What ‘Looking’ Gets Right — And Wrong — About San Francisco

| January 17, 2014
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Photo: HBO

Photo: HBO

In the past week, you’ve probably read at least two articles on how San Francisco is changing, super expensive, not as gay as you’d think, or just plain doomed. Those pieces have a point: every other weekend is a going-away party for a bestie, every other post on Facebook is asking for housing leads for evicted friends, every other neighborhood spot is being replaced by a fancy wine and cheese place, and every now and then, portions of your favorite bar are cordoned off for the rowdy kids from The Real World or your commute home is blocked by a premium cable show filming on your block.

With the sequel of the dot-com boom in full swing, it makes sense that Hollywood has turned its eye onto our once relatively under-the-radar hamlet. When news broke that HBO was coming to town to make a “real” portrait of gay men living in San Francisco, the knee-jerk instinct was a guarded one. Would they do our community justice? Or would they pack Esta Noche full of white people, exoticize gay sex as “titillating,” and throw in some drag terms for good measure (no T, no shade!).

Leading up to the series premiere on January 19th, the internet has pretty loudly taken issue with the show without actually having seen it. Some say, it doesn’t speak to every 20- or 30-something gay man’s experience (an impossible feat). And like the qualms many have with that other Millennial HBO hit Girls, there has been lots of discussion on who is being left out of this portrait. But let’s get beyond preemptive assumptions and find out what Looking actually gets right about being gay in San Francisco — and what it gets wrong. After watching the first four episodes, here’s my take:

RIGHT

muni looking hbo

Photo: HBO

  • Most television shows and movies that take place in San Francisco only present the postcard face of the city (the Golden Gate Bridge, the Painted Ladies) or really miss the mark with the way they characterize the people who live here (everyone coming across as country bumpkins with Jersey accents in Blue Jasmine). The worst offense is when these productions show characters hanging out in Fisherman’s Wharf. Locals do sometimes hang out there…if they’re really craving In ‘N’ Out. Thankfully, the producers behind Looking actually did their research before filming. The boys mainly walk around the Mission, unless they’re going clubbing or scoping out older gays in the Castro. And director Andrew Haigh captures the cinematic beauty of streets that aren’t called Lombard and even the inside of Muni buses and BART cars. It’s the version of San Francisco that we all know and love, the one that visiting friends are always pleasantly surprised to find.
  • Looking doesn’t sugarcoat their representation of life in the city; the apartments are realistically sized and the show doesn’t overlook the recent tensions of the city. Dom, a 39-year-old waiter at Zuni (Murray Bartlett), becomes frustrated with high-maintenance customers: “Tech a-holes. It’s like 1999 again and I hated them the first time.” And Agustin, a 31-year-old artist (Frankie J. Alvarez), decides to move to Oakland so he can live with his boyfriend and because he “really can’t afford the city anymore.” Who isn’t crossing the Bay for their shot at a yard and domestic bliss these days?
  • Even if you don’t go to yoga several times a week or go on meditation retreats, most people who live here can probably tell you their rising sign, frequently discuss the “energy” of a person or place, and might even be able to read your tarot. The Summer of Love set a tone of vague spirituality and a hippie sensibility that still exists today. Looking captures this subtle influence when Dom uses this pick-up line on a coworker: “I’ll put my positive energy into your universe.” Namaste!
  • In the series premiere, Patrick, the 29-year-old video game designer protagonist (Jonathan Groff), attends his ex boyfriend’s bachelor party at El Rio, a.k.a. the only place for a queer to drunkenly dance during the day. It was refreshing (and a tiny bit distracting) to see all the familiar faces from that scene present as extras playing shuffleboard or just having the times of their lives like they usually do.

WRONG

  • Speaking of El Rio, there’s a scene in which Patrick awkwardly talks to his ex at a urinal in the bar’s bathroom, which is presented as a little run-down, but quite spacious (three stalls!). Anyone who has frequented this spot knows all about the pain of holding your bladder for ungodly amounts of time while in line to use the bathroom that only has two urinals and no toilet (that is, unless your strategy is to leave the bar entirely to find a bathroom elsewhere — which could save at least three hours of your life per year). You might think this is nit-picky, but it’s a sensitive topic for grown adults who have almost peed themselves at El Rio (everyone).
  • There’s been a lot of discussion about the way race is portrayed on the show (nutshell: most of the people of color are supporting characters, there are no gay Asians in a city with a huge Asian population and even an Asian mayor, etc.). It’s not surprising that a show that deals in meager 25 minute episodes might have trouble fully representing every facet of the gay community, but it is a little unsettling that all the gay men are fit and straight-acting. It’s like an Absolut vodka ad. It’s hard to accept Patrick nervously trying to cover his chest with a leather vest during Folsom Street Fair when the actor playing him is an Adonis. Sure, some gays are into the gym, but most gays I know aren’t jacked and/or immaculately groomed. Watching the show sometimes feels like the Sunday of Pride weekend (the super commercial City Hall part), with the rest of the weekend (Dyke March, Trans March, anything remotely queer) happening somewhere off screen. This treatment brings up a larger issue within the gay community, one that excludes based on body type and discriminates against femininity (masc 4 masc, anyone?).

That said, there’s definite promise in Looking. The writers (seven of nine are gay) have done an impressive job in capturing how 20 and 30-something gays talk to each other. I could totally hear one of my friends saying “Instagram filters have ruined everything and I can’t tell if this guy is hot or not” or expressing their appreciation for my friendship by singing the Golden Girls theme song or saying “Can we just stay in and watch The View?” And, while the show has its LOL moments (Dom’s best gal pal delivers most of these, like when she calls his decision to friend his ex on Facebook “gross” and cautions against a potential slippery slope: “You give them a little inch, they take a mile, then they kill you, then they rob you when you’re dead”), its focus is less on comedy and more on the universal pursuit of connection and intimacy.

Because there’s a serious lack of any other high-profile shows out there exclusively about the gay community since The L Word went off the air in 2009, it’s important to hold this show to a high standard but only to a point. Ultimately, Looking isn’t a thesis statement or the definitive representation of gays on Earth that we’ll put on some disc and send into space; it’s entertainment. With any creative product, some will like it and some won’t. The important thing is that it exists at all. We’ve finally reached a point in our culture where a major network would green light a show about a marginalized group often relegated to sidekick/jester status. In an interview with The Atlantic, Andrew Haigh says, “My hope is that if this show does well, it will offer the opportunity for other people to make other shows about different types of gay people.” We can all hopefully agree that this is the future we’re all looking for.

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About the Author ()

Emmanuel Hapsis received his MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts. When he's not editing or writing for KQED Pop, he spends his time wondering if he should start a commune and petting all the stray cats.
  • Akemi

    Wait, so we don’t all have views of the Golden Gate Bridge from our spacious living room (bay) windows?

    Seriously, I’m happy to hear that there is an element of realism when representing the city, but it’s really too bad that the show couldn’t showcase more diversity. Still, I am intrigued and am looking forward to watching!

  • Chuck Louden

    I liked the show ALOT: wanted to love it though. I also agree that the dialogue and the characters also could have been better written. I agree that the straight girlfriend seemed to get the best lines! Also what was a bit disturbing was the sex stuff. As with any show on cable of course there was the graphic sex scenes, (yeah good for them!) but NO mention of safe sex or God Forbid: HIV! Like it or not HBO, it’s very much a part of gay male reality these days regardless of age!