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.