January 23, 2014


(L-R) Murray Bartlett, Jonathan Groff and Frankie J. Alvarez star in LOOKING.


While some have called the new HBO series LOOKING a gay version of GIRLS, it’s actually a trite comparison that doesn’t hold water. To its credit, LOOKING isn’t nearly as whiny, self-impressed or insufferable as the wildly overrated GIRLS. Unfortunately, it is a show that lacks any real spark, charm or reason for existing (other than giving HBO a gay-friendly bauble to use in their next subscription campaign).

Set in present-day San Francisco, the main focus is a trio of gay friends who are muddling through life and love. Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a video game designer on the cusp of 30, is dealing with the impending nuptials of a recent ex. Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) is an aspiring artist who may or may not be ready to move in with his boyfriend. The geezer of the group is 39-year-old career waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett) whom the official series site describes as “middle-aged.” I kid you not.

Bus ride to boredom in LOOKING.

While there’s nothing wrong with the leads, per se, the characters they play are dull and unremarkable. Not only did I not buy their mutual friendship for even a moment, they’re the type of guys very few of us would want to be friends with. Truth be told, in almost every scene, each of them ends up being the least interesting person in the room. That doesn’t bode well for audience retention.

Groff, who has done excellent work on stage (including a Tony-nominated role in SPRING AWAKENING), here is reduced to grinning a lot and acting like a doofus. We first meet his Patrick during a botched attempt at cruising (because, you know, every gay guy heads to the woods for a hand job) and later accompany him on a terrible date. Sure, the guy he meets is a tool but, to be fair, Patrick is no prize himself. He’s an empty vessel and gives us (and potential boyfriends) very little of substance to latch onto. No wonder his ex gave him the heave ho.

Patrick (Jonathan Groff) smirks his way through LOOKING.

Alvarez and Bartlett fare a little better but, each is saddled with the kind of stock gay character you find in those crappy direct to video films lurking in the “gay/lesbian” section of Netflix. Agustin is being pushed into a live-in situation by his boyfriend until a three way shakes things up (and I use the term “shakes” very loosely). Dom is coping with the most horrific of gay demons…turning 40 (cue scary music). The fact that he looks (inexplicably) like a holdover from 1970’s gay porn doesn’t really help his cause.

Among supporting players, Lauren Weedman is a stand-out as Doris, Dom’s roomie. Her brief scene with him is easily the best moment in the pilot. It’s funny and feels genuine. Andrew Law also makes a nice impression as Patrick’s co-worker Owen. Unfortunately, like all promising second stringers here, each of them is underused.

Almost everything else about LOOKING seems designed to suck the dramatic and sexual tension out of every scene. The opening cruising vignette quickly becomes a silly throwaway. When Patrick does run into his ex, their bathroom conversation is dull as dishwater and goes nowhere. Why subject us to it? Even the threesome is botched. The set-up is sexy and generates some genuine heat but the payoff is inexplicably flaccid; as if the series creators lost their nerve and decided to pull out prematurely (double entendres fully intended).

Don't blink or you'll miss the one moment of sexual tension in LOOKING.

In fact, a general lack of courage and conviction hangs over the first episode like a cold summer fog. It’s full of false starts, ideas that go nowhere and a lot of lazy writing. The show runs 30 minutes but it seems much longer and I’ve never seen San Francisco depicted as such a colorless and soulless place. I lived in SF for a number of years in the late 90’s. It seems odd to set and shoot a series there and then do so little of consequence with such a compelling backdrop. See the PBS production of TALES OF THE CITY for one example of how to do it right.

There will also be the inevitable comparisons to QUEER AS FOLK, Showtime’s glossy, groundbreaking revamp of the UK original. Though wildly uneven, when QAF was firing on all cylinders, it offered viewers a thrilling experience like nothing else on TV. The series managed to juggle graphic sex, soapy storylines and rich, compelling characters with a great deal of skill. It was a water cooler hit.

Flash forward almost a decade to LOOKING and it actually feels like a huge step backward. The show plays it way too safe and forces us to spend time with people we’d otherwise pass by without so much as a glance. It’s almost as if the cameras were set up in a vibrant club full of fascinating denizens but instead of featuring any of them, the producers chose to zoom in and lock focus on three dull wallflowers biding time in the back of the room.



January 7, 2014


duck cast

A&E ended 2013 with back-to-back PR fumbles so astounding, each would make an ideal case study for any book about how not to respond to a media crisis. After resident big mouth Phil Robertson, star of the breakout hit DUCK DYNASTY, let it all hang out in an interview published by GQ, network brass at A&E did something truly mind blowing: they took a bad situation and made it even worse…then repeated the face plant a few weeks later. Equally lame responses from the Left, Right and a bunch of pissy queens at GLAAD helped turn the A&E train wreck into a full-blown shit storm.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right here at the top: Robertson is a profoundly (and proudly) ignorant guy. Like many self-righteous Evangelicals, he routinely perverts the teachings of Christ and, on a good day, demonstrates about as much intellectual depth as the duck call he invented. Yes, I’ve seen the show (several times) and find it to be a painfully dull tribute to backwoods buffoonery. The only thing that would make me tune in again is a "very special episode" in which the ducks get take up arms and fire off a few rounds of payback.

Of course, I’m not in the DUCK DYNASTY target demo and the core faithful could give a rat’s ass what a Lefty like me thinks of their pop culture hero du jour. DUCK DYNASTY gets the Sarah Palin “you betcha” seal of approval and that’s really all the matters to anyone who tunes in specifically because they feel a deep, philosophical kinship with the Robertson family. So, to each his or her own.

My personal feelings towards Papa Phil aside, you needed proverbial hip waders to slog through the swamp of self-serving hypocrisy that bubbled up in the wake of the GQ interview. From A&E to GLAAD to a gaggle of politicians who never met a spotlight they weren't willing to whore themselves out to, everyone had something to say and, more often than not, what they said was as ham-handed as the comments that sparked the debate.

The two biggest freaks in this circus sideshow are A&E and GQ. On the one hand, you have a money grubbing cable network that has already made millions off the DUCK DYNASTY franchise and continues to do so. Since the series launched, A&E has been perfectly willing to look the other way and ignore (or edit for television) the Robertson's hard-Right political, social and religious views. If A&E had any genuine moral or ethical quandaries about the family, they would never have given the green light to the series in the first place. That's way suspending Phil Robertson was not only the wrong thing to do, it was a bizarre, crass and knee-jerk reaction that defied logic. It should have surprised no one that the network would reverse that decision less than two weeks after making it.

When all is said and done, what did A&E achieve? DUCK DYNASTY haters are still going to hate the show and those who love it were basically handed a gift-wrapped cause célèbre to rally around. More to the point, the series has become a ratings blockbuster precisely because a large chunk if its audience identifies with Robertson. If a black President, Obamacare and the demise of DOMA scare the hell out of you, DUCK DYNASTY must feel like your one cable happy place outside the safe harbor of Fox News. I don’t agree with the mindset but I do get it and, quite frankly, who are any of us to deny fans of the show their fix?

Of course, there would be no firestorm had a desperate, largely irrelevant publication like GQ not gone a-trollin’ for page views. I defended Rolling Stone when they ran the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cover because the magazine has a demonstrated track record of first-rate investigative journalism. It didn’t hurt that the accompanying story was pretty terrific. GQ, on the other hand, is a bastion of puffery, hoary “guy” tips and stinky cologne inserts. Apparently, they’ve now added cheap publicity stunts to their dubious repertoire.

The interview (and I use the term loosely) with Robertson is not only poorly written, it’s obvious from the get-go that GQ saw an easy target, baited the hook and let the verbal vomit flow. While I abhor the sentiments expressed by Robertson in the piece, I’m even more upset that a national publication provided a platform for a bigoted rant without any real interest in offering sound critical context or an intelligent counterpoint. In the end, GQ perpetrated a gutter-level grab for a turn on the teet of the DUCK DYNASTY cash cow.

Once the beast was out of the barn, the usual suspects lined up on the Left and Right to stomp their feet and issue statements punctuated with sound-bite indignation. The reactions were as predictable as they were laughable.

Conservative dingbats like Palin and Bobby Jindal relied on RWNJ chestnuts like Constitutional cherry picking, revisionist history, “Liberal media bias” belly aching and old-fashioned stupidity to make their case. I wonder if Jindal, for example, would have still waxed poetic had Robertson painted as a rosy a picture of British Colonial rule of India as he did the pre-Civil Rights South?

Even more hypocritical, many of those outraged that A&E suspended Phil Robertson are the same people who called for Martin Bashir to be fired from MSNBC just a few weeks prior. Dear Righties: you can’t have it both ways. Ditto to the Lefties who rallied behind Bashir and then cheered the decision to sideline Robertson. I'm never going to be a fan of the "off with their heads" mentality as a first course of action when a non-politician in the public eye says something that a lot of people don't like or agree with. Immediately gathering torches and pitchforks in order to silence media provocateurs is a slippery slope that I would prefer we avoid.

Even more confounding is how much of the coverage of the Phil Robertson interview was obsessed with his homophobia but blithely ignored his shocking take on racism in the U.S. In fact, of all the “progressive” organizations weighing in, the position taken by GLAAD is the one that made my blood boil. One of the two most annoying and ineffective national “gay rights” organizations (the other being the self-impressed pricks at HRC) took its usual myopic stand. In the process, GLAAD fumbled yet another opportunity to take an intelligent, worldly and inclusive approach to a media firestorm.

I would expect any pro-LGBT organization to decry Robertson trotting out the tired “homosexuality leads to beastiality” meme but where was the outrage regarding the other stuff he babbled on about? You know, his tales of the happy colored folk singin’ a merry tune while they picked cotton down on the farm? There’s much more of that meat on the bigot bone in the GQ piece but GLAAD couldn’t be bothered mentioning it or, heaven forbid, doing something truly savvy like issuing a joint statement of condemnation with an organization like the NAACP. 

It wasn't until A&E reinstated Robertson (and stories of his overt racism had already gained some traction) that GLAAD finally mentioned the "African American thing" in a public statement. In my estimation, that's too little to late for any organization claiming to be part of the social justice and/or equality movements. For GLAAD, it's just business as usual. 

Racism in the gay community is alive and well. It’s has been for years and it's a dirty (not so) secret that organizations like HRC and GLAAD do little more than pay lip service to. While the NAACP released a strong statement of support for marriage equality in 2012, major LGBT groups have yet to respond in kind on issues like economic parity, racism and voter suppression. Not only has this led to a series of missed opportunities to strengthen the common good, it's also points to a shameful track record of insular, arrogant activism. 

The Phil Robertson interview could have been a big first step in starting to right that wrong but that would require the powers that be at GLAAD to stop kissing the ass of gay Hollywood and join us little people here in the real world. Don’t hold your breath. We're talking about an organization that still thinks GLEE, a preachy stink pile of grossly negative race and gender stereotypes, is "must see" TV.

At the end of the day, Phil Robertson is just another in a long line of temporarily popular reality TV stars. He may be a clueless idiot but, he's not an elected official and he's done no physical harm to anyone. More to the point, no one is required to let him or his family into their living rooms. Though millions of people do indeed watch DUCK DYNASTY, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of us do not. That’s the beauty of being able to turn the channel. Pulling Robertson off the air was never going to change the hearts and minds of anyone who agrees (or disagrees) with his world view. While there was a fair amount of intelligent discussion and debate in the wake of the GQ interview, it's a real shame that very little of it came from organizations and individuals who should have known and done much better.