Gay men have been waiting a long time for "Looking" (9:30 p.m. Jan. 19, HBO; 4 stars out of 4).
Sure, many gay personalities have made it to TV since the "Will & Grace" years. But like that sitcom's characters, they've been mostly one extreme or the other: in-your-face out! or completely neutered. (I call them the straight-safe gays, those totally non-threatening gays whom any straight man can embrace—but only with a bro hug!)
Like Pivot's charming comedy "Please Like Me," HBO's new half-hour show isn't about extremes. It focuses on three gay men living in San Francisco—all ordinary guys trying to figure out their lives. Like anyone else, they're looking for a sense of purpose. And sex. "Guys are guys" after all, as one of the friends says.
Created by writer Michael Lannan and director Andrew Haigh, the eight-episode series gives us a warm, playful and slyly observant peek into the lives of 29-year-old Patrick (Jonathan Groff), his 31-year-old roommate Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and their 39-year-old pal Dom (Murray Bartlett).
When we first meet Patrick, he's trying to ease the sting of a recent breakup by looking for a quick hookup in a park. It doesn't go well—cold hands and a text message kill the mood—but Paddy's not too upset about it. "The guy ... was very hairy," he tells his friends minutes later. "Not hipster hairy. Like, gym-teacher hairy."
Paddy's got a problem. He tries to convince himself to loosen up and be naughty, but he's obviously neither practiced nor comfortable doing it. When the slightly geeky, repressed video-game designer says he's going to find a sex buddy, his friends laugh at him. After a painfully awkward OkCupid date, he suffers through increasingly embarrassing experiences involving a hottie he meets on the bus (Raul Castillo) and his new boss (Russell Tovey).
Patrick's best friend Agustin's life also is in flux. On the surface, he seems thrilled to be moving into the Oakland home of his longtime boyfriend, Frank (O-T Fagbenle). But Agustin is plagued by thoughts that the couple will become too boring and predictable.
As the oldest of the friends, Dom thinks he should have his life together, but love has a way of screwing things up. Dom is disappointed that he's still waiting tables, hitting the gym and looking for fulfillment through bathhouse and Grindr hookups. "I'm such a cliché thinking that sex will make me feel better," he says to his female roommate, Doris (Lauren Weedman). "I mean it does, but still."
It's surprising and refreshing to see a gay-themed production challenge the gay community's youth-oriented rejection of anyone over 40. Showtime's "Queer as Folk" was just as honest, but there hasn't been a lot of that openness since then.
With its strong performances, subtle details and believable situations, "Looking" presents a convincing portrayal of everyday life—either gay or straight. Strip away their sexuality and these men aren't much different than anyone looking for love, direction and happiness. Here's hoping they don't find all of it for several seasons.
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