A Lesson for Looking

To have set a gay-themed comedy/drama in San Francisco was Looking's first mistake. In an attempt to offer a more complex and varied representation of modern gay adult life on television, the show was undone by its iconic location.

After the announcement of its cancellation, Looking would now end its current season with a Lifetime-style "special," where the storylines of protagonist Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and his cronies (Agustín, Dom, and co.) would be wrapped up.

For the uninitiated, Looking is the critically acclaimed HBO "dramedy," which explores the pains and pleasures of modern gay life in San Francisco. It has received widespread praise since its premiere in 2014. Many critics have applauded the show's "realness" and "un-self-conscious" tone, as it has actively resisted portraying traditional and stereotypical cutouts from the gay community. Fans alike have enjoyed the show's self-deprecation and sincerity on both the ennui and exhaustion of sex, relationships, and friendships for gay men today.

Since its debut, Looking has sought to complicate and humanize the often-stereotypical promiscuity and narcissism associated with gay men, offering a richer and more complex portrayal of our lives and experiences.

Given today is the age of the instant online hook-up, the show's title indulges in irony. "Looking" is a popular phrase used on phone apps like Grindr and Hornet for a quick-fix sexual hook-up. The term suggests impermanence, instantaneous, and the here-and-now.

Looking instead wanted to pause and think about the layers of experience of modern gay life and delve deeper into the ordinariness and banality of what it is to simply live as a gay male.

But in this attempt to offer a more "democratic" portrayal of the gay community on television, Looking's San Francisco offered most viewers an unrealistic milieu to identify with.

San Francisco is the iconic and famed American city with a long and rich history to the gay rights and liberation movement. Many of the key events of modern gay life have taken place there: the politicization of the gay community during the 1960s and 1970s gay liberation movement; the devastating death toll wrought by the HIV/AIDS virus in the 1980s deeply ravaged this Western metropolis; and some of the most vocal protests for the legalization of same-sex marriage in America occurred on the streets of this hilly city.

The show attempted to capitalize on the city's iconic history.

In San Francisco, Looking could help rewrite and revise the many stereotypes of the gay community. Where else but San Francisco would be better location to set a show about three gay men?

However, this was an unwise approach.

San Francisco is a unique and incomparable "gay" city. It has a strong historical association with countercultural movements, is known for its progressive politics and liberal energies, and is home to the famous gay Castro district, which has served as a beacon of respite and hope for many displaced queer folk. Many make San Francisco the end of their pilgrimage across America seeking solace and community after the homophobia of their small cities and towns.

But not all gay men -- in fact, very few -- live in a city (or "gay ghetto") like San Francisco. I don't live in a city like SF and I am sure I'm not in the minority.

Many of us would dream of living in the idyllic imaginary queer space that San Francisco promises. Looking entertained this dream for us, suggesting that no only can San Francisco be a beacon of peace and pride for queers but is also can offer gay men the opportunity to engage with other gay men more complexly and meaningfully (in political, social, cultural life), rather than through simply casual sexual exchanges.

Looking's portrait of modern gay life was incompatible with my own experiences of modern gay existence -- and no doubt that of many others. While many of the struggles Patrick and his friends dealt with were relatable, the overarching background presence of SF, the Castro District, and the rather ubiquitous pride flags that adorned the streets, did not always feel genuine.

San Francisco could not be the setting for any "real" experiences I as a gay man could relate to or identify with.

Gay life is more often than not negotiated in our predominantly heterosexual (-normative) society. Our long-standing struggle as members of the LGBT community has been to make visible the codes and colours of our queer identity and make it a legitimate identity -- not a closeted, "alternative," or "different" experience from those of our heterosexual colleagues.

Looking should have taken another big city like Chicago or Boston and explored the relationship modern gay life has to the dominant heterosexual culture at large there.

Very few of us get given the opportunity to live and operate in a queer utopic space like San Francisco. Instead our daily life is challenged by homophobia, fear, and self-hate. A more realistic experience is like getting onto a late-night bus and wondering if we'll be bullied or bashed because walking home alone late at night is a dangerous business for us queer. (This only happened to me while thinking of this article.)

Modern gay life is about negotiating spaces where the stigma of our sexuality, our effeminacy, and our difference is our daily and exhaustive challenge. While San Francisco offers an idyllic and enviable "imaginary" of modern gay life for many, it is template that is unusable in future representations of gay male life. I know I took pleasure thinking of burrowing in the quiet and peaceful confines of the Castro. But the reminder was always there that when I walked outside my house back home a different fate awaited me there.

What the future of programs like Looking will be, I'm not sure. But the need to reconfigure gay experiences in tension with the larger socio-cultural space remains essential in representations of modern gay life.