Last night my wife and I were talking about HBO’s Looking, a show I always enjoyed and will miss just a bit. I liked the characters, and their dilemmas led me to wonder what decisions they would make and how they would live with them. In one episode, two of the main characters–a man and a woman who grew up together and then escaped to the city together–return to their hometown to confront old ghosts and presumptions about who they might have become had they stayed. What did it mean that they left? Were they better people, or just different? That especially resonated with me, because it’s a conversation I have with myself every time I go “home.”
Anyway. I dug the show, which is really saying something considering it was set in San Francisco, a city to which I have a near-pathological aversion.
My wife and I were both aware that Looking was a polarizing show within the gay (male) community, but a tweet by my friend and astute cultural watcher Price Peterson made me want to find out why that had been the case.
So I googled “Looking, HBO, criticism, gay men” to find my answer and, in a word, that answer was “boring.”
From Slate Why is Looking So Boring
From The Washington Post HBO Ends Looking Its “Boring” Show About Gay Men
From The Daily Beast Yes, Looking is Boring. It’s the Drama Gays Deserve
In that last link, author Tim Teeman writes that he and friends gathered to watch the show with eager anticipation.
Back on the couch, we were ready to enjoy, snark, laugh, grizzle: gay TV viewers, so used to making as much as possible from crumbs from the table, also fiercely fight over those crumbs—what they mean, what they represent, and then how gays are being represented, how their lives are being shown.
Teeman goes on to say the couch was quiet, because the show was dull. And the show is dull, because the characters are just like everybody else.
These guys worked their jobs. They had awkward dates. They ran into each other at the farmers market at inopportune times. They said the wrong thing. They burned bridges. They made friends. They lost or misunderstood their parents. They tried to get what they want, without fully knowing what that is.
They were just like everybody else. In other words, these little crumbs weren’t gay enough.
A counterpoint: Richard Lawson’s Vanity Fair article Looking Is As Gay As It Needs to Be.
Lawson rebuts the argument made by J. Bryan Lowder in that Slate link above that Looking is “a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straights.”
According to Lowder, “There was a time when this obvious truth [meaning, that gays are people capable of leading boring and prosaic lives, just like everyone else] 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.” Surely that time was at least 20 years ago for whom, exactly? Somewhere around 1994 the need to insist upon a common humanity just . . . stopped? What Lowder is really arguing here is that Looking doesn’t do it for him, doesn’t startle or appeal to his particular millennial sensibilities enough, and thus he’s branded it “boring,” a big and condemning and ultimately dismissive word that in some ways reads as “useless.”
Even before weighing these articles against each other, my wife and I suspected that the fight over Looking was a fight about the performance of gayness. And that reminded us of another gay cable show where being gay is framed as generally NBD, but which doesn’t quite reach for the argument that we’re just like everybody else.
Almost 15 years before Looking, Queer as Folk centered around “the lives and loves of a group of gay friends living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”
So what did people say about QAF back in the day? Take it away MetaCritic.
Divorced from a believable social context, Queer too often plays like a voyeuristic tour of gay life that’s only interested in the most outrageous sights. It doesn’t have to provide an insight into every gay person, but it does have to paint a more believable portrait of these people, which means anchoring them in a real place and expanding their lives beyond sexual encounters
Queer as Folk tries hard to expand the portrayal of gays on television beyond stereotypes. Unfortunately, the shock factor is so high that few viewers whose minds might be opened seem likely to stick around for the learning experience.
No Boy Scout leaders in this bathhouse of a crowd, just relentless cruising and graphically simulated sex, at the expense of character depth, in an assembly line of orgasms ultimately as tedious as it would be if the humpers and thumpers were straight instead of gay.
Critics have faulted Looking‘s lack of sex for losing audience. And here critics fault QAF‘s surplus of sex for losing audience.
Another QAF reviewer who actually liked the show gets to what I think is the heart of the issue.
Great actors and their characters are amusing.
“Gay shows” will only stick around if they are popular and they only become popular if their characters are amusing. They will have to be amusing to straight people and they will also have to be amusing to gay people. And more often than not, the kind of character that reaches its amusement quota is a stereotype. It’s the gay best friend. It’s the perfect hair with the bitchy wit. It’s the queer theory performance artist.
You can call the guys on Looking boring, but it’s harder to call them stereotypes. Unless “befuddled, casually fit, gay gamer” is now common enough as to be a stereotype.
What if we didn’t keep our crumbs stereotypes, and we also didn’t tell them how not being everything at once is offensive, or, worse yet, unamusing.
Would more crumbs come along? And more and more. Until there was a cornucopia of crumbs just being their crumb-selves across our screens, proving that there are a lot of ways to be gay (some of us are even women) and there is room for every way to have its own story.
If Price Peterson is right, those who condemned Looking may have ensured we’ll never know. Or at least, we won’t know until 15 years from now, when Looking is as forgotten as Queer as Folk and we make these same mistakes again.