By Christopher Glazek
Pictured: Jonathan Groff | Photography by Nino Muñoz
For nearly a year after the premiere of Girls, when the words “Lena Dunham” began to crowd out all other conversation topics, thousands of gay men in New York City and Los Angeles began walking around with the same half-written treatment for a television pilot in the back of their heads. It stood to reason that someone would get rich and famous by making a gay version of Girls. Last May, HBO announced that person would be Andrew Haigh, the little-known director of the critically acclaimed 2011 gay indie-romance film Weekend.
Finally pulling the trigger on an idea that had been batted around for years, HBO ordered eight episodes of a dramedy about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco. The show would air on Sunday evenings, directly after Girls. Contrary to expectations, it would not be called Fags, Queers, ’Mos, Gays, or Boys; in a nod, perhaps, to straight viewers’ relentless fascination with the lingo and mechanics of gay hook-up apps, the series would be called Looking, a word that usually appears on Grindr followed by a question mark. To those familiar with Weekend, which chronicles 48 hours in the life of a mismatched gay couple in the dreary East Midlands city of Nottingham (a city most famous for a nasty sheriff from the Middle Ages, sometimes depicted as an animated gray wolf), it was clear that the characters in Looking would be, in the words of the show’s adorable star, Jonathan Groff, looking “for love” instead of “for right now.”
For legions of would-be project developers, a gay-themed HBO comedy has been a holy grail for decades. Way back in 1982, the network acquired the rights to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City — a cycle of novels set in late-’70s San Francisco — with the hope of adapting it into a weekly sitcom. The concept went into pre-production, but executives eventually determined audiences would not accept a show celebrating gay sex in the face of the worsening AIDS crisis (the novels were eventually turned into a miniseries by Britain’s Channel 4 and aired contentiously on PBS). Then Queer as Folk, based on another U.K. series, premiered on Showtime in 2000, proving that a gay sex drama could attract viewers somewhere on the raunchy fringes of premium cable.
HBO, though, was in a class by itself. It had courted major controversy — and major ratings — by launching Sex and City in 1998, a show based on the column by the New York Observer’s Candace Bushnell. The rap against Sex and the City, which stirred passions even as it upended the culture, was that it was already deeply, monstrously “gay.” Summing up a view popular among concerned mothers, the critic Lee Siegel wrote in the New Republic that Sex in the City made a mockery of femininity by portraying women as cock-obsessed sociopaths. “Running through Sex and the City,” Siegel scolded, is “a manifesto for a certain kind of raw, rough, promiscuous, anonymous gay male sex.” Siegel’s complaint boiled down to a single observation: “None of these women is hurt by sex.” Therein lied the show’s immorality.
It’s difficult to predict what mothers will think of Looking, whose earnest, struggling characters share little in common with Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha, or Miranda. Instead of taking place in New York or Los Angeles, the show is shot in sleepy San Francisco, a city with a storied gay past and a booming high-tech present, but which hasn’t hosted a major TV show in nearly a decade.
For Groff, who first visited the city two years ago, San Francisco feels like “the gay Oz.” He says he was particularly struck by the legend that San Francisco became a gay haven for sailors returning from the Pacific after World War II: “It was the last port of call for all the guys in the Navy, and the ones who were gay just stayed there because they didn’t want to go back to their lives.” Groff adds that the show’s three-month shoot, which took the characters to well-known San Francisco haunts like the Stud, the Café, and El Rio, was like a dream. “The street where I was staying smelled like jasmine,” he says. “I rode my bike every day to set. I was in heaven.”
For Haigh, Looking’s director and co-executive producer, making sure the show was actually shot in San Francisco was his first order of business. “When I came on board,” he says, “it was still unclear whether we’d shoot in L.A. or San Francisco — everyone always says it’s easier to shoot in L.A. — but for me, it was like, ‘We have to shoot in San Francisco. It needs to be about that city.’ ” Haigh also made sure the crew was drawn from locals. Like Groff, he speaks about the city in metaphysical terms: “Maybe it’s the trams — there’s a melancholy to it. Fog coming in. Something wistful.”