An Elegy For “Looking”
I come not to praise Looking but to bury it.
Actually, that’s not true. I've come to do both.
Looking at the Critics
Let me begin with a story. During my recent attendance at the 2015 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, I saw many papers expressing a wide variety of opinions on HBO’s gay drama. Of course, the announcement that the series had been canceled lent these papers a newfound sense of currency and immediacy, a bit of serendipity that rarely happens at academic conferences.
While I was really happy to see so many people engaging in some incredibly smart and sophisticated conversations about the series, I was also more than slightly dismayed by all of the hatred poured on the show. Many of the criticisms echoed those raised in the popular press during the series’ brief run: it was visually stultifying, narratively boring, privileged, and the opposite of diverse. A profound sense of ironic queer dismissal was the prevailing note, though there was also a faint note of elegy in some panels (hence the title of this post).
Of course, many of the criticisms are and were well-founded. Indeed, it wasn’t until Looking was on the verge of cancellation that the popular press seemed to come around to liking it. Clarion calls for HBO to save the series appeared across the media (see here, here, and here).
Unfortunately, all of this media support was, as the saying goes, too little too late.
Still, all of this has left me wondering: why didn't Looking succeed in gaining support until it was too late?
Before I attempt an answer to that question, I want to talk about the things that made the show appeal to me, and why I felt its cancellation so keenly.
Looking at a Brief History of Queer Media
To begin with, I am part of the last generation that grew up before the LGBTQI community went truly mainstream. Will and Grace didn't premiere until I was in junior high, Queer as Folk when I was a junior in high school (and I had to surreptitiously watch it when my parents weren't paying attention). Gay marriage didn't really become a reality until I was out of college (and the passage of Prop 8 in 2008 was a particularly devastating blow, a reminder of how fragile equality can be).
In other words, there was just enough queer media representation to inspire a longing in me, but not nearly enough to satisfy.
Like most homos, however, I could still take pleasure in the staples of queer culture: The Golden Girls, musicals (Doris Day in Calamity Jane was always a favorite), epics, boy bands, divas, and other texts and stars that lent themselves to queer irony and appropriation. We could always fancy that the boys of Backstreet, for example, were singing to us (or to one another).
When Will and Grace went off the air in 2007, I for one felt a profound sense of loss. This was one of the few shows left that spoke, in however flawed and halting a voice, about the lives and experiences of queer people. And the worst part was that there was nothing lined up to take its place on the networks. The closest thing was ABC’s Modern Family, but even then Cam and Mitch felt much more like caustic, catty roommates who didn't much like one another than a loving, sexually active queer couple.
The Pleasures of Looking
Thus, when Looking premiered in 2013, I felt a peculiar sort of pleasure. Here at last was a show that could satisfy some (if not all) of my demands for queer media. The slightly faded colors of the series evoked a particular kind of yearning in me. I loved the ways in which the series could use color to evoke the contradictory feeling of loneliness and community that has always been a hallmark of queer culture in the U.S. No other show I had seen managed to use its aesthetics for such a nuanced and mature look at queer male life in the 21st Century.
And it’s not as if the series didn't talk about and display sex. Perhaps it didn't do so in the over-the-top, viscerally exciting fashion of Queer as Folk, but there was a nice mixture of tenderness and passion in the sex scenes. After all, who could ever forget that sexy sexy scene with Richie and Patrick? Or when Kevin and Patrick got busy in the woods? How about that time when Dom invited that young twink over? We may not have seen very much in terms of body parts, but it was nice, it felt real, to see gay men engaged in passionate, unapologetic, gay sex.
I was therefore somewhat stymied by the vitriol heaped upon the series from various queer commentators. But, after a great deal of reflection, I came to a realization about why queers, the one audience one would expect to welcome the series with open arms, greeted it instead with the cold cheek of dismissal one usually reserves for that bitch at a party that you have to greet but don’t really want to.
Allow me to explain.
We queers have always had a vexed relationship with popular film and TV. Portrayed as sissies, deviants, and murderers for the majority of film history, we didn't fare much better when TV burst onto the scene. Even after we started pressing for better in the wake of Stonewall, we still struggled against a new set of struggles. Film and TV often preferred to paint us as asexual or as saintly victims, suffering the cruelty of the world, while maintaining
How were we to deal with this incredibly hostile environment?
By reading it against the grain, of course. Who better to poach and remake popular media than the very people who had been excluded from it? Thus, you have the queer appropriation of the musical, for example, as well as the unruly pleasures of camp.
For a people trained in the art of reading against the grain, of using ironic distance and send-up as a survival strategy, it can be incredibly difficult to accept sincerity.
And if Looking was anything, it was sincere. Say what you will about Patrick, but the guy is sincere to a fault, and Looking seems to really like its flawed characters and wants us to as well.
What some interpreted as boring, I interpret instead as a series trying to come to grips with the realities of a particular strain of modern gay male identity. I might have found Patrick insufferable, I also strangely identified with him. Maybe that’s because I am also a white, middle-class homo, but also it’s because there’s just something so innocent about him that it’s hard not to find his struggles at least somewhat identifiable. Like me, he’s grown up in a world that it increasingly friendly to LGBTQI folks, but he is also afflicted by the profound sense of dislocation and alienation that seems to have afflicted many people his age (caught at the cusp of Gen X an the Millennials). For better or worse — and trust me, I know just how much privilege it takes to talk about “alienation” and how difficult it can be to attain genuine emotional authenticity — that is one of the things that drew me most forcefully into Looking’s world.
But, if I’m being completely honest, it was really something much more simple that drew me in. The series promised that, despite everything, despite the cold, harsh world of reality, there was still a world where it was possible to find true, gay love. (Yes, I know, privilege again).
And yet it also showed that gay love is as emotionally fraught and fucked up as straight love, though in different ways. I mean, who in the gay audience didn't feel a warm flutter when Kevin and Patrick said they loved each other, or torn apart during that last, traumatizing fight? And who didn’t feel a little flush of joy when Patrick ended the episode by telling Richie that he was ready?
You see, that’s what made Looking so touching for me. It managed to show how fucked up, joyful, orgiastic, melancholy, and just plain messy modern gay life can be.
Was Looking perfect? Absolutely not. But it still deserves a little more respect and appreciation than it has so far received. Even though it has now gone the way of so many other series killed before their time, I still hold out hope that the announced 2-hour special will provide the satisfaction that its second season finale promised.
And if, heaven forbid, that special should turn out to be an utter hot mess (and let’s face it, that’s a definite possibility), then I can just pretend that it doesn't exist (much like I do The Golden Palace, the ill-fated spin-off of The Golden Girls). Instead, when I have that yearning for the pleasures offered by Looking, I can replay that final episode of the second season. I can pretend that Dom is finally able to open his chicken window and that he finds a man who can love him, that Doris and Malik get married, that her and Dom stay friends. And I can imagine that, when Patrick said to Richie “I’m ready,” he meant he was ready to start his life with him.
Hey, a girl can dream.