Modern Love

1.14.2014

By Christopher Glazek

Could Andrew Haigh’s new HBO dramedy, Looking, be that rare thing — a gay TV show about the rest of us?

At left: Frankie J. Alvarez

Looking follows three gay friends living in the Mission-Castro district as they navigate relationships, careers, and friendships. Patrick, 29, played by Groff, is an affable video game designer with sexual hang-ups. His slightly older roommate, Augustin, played by Frankie J. Alvarez, is an artist’s assistant who hasn’t made work in years. Australian actor Murray Bartlett plays Dom, their mutual friend, a well-built waiter edging on 40 who has dreams of opening his own restaurant (“Dom has coasted by on his looks,” says Bartlett, whose last major gig was on CBS’s daytime soap opera Guiding Light. “He’s at a point where he wants more depth in his life”). None is an heir, a genius, or a supermodel. Each has a lot of feelings. Unlike the stars of Girls, the men on Looking are not the emperor’s children — they don’t hail from dynasties of artists, musicians, playwrights, or prime-time news anchors. They aren’t trying to date celebrities or become the voices of their generation. In part, they’re too old.

“Our show is less about people at the beginning in their twenties figuring out who they are,” says Groff, “and more about people stepping into their lives in their thirties and forties and finding their place in the world.”

Haigh says he didn’t want “hyper-successful” characters, betraying an interest in ordinary people that is more common on television in the U.K. than in the United States, where viewers tend to favor aspirational plotlines. “All the characters are from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnicities — that can happen a lot more readily in the gay community,” Haigh says. “What you connect to initially is your sexuality, not your age or where you’ve been to school.” The characters in Looking, he says, are “not aspiring to be rich. They’re not aspiring to have lots of sex. They’re aspiring to have happier lives, more fulfilled lives.” 

In comparison to Girls, says Alvarez, who was doing regional theater in Louisville when he mailed in his audition tape, “our show is sweeter.”

In the opening scenes of the first episode of Queer as Folk, the groundbreakingly graphic Showtime series about a group of gay friends in Pittsburgh, a tall, virile advertising executive named Brian goes to a club, picks up a blond twink still in high school, takes him home, and lingually deflowers his virgin ass. “I remember watching it — I wasn’t even out then,” Haigh says. “I was at a friend’s house and it came on and it was, like, so exciting. I was like, ‘This is on television?’ ”

SLIDESHOW: THE MEN OF LOOKING

Though 10 years Haigh’s junior, Groff — who was roughly the same age as Justin, the rimmed twink from the QAF series premiere, when it aired — had a similar experience. “I was in high school,” he says. “I remember I was visiting people who were in college and we went to a party and it was on TV. The scene I saw was somebody fucking somebody in a steam room. I remember thinking, Oh my god! It was very salacious to me. I knew I was gay at the time, but I was still in school and totally in the closet. It was like ‘Whoaaa, that’s a lot. That’s a lot to see.’ ”

Looking also begins with a graphic sexual encounter, but without the disco-thumping atmospherics that propelled Queer as Folk. “The very first scene of the pilot is me going out to the woods to get a hand job,” says Groff, simply but accurately summarizing a sequence in which the innocent Patrick goes cruising for the first time in a San Francisco park. The scene starts with a close-up of Patrick’s fresh, wonderstruck face — he’s like a cuter, muscle-enhanced Michael Cera — peeking through lush foliage. The camera then turns to a rugged older man, similarly wonderstruck, who reaches for Patrick’s crotch. (Patrick’s expression is sweet and somewhat fearful; on his graying counterpart, the same look comes off as lecherous and slightly demented.) The characters seem destined for a silent encounter in the bushes, but Patrick squanders the moment by first whispering awkward small talk, then attempting a kiss, and finally taking a call on his cell, which erupts with an explosive ringtone reminiscent of a Super Nintendo sound effect. In the next scene, we see him walking down a sidewalk with Augustin and Dom, awkwardly reliving an awkward moment — “It was a very, very small hand job, like two seconds long, and the guy who gave it to me was very hairy — not even hipster hairy... like, gym-teacher hairy” — as he endures the teasing of his more sexually experienced peers.

On most shows, if a character mangles an attempt at cruising, it’s an occasion for uproarious slapstick. But Looking, whose hyperrealism borders on cinema verité, doesn’t contain “jokes.” As Haigh explains, “It’s slice of life. Instead of ‘Here’s a joke, here’s a joke,’ you’re watching these people’s lives. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s not so funny.” Whereas most comedies use awkwardness as an engine of humor, embarrassing a character to get a laugh, in Haigh’s hands awkwardness becomes relatable, even erotic. Patrick’s fumbling is not simply endearing — it’s what makes him an object of desire.

“For me it’s not about, awkwardness, really,” Haigh says. “It’s that real life is... awkward, I suppose,” which sounds like an appropriately awkward response. “It’s the difference between people, the lack of clarity, all those things that make people gently butt up against each other — that’s what’s fascinating and sexy. It’s not about big conflict or high drama; it’s about all those little things in life that make us embarrassed or uncomfortable.” Looking does not rely on glittering wit, slick fashion, or edgy transcendence to power its storyline. It relies on the joy of recognition that sometimes accompanies viewing a well-calibrated reproduction of daily life.

As with Haigh’s earlier work, the show has no score. “I told HBO in our first meeting that I don’t like having a score,” he says. “There can be music, but it has to be playing in the scene. I wanted a naturalistic approach. I also didn’t want it to be super cutty — I wanted to do longer takes.” Looking is drenched in blues — the whole series looks as if it’s been run through the Nashville Instagram filter — a palette appropriate to its slow-moving, somewhat somber lilt.

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