From the very moment HBO's new series Looking begins (Sunday, 10:30/9:30c), it's clear that its hero is at a turning point in his life. We get our first glimpse of Patrick (Jonathan Groff) as he's soliciting a sex act in a park. And Looking doesn't shy away from the realistically awkward fumbles ("Cold hands!") before Patrick's phone interrupts and it becomes obvious just how out of his comfort zone he was. "I immediately thought it was my mom," Patrick later relates to his friends, "like she somehow knew where I was, and was calling me to stop me from being one of those gays who hooks up with people in a park."
But Looking doesn't start off with this way to titillate viewers with salacious, stereotypical gay sex. It was to play with our — and Patrick's — expectations of gay men. As the season progresses, Patrick is put in more situations that challenge who he thinks he's expected to be with what he actually wants. This is an area particularly ripe with dramatic and comedic potential since Patrick is such an uncomfortable person — uncomfortable expressing himself, uncomfortable with boundaries but also with breaking them, and so uncomfortable with his own sexuality, he can't even say the phrase 'f---buddy' louder than a whisper.
With a little encouragement from his friends, Patrick begins pushing himself to indulge in the thrill of transgression. "I think the thing that's interesting with Patrick is there's a big blind spot. I think Patrick thinks he knows who he is but he doesn't actually. And certainly as an outsider — as the audience watching him — you come to realize that he has a lot to learn," Groff tells TVGuide.com. "And while he's looking for a boyfriend, I think what he subconsciously or ultimately needs to do is learn how to grow up and learn more about himself."
Sometimes, in order for Patrick to get more in touch with himself, he gets naked and touches other people. (This is HBO, after all.) But the sex on Looking isn't sensationalized or forced in our faces without reason. Each time a character strips down, the audience tends to learn more about their psyche than their anatomy.
"I had no trouble signing the nudity waiver for this show because of [Looking executive producer] Andrew Haigh's [2011 romantic film] Weekend," Groff says, praising how the director tends to depict sexuality in a frank, honest and real way. "And I think also the sex in the show is very connected to what's happening emotionally with the characters, which makes it hopefully more interesting to watch."
This statement rings particularly true regarding Patrick's first sex scene, before which he had been given some bad advice on how to prepare for his date with a "cholo." The ensuing scene revels in Patrick's nervous over-excitement at the prospect of seeing his first uncut penis only to switch to cringe-worthy unease when he can't recover from discovering his would-be lover is circumcised. "People watching that scene, you're so connected like, Oh God, Patrick. What are you doing? Why are you handling yourself this way in this moment?' And people are getting into that as opposed to, two people are in bed having an intimate moment.'" Groff explains. "I feel like that's the case for all of the sex scenes in the show actually."
While Looking has been described as "the gay Girls" or "the gay Sex and the City," the show isn't defined by its protagonists' sexualities. Unlike Queer as Folk, Looking isn't a show about what it means to be gay. Rather, it's a show about what it means to connect and featuring three men who just happen to be gay. Each character on Looking — including Patrick's two best friends Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), the artist who doesn't make art and is uncomfortable with his newfound domesticity, and Dom (Murray Bartlett), the mustachioed waiter edging 40 who sees his dreams of running his own restaurant slipping away — feel distinctive, but the stories the show tells are universal. (Raise your hands, ladies if you, too, have Googled 'uncut penis' out of anxious curiosity.)
And while the narrators of Girls and Sex in the City fumble their way through self-discovery with alienating and unwavering solipsism, Patrick's moments of misplaced ego only endear him more. Maybe it's because when Patrick mishandles himself, we know he's only in the situation with the best intentions, instead of simply "for the story." And more than anything, it's this no-fuss earnestness that separates Looking from its alleged predecessors.
But while direct comparison to Girls and Sex and the City aren't necessarily valid, Groff is thrilled Looking is even considered in the same league as either comedy. "I feel like, for the life of the show, one of the good things that comes from those comparisons is that if you like Sex and the City and you like Girls, there's a good chance that you might like our show because it's about relationships and love and the complexities of getting to know people," he explains. Though Groff adds, "When people see the show, I think they'll understand that the style and tone and the writing is very different than both of them."
It wasn't too long ago that Girls was being heralded as "The Hipster Sex and the City," so hopefully Looking will soon be appreciated for what it is — a deftly poignant comedy about finding your place in the world — without having to be boxed into being the "gay" version of anything else.
Looking premieres Sunday at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.
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