I haven’t always felt this way, but Looking (created by Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh) is an interesting show. Not solely on its own but also because of the discourse around and about it. Its arrival in 2014 brought out detractors and defenders, each side’s passion burning with the heat of a thousand torch songs. For my part (at least initially), I longed for anything other than ambivalence when I watched it. I found it visually and narratively quaint, nothing to get too excited about.
What has interested me more is the show’s reception.
The degree to which aesthetic objects can be read, misread, unread or over-read obviously varies from text to text, but the interpretive practices around Looking resemble pitched battles.
While many Internet people love Looking for its ‘honesty’ and ‘realistic’ portrayal of gay male experience (white, cisgender gay male experience),others critique it for its representative deficit. ‘This doesn’t represent ME or my friends.’ This sounds very much like the criticisms levelled at Lena Dunham’s Girls because while she identifies as a feminist, she has thus far failed to produce a sufficiently diverse representation of every type of ‘girl.’
The connection to Girls is not solely negative critical association. Before and after the first episode screened, Looking was dubbed the ‘gay Girls’, those who so knighted it obviously not realising that Girls is actually already the ‘gay Girls’. Other than ‘youngish people,’ I can’t really see a thematic or stylistic connection between Looking and Girls. At a stretch, you could say they both have moments of cringe-comedy, but that’s more a style du jour than something common only to both shows. However, both shows have had a similarly contentious reception.
To critique a show as ‘emblematic’ of some social problem is helpful sometimes, but unfair at other times. Especially if so much critique is focused on the one text, as has happened with Girls. Criticism of Looking has already done this.
The demographics for the televisual landscape have fragmented. The ‘mass audience’ is still a major factor in production and commercial funding, but its stranglehold on the industry is weakening. Television is moving from the general and the broad to the particular and the specific. Looking is a show that would be impossible without this shift. Its audience is by no means broad. Its aesthetics too, are quite particular, revelling in the photogenic uniqueness of San Francisco and utilising a kind of slicker ‘kitchen sink realist’ style. That said, the quotidian and the mundane are expressed with a little more gloss than Ken Loach would care for.
Instead of reaching for the televisual bread and butter that is ‘universality’, it fixes itself an elaborate panini of specificity. Three gay men in this particular place, living these particular lives. It makes no serious attempt to universalise their experience. Therein, I think, lies the source of its alleged problems. We seem to be looking at Looking (and Girls, for that matter) in terms of the older modes of televisual reception, where it was possible (if not always probable) that a character somewhere could represent you, or show that people like you existed, however misguided that representation was. Now that we’ve moved (or are moving) from the general, mass-appeal mode of television, representation becomes increasingly segmented, and to find someone like yourself you just have scan the various televisual options available to you.
We’re stuck in an old way of thinking that television is a mass thing rather than a bunch of different sorts of things now. Counterintuitively, this becomes problematic when searching for representation.
Looking is something of a Rorschach test for gay men, in that much of what is perceived to be there or not there is projected. It’s not trying to make some grand statement about queer identity in the 21st century. Any “statements” are either too subtle or microcosmic to cohere into the sort of liberationist message of a Van Sant or a Haynes film. It’s not trying to rewrite the rules of television drama. It’s not trying to be all things to all people. No, gay male critic of the Internet, it may not be reflective of your own very particular experience. But then what television show ever is really about ‘you’? I mean, short of having a telemovie biopic made of your life, you’re never going to get a proper representation of your precise experience shone right back at you. If you’re white (which the majority of Looking complainants have been), you have a lot of your experience reflected back at you.
Of course, it is important to see people of colour and people of varying gender identities on television, particularly if you want to depict a realistic, ‘globalist’ view of human experience. But those who complain about the lack of diversity in Looking ignore all of the recent or current shows that run the gamut of queer experience: Noah’s Arc, No More Down Low, The Outs, Cucumber, Banana, Tofu, Transparent and many more.
The fact is that a lot of television is still not very ambitious. Looking doesn’t do much that is new either. The lead is a white, cisgender male with supporting characters of colour. It does the awkward, ‘funny’ dramedy thing. The ‘freshest’ thing about it is that all the main characters are gay. The show is about these gay men. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about them.
Contemporary audiences (particularly queer ones) seem to be afflicted by the ‘rage of Caliban.’ Taken from Oscar Wilde’s brilliant diagnosis of 19th century critical norms, ‘the rage of Caliban’ is when you dislike realism because you see your own face and also conversely dislike romanticism because you don’t see your own face.
Having said all this, the second season really ups the show’s representational game. We have a HIV positive bear character (Eddie) who Agustin is falling for and who works at a shelter for trans kids, one of the latest episodes focuses heavily on Doris, and Doris’ boyfriend Malik is African-American. Perhaps a response to the criticism of the first season?
In any case, the show has definitely improved. And not just because of its newfound diversity. Much of the first season was hampered by lack of narrative. The first few episodes lacked tension and stakes. But the more I think on it, the more I think it was a brilliant way to start. A slow burn, easing us gradually into the characters’ internal worlds via impressive visual style and a delectable score. My god, the music in this show!
The narrative direction in season two is soapier (love triangles, infidelity and so on) but the focus on character over story in the first season ultimately vindicates Looking because it sowed seeds of pathos that are now being cultivated. Whether it survives for a third season or not, Looking’s capacity to secure emotional payoffs out of pretty standard romantic drama tropes may be its most significant legacy.
While the reception has been interesting, I wonder if maybe some of us need to stop investing so much in gay-themed texts? That’s rich coming from someone who wrote a whole dissertation on gay-themed texts. But one of the things I have found in my research and anecdotally is that this emotional investment in anything even remotely gay is perennial. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, gays need to see themselves on screen. And why wouldn’t they? It’s still quite rare for non-normative sexualities to be represented in popular entertainment. But cultural products featuring queer people can’t be all things to all people.
And maybe we shouldn’t expect them to be.