February 3, 2023
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Is There Too Much Pressure on HBO’s Looking?

I’ll admit it: five years of Ryan Murphy tyranny has given me major trust issues about gay representations in the mainstream media, so I was prepared to hate Looking. With the kind of hype that the show has been building since word got out that HBO was preparing a “gay equivalent” to its critically-acclaimed Girls in 2013, it’s not surprising that expectations formed quickly, or that reactions to the show have been strong and immediate.

The pressure for fair and accurate portrayal has never been higher, especially in a social media atmosphere where one’s worth is often measured by ability to criticize. (Though I’m not one to comment, as a badge-carrying member of the notorious Tumblr police).

That critics like The Boston Globe‘s Christopher Muther and Slate‘s J. Bryan Lowder are quick to decide that Looking fails to meet expectations, is criminally boring, and, most scathingly of all, “represent[s] the greatest victory to date of those who strive not for the tolerance of queerness in straight society, but for its gradual erasure as we all slide toward some bland cultural mean,” isn’t unexpected; it’s just a little annoying.

As it turns out, I kind of like Looking. It’s charming, it’s layered, and surprisingly re-watchable. The ensemble has a pleasant chemistry, the emotions feel real (even if the stories sometimes don’t), and the sex is less like porn, more like that bad hook-up you’ve had far too often. The series takes its time, performs subtly, and shows remarkable promise. Of course, it’s flawed, just as any other show is. The slow pacing that so many critics seem hung up on would work much better on a one-hour dramedy, and the dialogue has a tendency to get clunky, giving me a touch of second-hand embarrassment for the actors. Its representation of gay men, though? I’m not going to complain.

Here’s the thing: Looking shouldn’t be, and, we can only hope, won’t be, the only representation we get on television. To treat it as such, and to expect it to be everything to everyone, is unfair to the show, inhibits our own ability to enjoy it, and, in perpetuating the false notion that there can only be one “gay show” at any given time (it goes without saying that I’m grateful that creator Michael Lannan didn’t take a page from Lena Dunham’s book and call the show Gays), prevents us from moving toward a more diverse array of depictions of LGBTQ persons on television, rather than leaving one series on one network to carry the weight of responsibility.

It’s 2014, and I’m happy to see that less than 10 years after its finale, Will & Grace already feels shamefully outdated, with its transphobic jokes, repeated use of “fag” as a punchline, and Sean Hayes’ beyond-stereotyped, albeit hilarious, portrayal of Jack MacFarland. Even Queer as Folk, which paved the way for the depiction of gay sex on American television and has had a powerful impact in guiding development of nuanced gay characters and relationships (despite the fact that, as the show’s very first line tells us, “It’s all about sex”), shows its age today.

Looking has an opportunity to assert itself a seminal moment in gay culture (or, as Slate points out, a seminal moment in the depiction of penises on television).  But if Looking isn’t the be-all and end-all of queer TV, it’s because it was never supposed to be, and nothing ever can be. If it does its job of keeping the conversation moving forward and opening doors for new kinds of gay characters in mainstream media, then I’m more than willing to overlook its imperfection.