‘Looking’ at my 50th birthday

Someone asked me today what I think of LOOKING, that new show on HBO about four gay men in contemporary San Francisco.

What if you had a magical mirror that was wiser than you? That could tell you things about life. A mirror that let you see how other people make mistakes — so you could avoid them? Six episodes in, that’s what LOOKING is to me. Here’s a show about four men that seem just like my friends, all very believable characters from my own life. And as I watch these guys, I recognize mistakes and missteps even as they are being made by the show’s characters. Their mistakes don’t even seem like mistakes, at first. The drama is muted. The errors hide around the edges of the action. But my mind is prickling with awareness — and interest — in their fates.

A great poem, or novel, or script gives us readers/watchers a chance to see our own selves or personal connections with the added wisdom of the author’s hindsight and experience. It’s why we still read Jane Austen or Woolf or Hemingway. LOOKING is made of that kind of fiber. No, nothing ‘big’ happens. There are no big events in the plot. It’s just a gaggle of gay male lives being led in 2014.

But beneath LOOKING’s naturalistic portrait of gay life in San Francisco lurk some tremendous bombshells.

Gay men already have explored many ways of relating to each other that go beyond the simple, patriarchal couple. For the centuries, gay men have led sexual lives at the margins of the dominant culture. But in America today we’re living through a time of the ascendancy of The Couple. Couplehood has become central to everyone’s notion of life happiness and security. Coupledom has become the core of even political action in the LGBT community. Yet here is LOOKING, a show which acknowledges The Couple (all the characters are either in a couple, just out of a couple, or trying to find couple-hood) but puts the locus of emotional life in other relationships.

LOOKING’s Michael Lannan takes us into daring territory: the power of connections outside the couple. We watch these SF gay men strive to find a partner, or simply make it work with a partner… and without great success. We also encounter ’successful’ couples (like Jonathan Groff’s boss, Kevin, played by real life gay hunk Russell Tovey) and wince at each lie being told between them, or spot the duplicity of Kevin’s flirtation with Patrick (played perfectly by Jonathan Groff). Just as Richard Kramer’s tremendous 2013 novel, THESE THINGS HAPPEN, sets its emotional center on the connection between George (an older gay stepdad) and his teen stepson Wesley, LOOKING portrays couples but shows us the intense emotional gravity that attends loves outside of couplehood. The non-couple relationships matter, often as much or even more than that in the life-partnered pair. This is a challenging, interesting, and almost heretical viewpoint in an era where everyone worships that 21st century demagogue, The Couple.

There are other beautiful things about LOOKING besides its challenge to our dominant ‘find a mate!’ drumbeat. An example: Dom (the hot 39-year old) casually confuses his economic needs (to start a restaurant) with flirting up Scott Bakula’s 60-something character, Lynn, in the steam room at Eros. And later, Dom makes confusing come-ons over lunch and dates when he’s not actually interested (sexually/emotionally) in Dom. It’s something I see all the time as an older gay man: the way younger gay men confuse/conflate attraction with their needs. Or try to talk themselves into things their heart (or dicks) aren’t really into. You won’t see this kind of storyline in Queer as Folk. It’s way too subtle. Most straight people wouldn’t even know what’s being shown.

Someone at a gay bar this week complained to me that LOOKING lacks “reality.” He insisted the show should have some “gay males with kids” if it was going to be a believable portrait of contemporary gay life. Someone else said they thought “not enough happens” in the plot. But that’s the beauty of what Michael Lannan has achieved here: a completely naturalistic portrait of the multifaceted life that young and middle-aged single gay men live, today. LOOKING is a show where the starting point is way beyond educational introductions to gay sexuality. It’s moved past arch portraits of ‘acceptable’ homosexual relationships, like the gay couple on Modern Family. It takes for granted that putting “Married” or “Partnered” on your Grindr profile doesn’t actually tell anyone squat about who you love or how you live.

I find LOOKING to be bracing and affirming in today’s gay world where “being partnered” is a status symbol and marriage is the de facto endpoint. As a man who’s eschewed coupledom, I’m thrilled to see the shows characters struggle to find happiness in that (flawed?) dyadic formula — yet still be loved by each other and quietly buoyed by their friendships. So often I’ve watched my gay friends’ pain in the “failure” to find a mate. I’ve seen the loss of status that my 60something single women friends suffer. I’ve felt the chill of lost connection when formerly loving, generous souls get sucked up by obsession or devotion to their supposed true love (only later to come back 18 months later, needing my friendship again). Throughout this era of The Couple Ascendant, I do my best to sound a note of comfort against what has become a cultural juggernaut: social (and self-)worth based on couple status. “There are other ways to a happy life.” “You are not alone, even if you don’t have a husband.” “You will be all right.”

I’ll be very surprised if LOOKING ends in the pathetic mess that SEX IN THE CITY terminated with (i.e., all those marriages… it was like Carrie Bradshaw decided feminism was bunk after all and just gave up). I’m enjoying LOOKING and what I see are contemporary attempts to question the primacy of ‘couplehood as the route to salvation.’ Turning 50 today, feeling happy, loved enough, and single. Maybe I’m an outler. Or maybe I’m just someone who is looking a little longer at what’s around me.