Sex and the City By the Bay? Romantic Tropes and Gay Relationships in HBO’s Looking

This beyond fa-habulous post is brought to you by our resident San Francisco and Looking expert, D_M_A_T_T!

We’re only two episodes into Looking, and HBO’s favorite San Franciscans are already taking some big steps in their romantic lives – let the games begin! Agustín finally moves out of the San Francisco apartment he shares with Patty and into an Oakland basement unit with his boyfriend, Frank. Dom reunites with an ex-boyfriend who had taken advantage of him. And Patty goes on his first real date with his new love interest whom he met on an abomination of an “accurate” San Francisco subway ride (which I swear I’m not still bitter about…).

So THIS is what love/hate feels like.

So THIS is what love/hate feels like.

But what struck me this time around was how familiar each of their new romantic situations felt. Almost too familiar for a show that strives to bring something different to television and the viewing public. Are the romantic situations of each character unique or cliché? Consider the evidence.

Sexually liberated Agustín – the man who so enjoyed that random threesome in the series premiere – moves into his boyfriend’s house, and quickly realizes that even he can settle down and be happy staying in with his cuddly lover. Haven’t we met a hyper-sexualized straight female version of this before?

Zat is SUCH a Samantha thing to say!

Zat is SUCH a Samantha thing to say!

Dom meets a former boyfriend who apparently screwed him out of a lot of cash while addicted to drugs and is now a big-shot realtor in Los Angeles. Angry about being too polite even to this creep (and ordering and paying for said creep’s “Refresh” Tea), Dom decides to utilize the instant sexual gratification app of Grindr. Let me guess, he feels terrible after sex for thinking that physical pleasure would resolve his deeply emotional troubles? I wonder who made me think of that…

There's a lesson in everything, right?! RIGHT?!

There’s a lesson in everything, right?! RIGHT?!

And finally, there’s Patty who feels like he’s screwed everything up after coming on way too strong in his date with his new interest, Richie. And yes – he really seemed like a sexual deviant racist all rolled up into one big annoying whiner. Will he ever find love? Will he? WILL HE?!?!?!

Everything seemed to be going so well...

Everything seemed to be going so well…

Although I still find myself enjoying the show and some of its characters, a major part of my continued attention comes from the show’s novelty. It’s a NEW (S1E2!) show with NEW (kyat) faces in a NEW (thebest) setting (for television, obviously not for my own exhaustive knowledge of San Francisco). But there’s something deeply un-novel about this series’ plot and characters thus far. As I thought more about my previous criticism that there were not enough women or straight men in this constructed world (there still aren’t, btw), I began to reconsider that it is, after all, a show about a unique group of gay friends and this may just be the truthful depiction of their particular world. But the problem is that beyond the premise, the Looking leads are just not unique characters. In banking on their sexuality to differentiate these characters from those on other shows and romances, and not crafting nuanced differences in how such an orientation modifies or evolves into romantic relationships, the show risks simplifying “their particular world” too much, almost as if it is an easily separable sphere that runs parallel to the straight romantic world.

Because of this simplification, my major qualm this week was the way that typical tropes of romance in the “straight” world play out here, only with “gay” partners. Maybe it’s an effort to demonstrate to the public that gay people live and love like any humans, but I think it’s kind of absurd that gay men have to show the same old tropes and romantic struggles. Patty fails to be genuine on his first real date with his interest and scares him off; Agustín realizes it’s okay to settle down and maybe domesticate out of your wild 20s a bit; Dom feels old and calls himself a cliché in trying to make himself feel better through casual sex. But we’ve heard these all before, and not just among the women of Sex and the City.

Ugh, I'm such a cliche. A fabulous, fabulous cliche.

Ugh, I’m such a cliche. A fabulous, fabulous cliche.

In fact, Dom is a cliché, only a straight one. Yes, it is true that there’s a universal quality to these now cliche experiences, but because of the show’s context as a relatively new showcase for homosexual relationships and because of the long use and overuse of these tropes, instead it’s almost like seeing gay men having “straight” relationship and romance troubles. Perhaps the idea is to prove equal gay ownership of such feelings, but it would be great if the show made a similar effort to showcase the alternative elements of the relationships as well.


3 thoughts on “Sex and the City By the Bay? Romantic Tropes and Gay Relationships in HBO’s Looking

  1. Dear CMWQ:

    When I wrote “alternative,” I meant it less with any particular example in mind of “alternative lifestyle” and more in the normative sense of providing an “alternative” to same-old depictions of love on television in general. We don’t get to see the quirks of why an outwardly sexual personality like Agustín determines that a more inward relationship would be suitable or comforting for him. Instead we just see a kind of Manichean transformation: out of the darkness into the light, he now understands that he’ll find greater happiness in focusing on a home-life with his boyfriend.

    Hope that clarifies my thought process rather than muddy it up further.


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