It can be very odd seeing who you are and the supposed lifestyle you lead portrayed on the big or small screen.
Or at least the idea of what your life is like.
Quite often, it is nothing like the reality, which is fine since television is a dramatic art form after all, and the day to day business of things can be a tad too mundane to keep eyeballs glued to the TV, while at other times it is so close to the world you k ow that it’s like someone has been recording you and transcribing it into a script.
Looking, HBO’s show about three close gay friends trying to find career and romantic fulfilment in modern day San Francisco which premiered in January this year, sits rather comfortably in the middle of these distinct approaches, accurately reflecting what life is like for a 21st century gay man while gilding the dramatic lily just enough to make it interesting.
As a non-heteronormative man, to use my favourite piece of jargon at the moment, it was enjoyable watching the broad brushstrokes of a world I know intimately well – I say “broad brushstrokes” only because gay society in Sydney where I live, and San Francisco obviously do have their finer points of difference – portrayed with some thought, sensitivity and understanding of what is happening beneath all the feather boas, drag queens and glitter that the straight world generally associates with us.
What proved particularly effective in viewing Looking was to get my Netflix on, and watch all eight episodes on one seamless transition, turning beautifully wrought discrete but interwoven stories into one fulfilling narrative than scarcely missed a beat.
A little slow to begin with, favouring the subtle perhaps a little too much over the dramatically pronounced, Looking found its storytelling feet very quickly, hooking me in so fast that pressing PLAY on the next episode when the previous one had just finished became a highly enjoyable automatic reflex.
And as I watched the episodes one after the other, I had time to consider what I liked about the show and why it worked as well, and as quickly, as it did, gelling in a way that few first seasons of shows ever manage.
Characters are all
What helped Looking from pretty much the opening frame was the obvious thought that had been put into the three main characters – video game developer Patrick Murray (Jonathan Groff), aspiring avant garde artist and Patrick’s best friend Agustín (Frankie J. Álvarez) and upmarket restaurant wine waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett).
Together with key secondary characters such as Dom’s fun-loving, take-no-prisoners housemate Doris (Lauren Weedman), Patrick’s video gaming wunderkind boss Kevin Matheson (Russell Tovey) and Patrick’s boyfriend Richie Donado (Raúl Castillo), they sprang fully-formed into episode one’s narrative, giving you the very welcome sense that you had simply dropped in on real and concrete lives already in progress.
Without resorting to the usual easy cliches often used to define gay men, the show’s creator Michael Lannan, and executive producers David Marshall Grant, Sarah Condon and Andrew Haigh, gave us three nuanced men whose lives had a ring of flawed authenticity, eschewing the usual cartoonish cardboard cutouts so beloved of the people who bring us many gay-themed or peopled TV shows.
I understand that in a show like Will and Grace, or Ugly Betty, having a stereotypically gay character makes sense, operating as a kind of instantly recognisable point of identification for audiences, but that approach simply wouldn’t have worked for show like Looking, which is seeking to represent real gay men in all their flawed, amusing, serious glory.
It succeeds admirably with Patrick’s reticence to indulge in the wilder sides of gay life less prudishness and more a reflection of his conservative growing up, Dom’s one night-centric love life a result less of superficiality than an inability to let people get too close, and Agustín’s poor decision making and general flakiness a product of a man still trying to figure his life out.
As a result, their actions, grounded in distinct, finely constructed characters you could quite easily meet on the street, resonate, whether you’re straight or gay, making them identifiable as real people grappling with the complexities and uncertainties of real world circumstances.
And they’re people you want to spend time with, critical if a TV show is to have any kind of longevity.
Drama with a small “d”
The temptation when you’re writing about peoples’ lives, even those that seem as real and tangible as the three men in Looking, is to amp up the tension, raise the stakes, and hype the outcomes till you have left drama far behind and have a melodrama of epic, and consequently unbelievable proportions on your hands.
This is especially the case in recent years where audiences have come to expect momentous and unforeseen twists in the narrative on an almost weekly basis, thanks to an ever escalating narrative arms war among TV shows who are only too aware of the various digital pursuits competing for viewers’ attention, and feel the need to up the dramatic ante at every turn to keep people watching.
While that cane entertaining in the short-term, it can also severely weaken a show, forcing to use up all its meaningful story lines in a season or less, or turning the show into a caricature of itself in record time, any attempts to adhere to authentic storytelling tossed out the window along with the baby, the bathwater and the main character’s second cousin’s murderous husband, Alfonse.
It is an exhausting business and one that Looking, thank the gods of measured plotting, has happily turned its back on, crafting story lines that mosey and meander, in sync with the rhythms of normal, everyday life.
Sure things are heightened from time to time (Patrick and Richie go on a date one night that seems to exist in an endless pocket of time, and on a “school night” too) but many of the intimate or life changing conversations that the characters have happen on the bus, or on a walking trail or in the middle of hectic preparation for some event or another.
In other words, exactly where you’d expect them to happen.
And they’re not overwrought or truncated, playing out much as you’d expect them to, with the sort of reactions you’d expect people to have.
All the stuff of great drama is there without doubt – relationships rise and fall, ambitions are realised, trysts and unexpected dalliances occur, poor decisions are made – but they aren’t allowed to supersede the authenticity of the characters’ lives.
They lose nothing of their compelling nature by not being overwrought, if anything being more relatable and engaging in the context of normal life than they would be if delivered in soap operatic fashion.
It’s a brave move in the high octane narrative world of modern TV and one that work extremely well for Looking.
Life has more twists and turns than a maze
We’ve all heard that tired old phrase that life was never meant to be easy, a million times over.
It sticks around in the lexicon, though weary and worn and too-oft repeated, largely because it’s true, a distillation of the fact that nothing in life comes easy or without hardship or consequences, and that the sweet, contented moments are often annoyingly drowned by the times of stress and argy-bargy.
And the good looking men of Looking aren’t immune to this truism, their hopes and dreams, romantic or professional, often stymied and frustrated in the most unexpected ways, very much like real life.
Think you’ve found the man of your dreams?
Perhaps you have Patrick but we all know the road to true love will be strewn with stones, misdirections and more than a few emotional faux pas.
Convinced your art will be every bit as successful as your relationship?
It could well be Agustín or equally they could both could fall into the abyss of “Did NOT see that coming!”
Are you sure that the world will love your plan for your own restaurant as much as you do Dom?
Maybe they will but getting there could take a little longer and with a few more emotional complications that you thought.
Again, all these small but meaningful kinks on the road to where they’d like to go, arguably essential for any drama worth its salt, are beautifully articulated, allowed to play out as they do in real life, with all the ramifications and recriminations you might expect, before everyone licks their wounds and gets on with the messy, chaotic business of life.
Looking has these authentically trials and tribulations of living down a fine art, very watchable art, so perfectly expressed that you would have to be utterly oblivious to the whys and wherefores of life not to identify with them.
It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Looking, a show that got off to a slow but likeable start and built itself in exquisitely well wrought small “d” dramatic leaps and bounds has been granted a second season by HBO.
It is inordinately refreshing to have a show that appreciates there is drama in the ordinary things in life, and that is content to let them play out (albeit with a few extra dramatic bells and whistles to add a little something extraordinary to the mix.)
And I am glad that audiences have taken to it sufficiently for HBO to give it another season, one with with Lauren Weedman, Raúl Castillo and Russell Tovey promoted to series regulars alongside Groff, Alvarez and Bartlett.
It’s proof positive that there is still a place for small, intimate dramedies in the often cacophonous modern media landscape.