of like the top.” This may seem like mere cute banter — pop culture references crossing with tenuous sexual analogy. But this analogy, refracted through a gay lens, is actually more aggressive than Richie’s mumbled delivery lets on.
Like many gay men, I have had to explain to a few people that “no, it is not that one is like the guy, and one is like the girl.” Instead, “there’s the one that’s like the guy, and the other one that’s also like the guy.” For uninformed people — both homosexual and heterosexual — this tendency to gender male-male sexual dynamics is pretty homophobic. That last statement is obvious to many, but also, unfortunately, probably not so obvious to most. According to Richie, Ross is a man is a bottom, while Rachel is a woman is a top. By reframing the dynamic this way — using an enormously popular archetype of a heterosexual couple — the lazily assigned gender roles start crumbling in a virtually palpable way.
Unlike the first 10 minutes of Queer as Folk, Looking doesn’t bombard us with strobe lights and slick, toned go-go dancers. The pace moves casually, and scenes are shot with shallow focus, rendering a hazy background well suited to the San Francisco climate. The expository-heavy plot leaves the dramatic release for the last couple episodes, which has caused some critics to dismiss the show for being too slow. But the sensibilities of creator Michael Lannan and producer Andrew Haigh work like a sneak attack. Blink and you miss it. Dead center of the planetarium episode (the season’s slowest), Friends was “queered” in a very epic way. As Richie continues to talk about who’s top and bottom, he gives Patrick an instructive we might expect from our more pretentious gay friends: “Those terms are for people on websites,” and then, “How do you know what you’re into with a guy sexually until you’re with him?” It might be a fair question, might even come off as somewhat libertine, if it weren’t so paradoxically finger-waggy: gays should think this way, which is no way at all. That’s not to say Looking is trying to be a modern gay man’s philosophy guide. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Even with Richie instructing his doe-eyed boyfriend, he backtracks and admits that he, too, is usually a Rachel. The prescriptive was laid out, and then immediately folded back up. Much like the rest of Looking’s quiet revelations, this enigmatic little moment slips by undetected — a synecdoche for the condition in which these bland video game designers and ambitionless artists find themselves.
It’s no accident that the show is set in San Francisco (as opposed to, say, Pittsburgh) — the city has been a microcosm for gay life since the 1970s and our protagonists are a part of its gay community. But from their perspective, it’s a community in name only. They’re not activists, the drag queens pop up at the periphery, and institutions like Folsom Street Fair are the backdrop, not the main event. Being gay-themed invites all sorts of criticism about inclusion and representation. Everyone is on their toes waiting to pounce with their own prescriptive measure about how a “gay show” should be. Should it be more colorful, more inclusive, gayer? Is it preferable to see gays that are better adjusted, less repressed, more transgressive? In 2014 San Francisco, with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell a relic and marriage legal for everyone, gay identity is virtually unthreatened, which means fewer political boogeymen to rally against as One. The symptom that follows, then, is a beautiful and surprising proliferation of gay identity across many spectrums. Take the rise of body type-based sub-groups, for example. We have twinks, gym bunnies, daddies, bears, otters, wolves, chubs, femmes, jocks, and the various sub-sub-groups: twunks, leather jocks, muscle bears, etc. Everyone has their own version of what gay looks like, and that means an unreasonable demand that a show like Looking be the image of the gay community writ small.
Looking not only anticipates these prescriptive criticisms, it reacts to them by showing us characters that are entirely specific and not just types. The hunky Dom, perhaps the most intriguing character, is a late bloomer career-wise and while he has worries about aging, is doing it gracefully. Agustín projects his domestic and creative drama onto others — a bit of a cruel friend, dishing out the cold, hard truth while unable to see it for himself. Groping around for these characters’ interiority is the show’s pleasure. They resist classification and often react to their problems in misleading or oblique ways — ways that would escape us if not watched closely. Like in Patrick, a man-child with whiffs of repressed sexuality, he can’t seem to get a grip on most things. When shopping for leather garments for Folsom Street Fair, Patrick is apprehensive, “I wish I was one of those people who could wear something like that and not give a shit.” It’s said coyly — Jonathan Groff’s perpetual smile disarms even the most offensive statements — though it’s very telling. He does genuinely wish that he didn’t give a shit. Yet why does he? His friends are all doing it. In fact the thousands of people surrounding him at the street fair are doing it. Some unnamed reason trips him up. Agustín teases that Patrick would look “very gay” in the garment and Patrick’s voice gets all high when he snaps back, “Oh, fuck you.” Though never discussed, Agustín recognizes his friend’s repression. It’s a slow reveal, watching these little realizations add up. The more the show progresses, the more we know about our characters. It’s like slowly stepping back from the canvas as the whole frame comes into view.
Much of Looking quietly explores the same identity problem that Patrick has. Paddy lives his life as a gay man but has unspoken neuroses about it. Richie makes progressive proclamations that he quickly rescinds. Critics come down on the show for not fulfilling their own image of what gay life should look like. All of these tics come from the same place: as gay anxiety about its relationship to the larger world subsides, anxiety about gay peoples’ relationships to each other rises. What makes Looking feel so good is how it resists creating a world in which gays have to stand their ground against that evil boogeyman, and that it doesn’t have hangups about who these characters represent for the larger gay community. Instead, it’s progressive in its specificity. It’s rather sweet to watch a repressed Patrick, a confused Dom, and a frustrated Agustín try to come into themselves and that feels modern or, at least, modernly gay. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the show’s perceived lack of gayness, it’s a conscious one: that gay is a pretty vague term as far as identity goes. Today, it’s the self that needs defining. And in any community, isn’t that a pretty novel concept?