HBO’s ‘Looking’: the “Boring” Side of Queer Naturalism

HBO's Looking

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.

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  1. This show needs a lot of improvement for me to continue watching it, like, how about a storyline? Dom starting his own business should be a storyline in Season 2 or Season 3, not the second episode when new viewers haven’t warmed up to him yet or care enough to be bothered.

    Patrick should be more assertive and confident. He’s the lead character and he’s so immature and insecure. Not the best quality to have when you are suppose to be leading a show.

    • Juan Llamas Rodriguez

      Though I may turn out to be wrong, I think they’re setting up Patrick’s story line to be his path to becoming more assertive and confident, so things might change eventually.

      I am surprised you find Dom not likable enough to care yet, Timm. In most responses to the show I’ve encountered, Dom comes out – by far – as the most immediately likable and engaging character (e.g. that Zumba scene was the most fun the series has had so far). What’s not appealing about him for you?

    • There needs to be a source of tension. Maybe one of the characters,while “Looking””,brings home the Boogyman. Maybe The show needs to be more eventful and there’s a way to be eventful without becoming episodic.

  2. Harvey Evans

    I think this show is representative of a certain segment of the gay community: the young, pretty, urban, White guy whose main goal is finding a man. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it gets old when it’s the only way gay characters are presented.

    If I were a writer in Hollywood working on a gay-themed show, I would steer away from that setting and those characters. I would challenge myself to be a little more creative and open my mind a bit more.

    Some of the most fascinating gay people I know are people over 40. Their bodies may not be as tight, but their life experiences are vastly more interesting than the kids who are repeatedly presented in TV shows and films. Just my $.02.

    • Juan Llamas Rodriguez

      I agree. In many ways, one of the most overlooked biases on television is ageism. That’s why I think the character of Dom is the break out star of the show: it’s addressing audiences and concerns that go unexplored all the time. It also helps that the actor is so fun to watch.

    • Michael Hernandez

      Hasn’t it been repeatedly proven time and time again that the average viewer wants to see good looking people on tv?

      Kind of a wish fulfillment for them? It’s shallow as hell, but slightly true.

      In the past, some attempts at creativity have been scoffed at. Some people hate it when a storyline is too out of the box, away from their comfort zone. Sex and the City had four of the blandest women I’ve ever seen, yet that show was a huge success.

      • Juan Llamas Rodriguez

        That’s definitely the norm, and I think it would be the case if this show were on The CW, but HBO is not afraid to target a niche (even here, a niche within a niche). So I am excited to see where they take this focus on a character over 40.

      • DreamingDan

        I find it odd that you claim we only see pretty people on telly because the audience wants it so but then in the same breath go on about SatC a very successful show about overall normal looking woman (under all those designer clothes). None of them are supermodels, they very much look their age, they have flaws. Carrie/Sarah Jessica Parker has quite a few people even calling her ugly. I always thought the fact the characters are relatively normal looking was part of it’s success and appeal.

        • Nilson Thomas Carroll

          Louie is a great example of this (though I personally find Louis CK attractive haha)…

          The writing is so strong (SO strong) that Louis CK has become the most beloved person on tv.

  3. It’s actually baffling to me that some viewers see this show as boring. It almost makes me wonder if these viewers are missing the point. Everyday life is boring – or at least not dramatic. To me, the point of the show is to depict ordinary life and we’ve been introduced to ordinary characters leading ordinary lives.

    As for the characters, one of the best qualities of this show is that it makes you try to find and read the characters because they (like most real people) aren’t going to make it obvious. This is what makes it all the more realistic (or naturalistic).

    • Juan Llamas Rodriguez

      I totally agree, Marie. I do wonder, however, whether this aesthetic approach will be sustainable across seasons. As we’ve seen so far, a lot of people tend to not like this lack of continuous tension. Guess time will tell.

    • DreamingDan

      To say it is the point of the show to be boring, doesn’t make it less boring.
      To even start a TV Show with the main idea of it being boring is stupid.

      • Juan Llamas Rodriguez

        That is true, but I argue that the point of the show is to be contemplative; only some people find that boring.

        • DreamingDan

          I dunno, the ratings for this show are abysmal so a lot of people are giving it a pass. Now I know ratings don’t necessarily mirror quality but a show on that channel with that much buzz around it should be much bigger.
          There are shows which do “contemplative” better and more interesting, Mad Men springs to mind.

          • Nilson Thomas Carroll

            Now that you bring up Mad Men, I wonder if one of the show’s problems are visuals…Mad Men is easily the best looking show on tv right now (as the best design/graphic design), and I’m under the impression that this adds a great deal to its lasting appeal despite what people may cite as its strong points (obviously the writing and acting is strong as well). Whether or not this show is trying to be “completive” or not (I agree that it is), it LOOKS kind of boring…

            Interesting article, though!

  4. I agree. Very good article! It gets people thinking in the right ways.

  5. PatsyTerry

    Very good article. I read all the reviews saying it was boring, or that it didn’t strike the right chord, or send the right sanitized message, but I actually thought it was pretty good. It’s cute, and I hope there will be more comedy involved as the story progresses.

    The only real complaint that I have is that it’s only a half-hour show. It should be an hour-long show just like all of HBOs other “dramadies”.

  6. Santos.gordon

    The problem with this series is that it’s too “realistic,” which is why people seem to hate it.
    Life isn’t always filled with outrageous scenarios like in the series “Shameless” or over the top drama.
    The characters are just ordinary individual living ordinary lives.

  7. I think finding the show boring aka “nothing happens” is largely a result of being conditioned for years by U.S. network tv which lives and dies by improbable scenarios and people. This show is more in the indie /U.K./European tradition of slower, or as said more contemplative, normal pace, and basically normal everyday people. On the other hand, the format of the show kinda requires a more energetic pace that they’ve chosen, or at least a better tonal balance of the characters’ stories. You need some stronger juxtaposition, some contrast to keep the interest if the style is more naturalistic and the pace slower.

    • Juan Llamas Rodriguez

      I agree that there needs to be a better tonal balance (or contrast, even) between the characters’ stories. That’s definitely something they will have to figure out moving forward.

  8. The 1st until the 3rd episode is kinda interesting but the 4th episode is the one that made me fell in love with this show.

  9. collier

    I think this show needs to establish a fanbase and I hope it does soon.

  10. I binge watched the first few episodes after this. To me, it looked just a like a bunch of other half hour dramadies, in a good way. I like slow burning plot!

  11. MRattay

    As a rather boring gay man myself, it has been particularly exciting to me to see a television program engaging with this notion of boringness in a queer narrative. These characters are portrayed without that certain sense of “specialness” usually reserved for queer characters in other media, which is something we haven’t seen enough of in contemporary depictions of queer life in the media, and it’s this idea of normalcy that is something worth exploring, even to simply engage with what I imagine is not only a reality, but a desire for many queer people to have.

    I certainly haven’t seen enough of it yet to form more of an opinion, but as I watch this season, I wonder if issues of heternomativity will come up as a topic of discussion. Perhaps not in the conversation about the character’s relationships, but in the way characters are portrayed and depicted throughout the series. That “specialness” I’m not concerned with losing, but I’m more concerned with certain aspects of the culture getting lost in this wave of handsome, masculine, toned men we see so much of in the very few portrayals of gay life there are.

  12. This summarizes how I feel about Looking and portrayals of gay characters in media. I have various dislikes and likes regarding the show, but I am pleased that the writers have strayed from writing about “gay issues” as most films and television shows do. It is refreshing to watch something that gay people can relate to and is not an endless PSA about the difficulties of being gay. There is nothing wrong with demonstrating issues that gay people face in our society, but that shouldn’t be the only way that being gay is discussed in media.

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