Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Three Major Reasons HBO's Looking Sucks
But if the gay community at large is to be believed, Looking is something to be celebrated. Word of mouth must be positive, because the ratings have actually grown (though they're still teeny tiny), and most of the comments I've read on review sites, blogs, and Twitter praise the show's "realism" and "refreshing look at the lives of gay men without turning them into sex objects a la Queer as Folk." Personally, I don't see any of that. I just see a bunch of vapid pretty-boys with no sense of compassion or self-awareness.
Anyway, because so many people I've talked to can't seem to understand why I don't like Looking, here are three big reasons why I think it sucks.
1. The Characters
This is my biggest problem with the show: not a single character is likeable. When the show first started, I thought maybe there was just one or two unlikeable characters (Agustin and Dom). But as the series progresses, everyone has shown his true colors and morphed into demonic twats. Let's observe:
Patrick: He's essentially our guide through Looking, the sardonic everyman we're most closely following. He starts off relatively relatable, if a bit cliche. He's a cute, twenty-something with a cool job and a close-knit group of friends who's just looking for Mr. Right in a city full of men looking for Mr. Right Now. Then he meets Richie (who I'll get to later), and he becomes a snob. Patrick sabotages his own relationship before it begins by mentally categorizing Richie as a bunch of things he wants him to be, namely the uncut, hung Latin Casanova of any bodice-ripping novel. Richie is upset by this and walks out before things go any further. Then they meet again, and Richie inexplicably is willing to give Patrick another chance. Maybe he's just horny? Who knows. So they share a daylong date in the series best episode (the fifth, "Looking for the Future") and actually have a real conversation about who they are and who they want to be. Richie has no real desire to be anything but happy, content in his low-wage job and party-filled nights. Patrick ends the episode seemingly okay with this. Then he starts to impose his own desires onto Richie, wanting him to be someone with higher aspirations and more drive. Mind you, he shares none of this with Richie... he just bitches about it to his friends, while pretending he's falling in love with Richie. What do you want, Patrick?! Clearly, it's not Richie. You basically want to date yourself. This is all but proven in the penultimate episode of the season during a conversation with his mother when Patrick admits that he doesn't think she would like Richie very much because he's Mexican, works a shitty job, and has no money. Projection, much? These aren't your mother's issues, they're your own. And they're a sad excuse for your own self-loathing, Patrick.
Agustin: Agustin is just a complete douchebag, from top to bottom. At the beginning of the show, we find out he's in a long-term relationship with Frankie and will be moving out of San Francisco to live with him. What Frankie doesn't know is that Agustin has decided to open up their relationship... without Frankie's consent or knowledge. Pig. Agustin is also a self-involved art snob who gets himself fired for talking shit about his boss's artwork (Didn't anyone tell you not to bite the hand that feeds you?) and then treats it as an artistic liberation, freeing him to do what he's always wanted to do, which is apparently film his boyfriend getting fucked by a hooker. Except his boyfriend can't know the guy he's fucking, all while Agustin takes explicit photos for his new exhibit, is a hooker. Add to that that Agustin can't even afford rent, yet somehow pays a rent boy $220/hour to invade his boyfriend. Oh, and then he scraps his plans for his art show because it's "just not coming together." He also openly talks shit about Richie to Patrick and judges his friends' lack of relationships... because yours is so stable, right?
Dom: Dom is the embodiment of every horrible gay cliche there is. He's a 40 year old waiter who would rather hook up with strangers on Grindr than actually find someone to love. He doesn't seem to realize that his life is directionless until he's within days of his fortieth birthday, when he suddenly decides his path in life is to be a chef and restaurateur. All because he makes one good chicken dish that his best girl friend loves. So he meets a sugar daddy in a sauna (can't make this shit up) and is soon bleeding him dry for money and connections. Fortunately, this sugar daddy, Lynn, is one of only two normal characters on the show (the other being Frankie), and informs Dom that they will be business partners only; no funny business. But Dom ignores that and tries to sleep with Lynn. Then he enlists Lynn's help to hold a "pop-up" restaurant for potential investors and diners, only to verbally abuse him the entire time they set the restaurant up. You are a loser, Dom, and it's no surprise that you wasted your youth on sexual flings and don't know what it means to really connect to someone... because you're mean and clueless. And you mispronounce "piri piri chicken" every time you say it, so I don't trust you can cook it all that well.
Richie: I thought I liked Richie in the pilot. He was engaging and determined and adorable. But then he walked out on Patrick because Patrick was surprised Richie didn't have his foreskin intact. How stupid. I don't know a single man, gay or otherwise, who would get up and leave mid-blowjob because of this. Yes, Richie obviously understood that there were deeper issues in Patrick that he was projecting onto the foreskin thing, but still... not realistic. Then Richie redeems himself with the day-date I mentioned above, and he got some bonus points for basically telling Agustin that he's an asshole in episode six. But then Richie does a complete 180 and turns into a screeching drama queen because Patrick made an off-handed comment to his boss about Richie wanting to someday own his own salon (but Richie does not). And I know I just spent an entire page pissing and moaning about Patrick projecting his own desires onto Richie in this same exact scene, but I can at least understand Patrick's point of view; he's a WASP, and they're so used to over-achieving that they think everyone else must be the same way. But for Richie to piss and moan to Patrick that he just doesn't understand him (yes, just like a thirteen year old girl talking to her mother) or what he's all about is so ridiculous. Just accept his apology and quit bitching. Then Patrick tries to smooth things over by inviting Richie to meet his parents and family as his plus-one to his sister's wedding, and Richie seems to get over it... until he literally demands that Patrick pull the car over on the way to the wedding while they're on the fucking Golden Gate Bridge so he can get out and leave. Why? Because Patrick was high-strung. Richie, you are the first boyfriend his disapproving parents are ever going to meet... it's a big fucking deal and clearly a huge step for Patrick. Get your ass back in the car and calm down on the theatrics. You go to that damn wedding, and you put on that happy face, and you pretend that everything's fine. You don't leave him dateless mere minutes beforehand. You're a horrible human being.
Kevin: Up until the end of the seventh episode, I thought Kevin was the most sane character on the show. Sure, he's a bit too flirty with his employee, Patrick, but I think any gay man would instantly latch onto the only other gay man in his office when he's brand new not only to the company but to the friggin' country. And he never crosses any real boundaries, until he drunkenly kisses Patrick at Patrick's sister's wedding... which he is at with his boyfriend. So with just a handful of gay characters, this makes two of them cheaters. Is that really a "positive portrayal," as so many have suggested Looking is? I think not.
Doris: It's actually laughable how useless Doris is. She's the only female character on the show, and she doesn't do anything. She shows up in the background as Dom's "yes man," fawning over him and offering semi-witty quips at a rate of about one every other episode.
So yeah... no one on this show is likeable, except Lynn and Frankie, both of whom are recurring characters rather than regulars. Is this really how gay people act? Are these really the types of people that gay viewers think of as "real?" Because if I knew any of these people in real life, I would stay far away, and if we were forced to be in the same room for some reason, it would be like any dinner party on The Real Housewives: ending in tears and/or a fistfight.
2. The Tone and Presentation
What is Looking? Is it a comedy? A drama? A dramedy? Is it supposed to be realistic or idealized?
Looking has a bit of an identity crisis. It seems to want to be a comedy, but it's not funny. There aren't very many witty one-liners, and the characters don't find themselves in particularly absurd situations. So despite many reviewers calling it "the gay Girls," that's not at all accurate. Girls is self-referential and very clearly a comedy: the girls find themselves doing crazy things (accidentally smoking crack, breaking their friend out of rehab, etc), and they each have distinctive, comedic voices. That doesn't apply to Looking. So it must be a drama... except nothing really happens to advance any kind of storyline. There's no real plot or dramatic tension. So perhaps it's just supposed to be a slice-of-life. But whose life? Perhaps it's because I don't know how life works in San Francisco, but these people don't feel remotely real. How do they survive? Patrick is the only one with a real job; Dom and Agustin somehow survive in America's second most expensive city as a waiter and gallery assistant, respectively. If this really is "slice of life," and the whole point is to make these characters appear to be going through the same struggles as their heteronormative counterparts, why are none of these men struggling with finances? And why do they all still seem so fixated on sex?
My feelings toward the tonal confusion and lack of realism remind me of a quote from the film The Broken Hearts Club: "Just once I would like to see someone who is not sick, hasn't been laid in about three months, and is behind on his student loans... At least it would be real."
3. The Lack of Nudity
No, I'm not a pervert. I'm not just saying this because I really want to see any of these characters naked. But part of the power of having a show like Looking is that you can de-stigmatize a lot of things in really simple ways. There's such a fear of gay men as sexual creatures; it's probably the main reason anyone still doesn't like gay people, because they don't want to think of them having sex. So by showing it, gay sex could be normalized. It's the same parts working in the same ways. I'm not saying there needs to be graphic depictions of anal penetration or anything, but the sex on Looking is shot so awkwardly to avoid any and all nudity that it comes across as shameful, like it would just be too much and going too far to show anything more than "O" faces or sweaty backs. Like it would cross a boundary or something.
But isn't that what shows like Looking should be about: crossing boundaries? If you want to be a show that's just about gay people being people, then you can't treat them differently. You can't film around the sex, because then it becomes about precisely what you're avoiding: all that isn't being shown. Just showing it gives it less power. Take Girls as an example again. Lena Dunham is constantly naked for no reason other than because she can be. Does she need to be talking on the phone topless? No, but sometimes we change our clothes. It's a normal part of everyday life to be naked, so Hannah is frequently naked on the show. This also de-sexualizes the nudity on Girls, making the moments when the nudity is meant to be sexual all the more powerful. There's a juxtaposition in that show that makes for a strong statement about feminine identity and being comfortable in one's own body. Looking doesn't have that, because it's treating male nudity and gay sex as still being something taboo, something unfit to show on camera. It's frustrating and backwards.
I know this all makes it seem like I'm being entirely too hard on the show, and I am. It's so infrequently that shows like Looking (with an almost entirely gay cast of characters, starring out actors) come around, that when they do, I want them to be amazing. I want them to be as multifaceted and complex as the gay community is, not one-note representations of cliches and unlikeable characters.