Look How Far We've Come: The Importance Of HBO's 'Looking'

Farewell, you sweet prince of a show

Photo courtesy of HBO

HBO's Looking polarized audiences. Its two season run was met with critical acclaim and public discourse; one side argued it wasn't inclusive enough while another said it still managed to accomplish a lot. Regardless, HBO brought a gay-centric narrative to its primetime Sunday night lineup and, for two seasons, embraced its growing pains with a glossy—albeit visually muted—candor. Ratings ultimately won over storytelling and HBO canceled the show in 2015, promising a future wrap-up special. That final chapter will unfold tomorrow night, July 23, in the form of Looking: The Movie, a 90-minute piece of humanizing catharsis that leaves you wondering: What's next?

For all of Looking's criticisms, perhaps its most eye-roll-inducing one was that it was boring. Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Augustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), and Dom (Murray Bartlett) were three best friends with relatively comfortable job situations living in San Francisco. They went through breakups, they partied, fought, escaped to the woods, and (occasionally) had sex. The drama never reached a fever pitch and the nudity was sparse compared to other HBO shows, but intimacy abounded. Many were quick to call Looking the gay version of Girls, and on a surface level, those critics are right. But New York is not San Francisco and the gay characters Lena Dunham has written aren't as three dimensional as she would like to think. "They weren’t marginalized, victimized characters," Alvarez told me on a recent Sunday afternoon in a New York hotel room, sitting with his two other castmates. "They owned their sexuality and their place within the community." Looking worked because of how honest it was about this particular facet of the gay experience. That, perhaps, also contributed to its downfall because some audience members would arguably rather live out their lives instead of watching them unfold on screen. 

That slow burn intimacy of Looking and its nuanced lens on these three complicated, but not overly so, characters is what made HBO's "gay" show so powerful. We will absolutely be treading in its gentle wake for years to come because Looking never sought to make grandiose statements about being gay. "The power of the show was its willingness to be truthful and honest and open about the reality of intimacy and relationships and love and friendships," Bartlett said. After the creators asked Looking's audience what the show could use more of in the second season, they introduced a biracial heterosexual narrative to the overall story arc and an HIV-positive supporting character who happened to fall into the "bear" tribe of gay men. One of the lead characters was a gay Latino. So, was the show as inclusive as it "should" have been? No, but it made an effort to be. As Bartlett said, "it’s inspiring in that it’s imperfect." It found its strength in its flaws.

Looking: The Movie does a wonderful job concluding this particular chapter of its three characters' lives. Each character finds some version of personal solace, but it's not a buttoned-up and flawless ending. It grapples with time, commitment, and doing the right thing. At one point or another, Patrick, Augustín, and Dom all worry about becoming a cliché, which is striking considering the show itself was so far and away from the cliché gay narratives on television. Groff told me that it's not so much worrying about becoming a cliché as it is these characters worrying about making the right decision: "It's wanting to make sure you're making these choices for the right reasons and not just because the society is telling you to, not just because the gay community is telling you to, not just because this umbrella of something is telling you to. If it’s what you really want, then what’s wrong with that?" Looking's focus on the "you" and personal identity growth is where it found its footing.

The show's series finale was titled "Looking for Home." The movie doesn't necessarily have a subtitle, but if it did, I'd call it "Looking for Authenticity." With all its grown-up worries about marriage, moving, closing chapters and beginning new ones, Looking: The Movie really emphasizes the show's running theme of genuineness. It does this by weaving complicated, very real narratives of love, friendship, and intimacy together in a way that tells its audience—which was and is primarily gay—what they're going through is valid; their feelings and worries are valid. They don't marginalize, they normalize. There's a sense of pride running through its hour-and-a-half run, one that's infectious and, at least for me, makes you want to be a better human.

All of Looking's characters have come so far since its January 2014 premiere, and had the show continued, we'd most likely see more of the same. If that's boring, then so be it. Looking was an intimate watershed moment for the gay community that will hopefully inspire more three-dimensional queer narratives in television, narratives that aren't just sassy or about coming out or that end in murder and death, like so many of today's LGBTQIA stories do. Groff told me his character went from wanting to be "a person that needed someone to listen to him to being a person who’s able to listen." Looking itself followed a similar arc: it became a show that listened to its audience and, in turn, offered up questions worth listening to. Unfortunately, Looking and its characters never answered those questions, but it didn't have to because they're answers that evolve with time. What it did do was find pride in the notion that Groff brought up to me, “Who knows if it will work out, but at least we can say we tried," and compassion in the very act of the search. Now, we keep looking.

Looking: The Movie premieres Saturday, July 23 at 10pm EST on HBO.