HBO’s ‘Looking’: the “Boring” Side of Queer Naturalism
The reception to HBO’s new drama Looking has been somewhat tepid. Critics’ reviews have been favorable, but the ratings remain low even after its third episode. Of course, this was inevitable: from calling it the gay Girls to expecting an updated version of Queer as Folk, expectations for Looking were as bloated as they were varied. So far, the show has sidestepped these comparisons by not trying to be anything other than itself. Still, the burden of representation for its target focus—gay men—has inspired all sorts of responses about who it speaks for or not. Amidst all this critical and popular attention, however, the most salient—and to me, most surprising—criticism leveled at the show since its premiere is that it is boring.
Boring how? From claiming that there isn’t enough sex, to suggesting that its characters are not interesting, to arguing that they are only interested in one thing, the general consensus for those who claim Looking is boring seems to be that “nothing happens”. Some critics who had the chance to watch a handful of episodes in advance seemed to foreshadow this response and often remarked that the show got better as it went along. Better meaning that more things happened in the episodes. I agree that as it goes along the show keeps getting better, especially since spending more time with these characters allows the show to have them do something rather than telling us about them—but I’m not sure that doing away with the moments where “nothing happens” is a factor in making the show better. In fact, it may deprive it of one of its more distinguishing features.
Critics have recently signaled that a new “queer neorealism” wave may be afoot in international and independent film. Spurred by films like Weekend, whose director Andrew Haigh is executive producer and writer/director of Looking, this wave of films focused on queer characters seems to be taking queer filmic representation away from genre staples such as camp and towards realist practices in order to tell new stories, and tell them differently. Looking certainly follows in some of the realist practices of these films—such as allowing dialogues to seem improvised and foregrounding its location shooting—but I would argue that it is, in some ways, moving even further from realism into naturalism.
Naturalism, coming from 19th century literature and most notably characterized in cinema by the British New Wave of the 1960s, is best defined as realism’s supplement. If Raymond Williams characterized realism as secular, contemporary, and extensive, then naturalism is more secular, more contemporary, and more extensive. It grapples with how to come to terms with the world as it is, and reflects on how these attempts fall short. Most notably, naturalist methods are often seen as over the top, “as too starkly in excess of mere observation”. And here is where the “nothing happens” of Looking is not nothing, but in fact everything.
Mere observation can be a powerful tool, and the show has made use of this technique with varying results. In the pilot, for instance, much is made of the fact that Patrick is going to his ex-boyfriend’s bachelor party. Yet, when he finally makes it there, his one scene with his ex is short and understated. They exchange maybe five lines of dialogue, but the very flow and feel of the scene speaks volumes: a quick glance at Patrick’s ex draws parallels to his earlier date, and demonstrates what issues and hangups Patrick is dealing with. It also reaffirms Patrick’s all-pervasive awkwardness (and Jonathan Groff deserves praise for playing this facet so consistently in all the episodes so far). The encounter is not brought up again, leaving it as something that was, not something that happened. Episode three, “Looking at Your Browser History”, uses this technique even more pointedly, allowing Patrick and Agustin a moment of inanity yet mutual understanding in what used to be their shared appartment. By merely observing these two as they discuss take-out and smelly feet, we get a glimpse at a shared past that the show has to work on elaborating since it began at its dissolution. The characters are also in a state of doing nothing, precisely because they don’t yet know what to do. Not all scenes are as successfully “merely observational”, and particularly those between Agustin and Frank, because of their stillness, tend to grate more than inform—but perhaps this is also the point.
With all the national and international attention to gay rights, it is increasingly less likely to see media that feature queer characters without being reductively issue-based. In part, I think, this is the aesthetic conundrum that Looking is dealing with: how to tell stories about lives that are continually shown and taken as representative for wider political ideals. To be sure, I am not suggesting that the show should be deprived of its political valence in portraying lives of gay men—that would be disingenuous and even irresponsible—but rather that we notice how it is dually grappling with how these lives can be seen as symbols of larger social groups and as individual (perhaps even uninteresting) lives. In a way, this is also the critical potential of the show, to foreground how historical changes in society have allowed these men to lead lives where “nothing happens”—a point I think will be further addressed with the introduction of Scott Bakula’s character.
Throughout its different inceptions in film and literature, naturalism has been tantamount to an attempt to portray what it means to be human, at a particular historical period and place. It might be that Looking doesn’t have such lofty goals, but it is at least trying to ask, what is it like to be a gay man in contemporary (cosmopolitan) America? Sometimes, the best answer is merely to just watch.
What do you think? Leave a comment.