HBO's Looking: Not 'the Ultimate Gay Show About All Gay People'

The series' executive producers discuss the challenge of creating a show that's both universally relatable and authentic to its writers' experiences.
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HBO

While television has, in recent years, offered a growing cast of gay characters on shows from Modern Family to Orange is the New Black to The New Normal, (cancelled last May), few series focus solely on the nuances and complexity of contemporary gay relationships. This is about to change, however, with the premiere of HBO’s Looking, (Sunday at 10:30pm), a half-hour drama exploring the lives of three gay men in San Francisco.

The three friends—Patrick, a 29-year-old video-game developer (Jonathan Groff); Agustin, a 31-year-old artist (Frankie J. Alvarez); and Dom, a 39-year-old waiter (Murray Bartlett)—are based on the characters in Michael Lannan’s short film Lorimer. Lannan, the creator of the show, also serves as its co-executive producer along with Andrew Haigh, who directed the 2011 indie film Weekend. I spoke with Lannan and Haigh from their office in L.A.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.


What was your experience like trying to sell this show to HBO? Was it difficult?

MICHAEL LANNAN: We had this very casual conversation at HBO in Santa Monica about gay characters and why there weren’t any shows that featured gay characters. We talked about shows in the past like Tales of the City and the UK version of Queer as Folk that were so great and inspiring. We wanted a version of those shows that we could do now, that felt contemporary, fresh, relevant to the time.

They asked me to write a half-hour with those three characters [from Lorimer], and that was the beginning of our development. It was an opportunity before us—something that wasn’t being done.

Do you think Looking would survive as a network show?

ANDREW HAIGH: I can’t imagine it working. HBO has given us the freedom to explore things that wouldn’t be OK to explore on a network show. In terms of language and sexuality and honesty and realism—you just wouldn’t be able to do it. There would be a lot of pressure to make it funny or make it something that we didn’t want the story to be.

LANNAN: And in terms of the style, they were supportive of it having a cinematic quality, of having Andrew develop the cinematic language and be unconventional, and having characters that were quite subtle in some ways, but also very emotional. Distinctly in the “comedy” department, but they let us find our own type of comedy that worked for the show.

HAIGH: Allowing them to be emotional was the key; you really cared about these people and wanted to watch their development and their journey, and keep it within the everyday, the subtle and the small.

Looking deals with the complicated boundary between sex and intimacy that is universal across relationships—gay or straight.

HAIGH: You want it to be universal. The minute you start to become specific about these characters, you start to see that their concerns and struggles universal. The notion that gay people are completely different from everybody else … well, of course they’re not. We all have similar desires and similar needs. And I think that struggle and search for intimacy and connection is such a universal one, and it’s what we wanted to focus on.

LANNAN: The best HBO shows have been about very specific, detailed worlds. Everything from The Wire to The Sopranos is about very specific places and times. But through that you get this more universal and transcendent thing.

HAIGH: It’s interesting—you watch something like The Wire, and of course you understand those characters and they resonate with you. And then there’s this idea that if you watch a show about a bunch of gay people and you’re not gay, it’s not going to reflect your life. But of course it reflects your life.

Do you think Looking challenges stereotypes about what it means to be a gay couple?

HAIGH: It’s not that we wanted to necessarily challenge the audience, but we certainly wanted to explore the subtleties and the different types of relationships people can have. Just because now gay people can get married, it doesn’t mean they want to get married. It’s important that we look at all the different ways people can have relationships and the ways they can make things work.

LANNAN: It’s built into Patrick’s journey. He begins the show with the idea that you can either have sex in the woods or settle down and get married. As the show goes on, he realizes that those aren’t the only two choices—that there’s this whole world of options.

HAIGH: It speaks to a universal concern that all of us have, which is the two poles of security and freedom. That’s what Patrick’s dealing with. He’s torn between complete freedom and complete security, and I think we all can understand those dual desires.

Where does Looking fit into the context of other shows that have featured gay characters?

LANNAN: We don’t really know. We’re doing what we think feels real and authentic to us, that builds on our own influences, Andrew’s and mine. Everything from '70s cinema, '90s indie cinema, to television shows we loved like Tales of the City. Only time will tell where it fits in.

HAIGH: Our ambition is not to tell the story about all gay people, which is impossible to do. The gay community is full of all different types of people. It never was our intention to be the ultimate gay show about all gay people. We just want to tell the stories of these characters and their lives.

Do you feel a sense of pressure, or a burden to get this right?

HAIGH: I think “burden” is a good way to put it. We do feel like there’s a burden, and then the trailer comes out, and everyone comments on it, saying, “That’s not my life.” It was hysterical looking at some of the comments. Some people decided it was a show about cock-hungry sluts, and others would say that it’s all white people. Everyone has a judgment. But we can’t represent everybody—it’s impossible.

So in many respects, we have to ignore that. But I also understand the desire, the need, for representation on the screen. My hope is that if this show does well, it will offer the opportunity for other people to make other shows about different types of gay people.

Your show features “30-somethings”—Patrick is 29 and Dom is 39—but you also include older characters. I think it’s interesting that you offer this multi-generational perspective of the gay experience in San Francisco.

HAIGH: What I find interesting about a lot of groups of gay friends is that they are often multi-generational. What brings a lot of them together in the initial stage is their sexuality, and they can develop friendships that way. But these are guys who met at college—it’s not a bunch of grade-school friends. When you’re in your 20s, you think that by the time you get to 30 everything is going to be fine, but of course, once you get to 30, and 40, and 50, and 60, there are always struggles. You’re not suddenly defined as a person by the age 30. It’s ongoing. Dom’s character is almost 40 but he still hasn’t made up his mind what he wants with his life.

LANNAN: Enough of the world has changed so quickly in the last 10 years that somebody who’s Dom’s age, 39, has, in many ways, different experiences from someone like Patrick, who’s 29. They relate, and they’re very close, but they’re also so different. Dom would’ve grown up with the height of the fear and anxiety about the AIDS crisis. To Patrick, that’s a little more of something he’s heard about—not something he lived with. And I think the Internet changed things for people younger than myself (and I’m 36). There was no Internet till I was out of college, and the kind of gay communication style is confusing. But for people five years younger than me, it’s the norm.

Dom’s age and the time period he grew up in give him a slightly more jaded perspective than someone like Patrick, who’s more naïve, or perhaps takes for granted that he will be accepted for his sexual orientation.

HAIGH: It was a different generation, and it was harder for Dom to come out when he did come out. And he carries that baggage with him, the ideas of masculinity, but all those things have changed in the 10-year age difference between them.

What’s your process in the writing room like? How do you come up with story ideas?

HAIGH: Michael and I came up with an idea about where we want these characters to go, how we see them developing, and for us its very important to explore the characters, about finding stories that suited that exploration. In the writer’s room, we talk about our own experiences—it’s like a therapy session most of the time. When I look back at the episodes, I really feel the whole of the room is in those episodes. It’s a close environment, an honest environment.

Seven out of your nine writers are gay men. Was that intentional?

HAIGH: To be honest, it was relatively intentional. We certainly wanted a female perspective in there, but it would’ve felt weird to us to have a room with a bunch of straight guys. It wasn’t to disregard anybody, but it turned out that these people were a good fit. It was so important for us to keep an open environment, where everyone could have an opinion.

LANNAN: And from the writers to the actors to the crew, it was important to have people who were passionate about the project. It resonated for them, and they brought a lot of insight to it that came from their own personal experiences.

This show explores contemporary gay relationships for these specific characters in San Francisco. What does that mean to you?

HAIGH: We’re interested in the choices we have now as gay people. More choices than we’ve ever had before. We can get married, adopt children and all those things. There’s so much more visibility and openness. But that comes with new challenges and struggles. Having more choice can be a daunting thing.

LANNAN: And yet you still can go cruising in the woods and have sex in the woods if you want to. You have the old options but you also have new ones.

Do you think part of the difference is that gay people have fewer models to look to, in relationships, for example?

HAIGH: I think that’s true. The way that gay life has developed has been quite secret. If gay people don’t see themselves represented around them, straight people don’t see gay life. So there’s a lack of understanding on both parts about the choices you have when you’re gay, and the different ways you can lead your life. Hopefully this show will get a bit of debate going.

You mentioned technology earlier. How do you see technology affecting relationships?

HAIGH: I have such a weird relationship with technology. It kind of scares me, but I understand it, why people use it. It’s a double-edged sword; for some people it’s great, it’s a good way to meet people, to connect, but for other people it can make life difficult and complicated. It’s down to the person.

LANNAN: I think it’s opened up new types of relationships. I don’t know if those relationships are any better. One thing true in my experience is that people who grew up with the technology connected with other gay people younger. That’s a really interesting, and mostly positive thing. That you could meet other gay people in a way that I never had the opportunity to.

What’s the experience of working on the show been like for you each, personally?

HAIGH: It’s been completely crazy. I went from making a film with like 20 people on a crew to suddenly coming here and making a big TV show with 120 people on the crew. Working on something an hour and a half to suddenly making eight episodes. It was quite daunting at first, but the way HBO works is they give you the freedom and space to do it your own way. It’s so much easier than I thought it would be, in many respects. Shooting in San Francisco didn’t feel all that different from making the film in Nottingham, England. You can still create the environment, the feeling.

We went to the TCA (Television Critics’ Awards) yesterday, and Michael and I felt like two school kids who’d been let in with no work experience.

LANNAN: Andrew said it was like we were on a reality show—something like “make your own TV show for HBO!”

HAIGH: It was Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo going on stage. And Matthew McConaughey. And then we went up on stage and it felt really strange.

Are you excited for the premiere? How do you expect the show to be received?

HAIGH: You never know what the reaction’s going to be. There will be people who like it, and people who don’t like it. Hopefully people will watch it, and it will resonate, and people will want to go on the journey with these characters. Fingers crossed.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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