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‘Looking’ features heartache in San Francisco

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post

Years too late but welcome all the same, HBO’s somewhat engaging half-hour series “Looking” (10:30 p.m. Sundays) is about three variously lovelorn gay men in San Francisco, each one treading over the ground already trod by so many thousands before him.

The show is set in the present and feels adequately fresh enough, neatly depicting both the city’s grittiness and tech-driven hipness in the early 21st century. But a strangely sad and somewhat haunted quality hangs over “Looking” as well. If you’re looking for a show in which being a gay man in the “post-gay” era seems like a lot of fun, this isn’t exactly it.

Lacking the soapy aspect of other shows about gay or lesbian characters (Showtime’s Americanized adaptation of “Queer as Folk” in the 2000s comes to mind – only because nothing else does – or maybe a bit of the “The L Word”), “Looking” is more of a piece with HBO’s other recent shows in the comedy-drama format.

Comparisons to Lena Dunham’s “Girls” are tempting (“Looking” airs directly after “Girls” and speaks a similar visual language), but I’m reminded more of the network’s short-lived 2010-11 series “How to Make It in America,” which was about young straight guys in New York who desperately believed that starting a line of trendy jeans would get them to the other side of the velvet rope. A sense of longing runs through all of these shows, each of which aims to deliver a realistic take on young, modern, urban life.

“Looking” stars Jonathan Groff (from Broadway’s “Spring Awakening”) as Patrick, a 29-year-old video-game designer who is idealistically navigating the gay dating scene. The show is built around Patrick’s unease with meeting men and impressing them enough to win more than their momentary interest; the last man who dumped him is now engaged, which makes Patrick feel like he’s flunking Gay 101.

He shares an apartment with Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a 31-year-old frustrated artist who decides to move across the bay to Oakland to try out domestic bliss with his boyfriend. Rounding out the trio is Dom (Murray Bartlett), a handsome waiter who is staring down 40 and quietly worrying that his better days are behind him.

In some ways, “Looking” (created by Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh) is the gay-themed show that gay male viewers waited in vain for back when it would have really mattered, when there were few, if any, gay characters on TV.

“Looking” focuses on people instead of issues, even though a self-consciousness about being a “gay show” is still evident, mostly in the writing. “Looking” also has an abiding interest in putting the sex back in homosexuality – including a scene in the much-maligned bathhouse, where, in one of the show’s better moments, Dom stumbles into a conversation with an older man (Scott Bakula) about the inevitability of age.

“Looking” seems to be quietly looking for a solution to what a single gay man is supposed to do with himself now that marriage is seen as the only worthy finish line.

As you’d expect from premium cable, “Looking” is filled with sex, and it has the audacity to suggest that not everyone’s a Mitchell and Cam. More impressively, the show isn’t populated with variations on Adonis; the men of “Looking” are shabbier, sometimes hairy and half-sculpted, which is another way of saying they’re real. But even in this age of enlightenment, the sex scenes will shoo away a number of viewers.

The show’s real standout is San Francisco itself. “Looking” is not concerned with portraying the city as a techie utopia of sustainable lifestyles and locavore groceries. Instead, those things are seen as a demographic burden to bear, right along with being gay and young and old and whatever else, right along with the drudgeries of making the rent and catching the bus.

For all its focus on sex, “Looking” is best when it’s about the city.

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