When it comes to “gay” TV shows, I tend to keep my expectations low. Lord knows there are more than enough gay men and women working in Hollywood today ( just behind the camera, of course) so you’d think we’d have a long line of quality shows to look back upon. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case. There have been lots of well written and wonderfully conceived gay characters, but specific TV shows? Not so much.
Sure, you could argue shows like “Ugly Betty,” “Six Feet Under,” “True Blood” and “Smash” pretty much felt like gay series, but that’s not what they were ever meant to be. “Will and Grace”? You honestly don’t want my opinion on that one. “The L Word” had its fans, but also had a hard time breaking through with mainstream critics (let alone viewers). Should “Orange Is The New Black” qualify? Absolutely, but to be honest, I haven’t seen it (I know, not having NetFlix in this day and age. I should be guillotined.) And sorry friends, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” as amazing as it may be, doesn’t count. We’re talking scripted here. Looking back, there are still only two landmark classic gay series that deserve serious praise: the original “Tales of the City” and “Queer as Folk.”
No, not that embarrassingly soapy and cringe-worthy “Queer as Folk” that ran on Showtime, but the real one that was created by Russel T. Davies for Channel 4 in the UK beginning in 1999. The one that starred a very young and snappy Charlie Hunnam as a 15-year-old kid dancing his nights away in Manchester’s big gay clubs (things start a tad earlier across the Atlantic). It was also the breakout TV role for Aidan Gillen, whom you’ll recognize these days from “Game of Thrones” and “The Wire.” (Really.)
What was so great about the British “Folk” wasn’t just how fantastic it looked (the American/Canadian production looked insanely cheap in comparison), but how rich the characters were. Or, at least that’s what I remembered. It was the late ’90s, where the clubs were packed and being out was increasingly easier (unless you were being blackmailed to stay in the closet at work, of course). Still, looking back at some clips online – boy did that show date quicker than I thought it would. Today, Gillen seems out of his element as the charismatic player Stuart (it all feels forced and uncomfortable to him), Hunnam was very,very green just in terms of his acting (although gutsy) and the best performance goes to Craig Kelly as Stuart’s more conservative friend Vince (and he’s completely unknown outside of the UK).
Again, there have been many examples of strong gay story lines and characters on network and cable TV in the 14 years since, but a quality TV series just about gay men at least? Sorry, U.S. “Queer” fans, it just hasn’t happened. And in this context, HBO teases us with their new series “Looking.”
When I first heard about “Looking” it sounded too good to be true. Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed “Weekend,” a great drama that made my top 10 films of 2011, was executive producing and directing a majority of the series. He was teaming up with newcomer Michael Lannan who was basing the series on an original unproduced script (Lannan was also a producer of the horribly misguided “Interior. Leather. Bar.” but we’re gonna forget that happened). The series would follow a bunch of gay friends living in the SF area and would star “out” gay actors Jonathan Groff (“Glee,” “Frozen”), Murray Bartlett and Russell Tovey (BBCs “Being Human”) among others. Granted HBO has made sure some TV vets David Marshall Grant and Sarah Condon (“Bored to Death”) are around as executive producers to make sure Haigh and Lannan didn’t rock the boat too much, but on paper this had potential to be something good.
And then the first real preview came.
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It’s not just the fact that Haigh has completely created the most realistic version of the Castro culture I’ve seen on television or film (although seriously, the facial hair is a tad overboard, boys), but when Groff’s character says “If I didn’t want a life I’d move to LA,” I burst out laughing. Not because it’s true, but I’ve heard my San Francisco friends say that line specifically many times over the years. Couples dealing with open relationships? Turning 40 as a gay man? Addiction to OK Cupid? Stop snooping on all my friend’s lives guys!
OK, HBO. You may just think you’ve just got a gay “GIRLS” on your hands. You may think it’s just a mini-series (for now). But you got me. I just hope it can live up to those 30 seconds.
What do you think about the teaser for “Looking.” Will you watch?