Pride Month Programming: Why LOOKING Mattered (Revisited)


As part of our Pride Month Programming here’s an article I wrote a while back about the HBO comedy-drama LOOKING. While the show only lasted two short seasons, with a follow up TV movie to wrap things up, it was still an important series for representation. Since LOOKING was cancelled, representation of LGBTQ+ characters has gotten better but it’s alway nice to remember the shows that started us along the way.

LOOKING has made my list of favorite shows over the past two seasons and I was disappointed when HBO announced that the show was not renewed for a third season.  The network did however green light a 2 hour movie to wrap up the series that will air in 2016.  LOOKING was a quiet, thoughtful show that shares the same fate as other HBO series with similar qualities like ENLIGHTENED and BORED TO DEATH.

It’s not difficult to find a show centered around a group of friends on the variety of content platforms available to consumers today, but even with all of these numerous platforms there’s still a dearth of programming centering around the lives of gay men as series leads.  Not since Showtime’s QUEER AS FOLK has there been a show that followed the lives of gay men as they navigate the realities of what it means to be a gay man.  Some will ask me, “what about WILL & GRACE and MODERN FAMILY?” They’re definitely important shows in terms of representation, but being on broadcast networks, both were and are limited in dealing with the contemporary conversations happening among gay men.

If you’re not familiar with LOOKING the show centered on three gay men, all close friends trying to navigate their  personal and professional lives not unlike their heterosexual counterparts.  The show, set in San Francisco, has a slice of life feel to it, as it follows the characters of Patrick, Agustin and Dom through what is a very short period of time in their lives.  The show, criticized by some for moving too slowly, doesn’t let a lot of time pass as we get to see the character’s stories play out in what almost feels like real time.  Each character is on a personal journey while knowing that their friends are nearby to give support or sometimes harsh truths.  But, the show does tell juicy stories with attractive leads and is filled with romance, conflict, self reflection and yes, sex. But, the sex always had meaning even when it was casual, the writers used it as an opportunity to give us insight into the characters.  The emotional stakes were always high and never taken for granted.

Patrick, played by Broadway star and GLEE alum, is a twenty-eight year old video game designer, who when we meet him, is recently out of a relationship and shares his apartment with Agustin, his best friend since college.  Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) is an aspiring artist who isn’t producing any art, much to the chagrin of his boyfriend Frank. Dom, played by GUIDING LIGHT alum Murray Bartlett, is a waiter about to turn 40 and is dreading every second that draws him closer to his birthday. Dom lives with Doris, his best friend since childhood. Like Patrick and Agustin, they have a co-dependent relationship that’s keeping them both from fully moving on with their lives.  Patrick and Dom had a brief fling years ago, but now enjoy a purely platonic relationship.  It was refreshing to see that two men who once had a sexual relationship can be close friends without even a hint of sexual tension. LOOKING proved that gay men can just be friends.

Don’t be mistaken, there’s plenty of romantic messiness for all three of our heroes. Patrick falls quickly for a barber named Richie (Raul Castillo) who he meets on a bus one night after a bad date with a doctor he met online.  Richie takes an instant liking to Patrick who is more hesitant during the encounter but later decides to throw caution to the wind and go on a date with Richie.  This is new territory for Patrick as he comes from a an affluent, somewhat uptight family who he believes has certain expectations about the type of man with whom he should spend his life.  Richie, in Patrick’s eyes, is none of those things.  Patrick describes Richie to his mother Richie as “Mexican,with no money, and is just a barber with no aspirations of being anything more.”  Even though we know Richie has many other qualities Patrick finds attractive, it’s how he perceives the outside world’s view of Richie that gets in his way.  At work, Patrick is enamored with his new boss, the charming British hunk Kevin (Russell Tovey).  Kevin knows Patrick is attracted to him and as he gets to know Patrick the attraction becomes mutual. While Kevin looks good on paper, he come with his own baggage, which includes a boyfriend.  This love triangle is the gay equivalent to the SEX AND THE CITY Carrie/Big/Aidan story.

Agustin is  truly a lost soul as the show begins. He has no direction and acts like the world owes him something.  He decides to move in with his boyfriend Frank, but neither really knows what they’re getting into, especially after they engage in an impromptu threesome with a guy they meet at Agustin’s job.  In season 1, Agustin was LOOKING’S most unlikeable character.  On the surface he’s a self-involved spoiled brat who doesn’t take responsibility for his life. But those traits mostly manifest because he’s without purpose. His journey throughout the two seasons is the biggest.  When he meets Eddie (Daniel Franzese) who is HIV positive, his world opens up and we see more layers to the character unveiling a  childlike vulnerability.

As Dom’s 40th birthday approaches, he’s taking stock of his life and realizes it’s time to make casual sex with younger guys less of a priority and working towards his career goals his main focus.  He’s been a waiter at a popular neighborhood restaurant for over ten years and dreams of opening up a place of his own featuring peri peri chicken, a dish he learned to make from his late father.  While he has the support of his roommate Doris, pitch perfectly played by Lauren Weedman, their relationship shows signs of cracking as their only successful relationships has been with each other.  When Dom meets an older man, florist Lynn, played by a still very hot Scott Bakula he finally believes it’s possible to achieve his career dreams while realizing that he wants a stable long-term relationship.

Each episode of LOOKING is filled with small character moments that the writers smartly return to in later episodes. But, such nuance can easily be missed by the casual viewer.  As I binged season one this past weekend, it was much easier to notice how a moment in episode 2 connected to another moment in episode 6. There were even times when I would realize how a moment in season two connected all the way back to an early episode from season 1.  The writers didn’t hit you over the head telling viewers “THIS IS A MOMENT,” which is the beauty of LOOKING.  Something as simple as two characters dancing in one episode resonates in a much bigger way during a later episode.  It’s clear that the writers really thought about the character and story arcs of LOOKING with great detail.  Every moment had purpose and there no “throw-away” stories.   The show allowed characters to have conversations about real life issues facing gay men, including: what it’s like to live with HIV in a time where treatment is readily available and its not a death sentence, but a stigma is still attached to being positive; the decision to date someone who is HIV positive and the discussion about the pros and cons of PrEP, a medication that can help prevent contracting HIV; dating outside of your race and social status; the anxiety of growing older as gay man; the impact having an open relationship has on a couple; and allowing yourself to believe that you deserve to be loved on your own terms.

LOOKING was an important show for me.  I mostly identified with Patrick, as I cringed watching him make a number of the same mistakes I’ve made over the years. I’ve never been in a relationship with one of my bosses, but aside from that, I often thought Patrick was based on me.  That’s the point, isn’t it? We have to make some mistakes in order to learn what we want and most importantly don’t want. Like Patrick, Agustin and Dom, we’re all searching for our purpose and LOOKING provided us with a window into a world with relatable characters sharing the same dreams and struggles as the rest of us. When I talk to friends about the show, I get choked up recounting the stories of these characters because they resonate so deeply.

I understand that HBO had to make a business decision regarding not moving forward with another full season of LOOKING and i’m happy they ordered a two-hour movie to wrap up the stories.  I wish Netflix or Logo had done a co-production deal with Warner Brothers to keep the show going.  I hope other networks and content providers don’t shy away from green-lighting another ensemble series focused on telling contemporary stories about gay men. These stories are important and need to be told.

Take a look at some highlights from Patrick and Richie’s romance below:

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