From the time it was announced, Looking has been referred to in the press as “the gay Girls.” The similarities are notable: One of the chief creative personnel behind both is an acclaimed indie filmmaker—in this case, it’s director Andrew Haigh, who made the wonderful film Weekend. Both series follow small groups of economically privileged people among subcultures that aren’t always well-represented on TV as they make their way through a great American city. (Here, it’s San Francisco, where Looking is filmed on location.) And both maintain a wistful tone about the process of searching—for the perfect job, for the perfect mate, for the perfect life.
Looking even seems deliberately engineered to avoid some of the controversy that greeted Girls when it first debuted, with a Latino actor among the three main cast members to boost the diversity quotient and characters who are less immediately abrasive than they are charmingly awkward. HBO has paired this with Girls for a reason: It’s a very, very similar show, but with enough things changed on the surface to more immediately appeal to those who find Hannah Horvath and company to be turn-offs.
Yet the differences between the two series go beyond the surface, and they point to the ways that Haigh and Looking creator Michael Lannan differ from Girls’ Lena Dunham. Dunham’s style is deliberately confrontational, daring viewers to watch her characters do awful things but still feel empathy for them because of how young and messed-up they are. Haigh’s directorial style is more detached, more at a remove. Where Dunham uses close-ups to often devastating effect, Haigh gets the same effect from shots of two people simply sitting together, eating and talking, trying to take stock of their lives. Girls feels very much like a series about people who are 25, even in its editing, which is often deliberately choppy. The editing in Looking is more elliptical and furtive, the pilot opening with the show’s three main characters spending a night out having fun together, the cuts washing between each other, rather than jumping from one scene to the next. This is just one night, but it could be many, many nights. The effect is unmistakable: Life is slipping away.
That’s the main difference between Looking and Girls: The former is about people who are five to 10 years older than the cast of the latter, and it shows. The characters in Looking talk about when they first moved to San Francisco and had such great times with the kind of tone that suggests they’ll rarely—if ever—do that again, and they’re beginning to realize how far they’ve fallen short in their careers and personal lives. One of them is moving with his boyfriend to Oakland, trying his hand at something that might end in marriage and a mortgage. Another can’t seem to find himself in a relationship that lasts more than a couple of months, even if he seems the most professionally settled of the three. And the third is stuck as a waiter, headed toward 40 without a real sense of what more he wants.
The word “looking” is spoken dozens of times in the first three episodes of this show, but it’s nothing so clumsy as the series trying to remind viewers what its title is. Instead, it’s about the different contexts for the word when someone is in the process of searching for something, anything. Checking out OKCupid at work? Well, that’s just looking. Getting involved in a three-way? That’s just looking for a way to spice up a potentially moribund sex life. Going to a club or a bathhouse or just wandering around, checking out guys? That’s looking as well. The characters are constantly taken in by surfaces, then realizing how hard it can be to push beyond those to find the real person beneath. They present themselves as perfectly as possible, only realizing how much they’ve fucked up when a date ends disastrously or they look at the job they still hold all these years later, the one they haven’t done anything with.
Series lead Jonathan Groff is winning as endlessly awkward Patrick—Patty to his friends—the guy who holds all of this together. He’s the most financially stable, but he’s also a disaster at dating, and he doesn’t seem to understand why. The series opens with him going cruising in a park, ostensibly just to see if people still do that, then having his encounter interrupted by his friends on the phone, with the promise of something better. Patrick keeps fucking up potential relationships, but his connection to his friends keeps pulling him forward. As those friends, Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett aren’t sketched in as adroitly in these first three episodes, but they get moments, and Alvarez as Patrick’s longtime roommate Agustín is particularly poignant in the series’ third episode. The scenes where the three simply sit around and shoot the shit about life as a gay man in San Francisco are series highlights, as well-written and observed as anything on TV.
The show’s world (which includes Scott Bakula in his apparently contractually obligated role as an older gay man in an HBO project) has yet to fill out as much as it could—though it already has more of an eye on issues of class and race than Girls has—and there are a couple of smaller plot points that skew too much toward sitcom misunderstandings. But for the most part, Lannan and Haigh have crafted something that’s bittersweet and funny and surprisingly quiet, willing to simply let the characters hang out and try to figure out what the rest of their lives are going to be like. Looking is a series about the difference between looking and knowing, the difference between seeing someone you like and really understanding who they are.
Created by: Michael Lannan
Starring: Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett
Returns: Sunday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
Format: Half-hour single-camera dramedy
Four episodes watched for review