Television

Looking or Lacking? On Public Transportation, Love, and Diversity in HBO’s New LGBT Dramedy

Please give a warm welcome to D_M_A_T_T, a first-time Tube Top contributor! He was born and raised in San Francisco, so feels uniquely positioned to give nothing but a balanced and totally not focused on the minutae of SF public transportation review. Here’s what he had to say.

This weekend I checked out the premiere of HBO’s “Looking,” and before we get any further, I need to get something off my chest. Why, why would the lead character Patty take the MUNI on the subway that exists only downtown and then magically appear in the next scene at a hipster bar deep in San Francisco’s Mission District? Especially as Richie, the man he just met on the train, was heading to a latino gay bar about a mile and a half away?! And wait – actually, just one more thing: having taken the MUNI metro since I was in the womb, I can assure you that you would never hear the announcement, “This train will not stop at Powell Station.” All trains stop at Powell Station. That’s where the tourists get off, obviously. I guess that’s what you get when a television series needs to film an extended sequence on a public transit line.

Your pretty faces can't distract us from your transportation LIES!

Your pretty faces can’t distract us from your transportation LIES!

Okay, glad we got that out of the way.  Because truly – and it does pain me to say this – Looking’s lack of other geographic flaws and authentic depiction of San Francisco actually impressed me. Trust me, I have high standards when it comes to an authentic depiction of San Francisco, even if the bar has been lowered by the newest season of MTV’s The Real World. Running to catch the MUNI bus, enjoying the unique Northern Californian mix of marijuana and red wine, airing frustration with the inept and pompous attitudes of tech-sector employees, referencing Oakland’s lower rents; these were all quality references to the city I love. And of course there were some stunning panorama shots, including a wonderfully brooding dark fog over the city skyline that perfectly complemented the previous sequence of utter awkwardness during an OKCupid date gone awry.

The realism in the depiction of the city and San Francisco life also translated to the interactions and personalities of the show’s characters. Jonathan Groff, who plays the protagonist, Patty, displays the natural facial and physical reactions of a young gay man who is grounded in terms of work, friendship, and home, but slightly lost in terms of romance. His awkward experience while cruising in a park for the first time and the stream of chattering gibberish that emanates from his lips during an all-too-relatable blind Internet date are clear moments of humor in my mind. But similarly memorable are the moments of surprise, interest, and excitement throughout his flirtation with Richie on said realistic-but-also-geographically-impossible MUNI metro ride.

Looking’s use of setting and full-bodied characters like Patty pleasantly surprised me. I found myself attached to their stories and – of course – to their surroundings. However, where Looking triumphed in the depiction of some portions of gay San Franciscan life, it failed to capture the scope of the experience. Sure, no single drama can entirely encapsulate a cultural zeitgeist, but there are ways to be more and less inclusive. Specifically, Looking’s lack of women, as well as its excessive focus on middle- to upper-class gay men, were confusing and unrealistic. It’s these details that give rise to my deeper anxieties about a show that seems to be the first to capture an experience that is important to this cultural moment, and is certainly near and dear to me.

I don't always look for something real, but when I do, I look on HBO.

I don’t always look for something real, but when I do, I look on HBO.

Let’s talk about Looking’s lady problem. In the pilot episode, there were only two women with speaking roles, compared to numerous gay men – and one had maybe two lines. The only significant female character is Doris, the housemate of Dom, who is a close friend of Patty’s and one seriously sassy and mustachioed waiter. Dom’s relationship with Doris provided a strong counterweight to his interactions with Patty or Agustín, the other gay male leads. And she was hilarious – she mocked an infant for crying in the hospital (she appears to work as a nurse) about its heart defect. Now that is some high-quality black humor. But she was sequestered to a single scene, and I had to go onto Wikipedia to find out her name and everything else about her. Although I understand that the tech-sector-dominated social scene of San Francisco these days is majority-male, it would be impossible to live in San Francisco and have as little interaction with women – gay or straight – as these men do.

Looking’s lack of prominent female characters speaks to my primary worry about this new and otherwise exciting show: that this is a series of, for, and about a relatively uniform kind of gay man. To me, this is problematic because it has the potential to undermine understanding of and sympathy for alternative gay experiences, since this is primarily one of privilege and whimsy.

The lack of diversity in characters as well as experience extends to other parts of the show. There are about as many heterosexual men featured on the show as women. Of equal importance, we’ve yet to encounter signs of characters beyond the most generic of Gs in “LGBT”. The characters all appear to come from privilege: Patty works in a seemingly lucrative video-game-design job and lives in a spacious house (with a backyard) with Agustín. And a reference to Oakland’s lower rents is stated purely in jest. Either as the Girls for the LGBT community of our generation, or more simply as an LGBT-relevant show of a generation, so far Looking displays a homogeneous group of men who interact only with similar gay men. Already, the potential for a parodic as opposed to realistic and insightful representation of the gay San Franciscan experience is looking (see what we did there) a little closed-minded.

I'm YOUNG, I'm HIP, I'm FABULOUS!

I’m YOUNG, I’m HIP, I’m FABULOUS!

Fortunately, Looking does seem self-aware – and hilariously so, at times. Dom acknowledges this (ironic) homogeneity when criticizing Patty’s unwillingness to date men “without a Stanford degree,” for example. Yet the series still produces a bubble through which a white and well-off gay man travels, unaware of people who do not share his interest in similarly cisgender homosexual men. A voice of a generation, perhaps, but worrisome if this show is to embody modern gay life for the American viewing public.

The Looking pilot presents a series about men who are looking (why hello there, vague and cryptic title, how have you been?) for love as a theoretically universal emotion and experience. Patty just wants the love that his ex-boyfriend or his sister have found through marriage, or that his housemate Agustín has found by moving in with his boyfriend. But this kind of show threatens to whitewash the real travails of life for many in the LGBT community who are not able to focus only on the seemingly whimsical search for love in the urban setting. I worry that Looking will underline gender normative, male-dominated conceptions of homosexuality within the LGBT community. I wonder if it will promote false assumptions of a yuppie, privileged, and sheltered lifestyle among contemporary gay men in San Francisco and beyond.

I’m glad that Looking exists, to start this debate and to bring about positive critiques of normative trends within the LGBT community. But I do seriously hope that future episodes ensure it continues on a path of self-awareness rather than self-righteousness. We’ll see in the coming weeks.

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One thought on “Looking or Lacking? On Public Transportation, Love, and Diversity in HBO’s New LGBT Dramedy

  1. Pingback: Sex and the City By the Bay? Romantic Tropes and Gay Relationships in HBO’s Looking | Tube Top Television

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