In the pilot episode of HBO’s newest show Looking, Jonathan Groff’s character Patrick struggles through one of the oldest sitcom tropes: the ill-fated first date. Traversing the typical subjects of past relationships, career struggles and the uncertainties of wine bar appetisers, Patrick’s incompatible companion soon decides to bail without even the good manners to split the bill evenly. (Not classy, cheapskates of the world.) However Looking gives this well-worn depiction of the single life a noticeable twist: both characters are gay men.
While claiming that non-heterosexual romance doesn’t prominently feature on modern television may sound laughable to modern audiences, it’s a reality many queer viewers have come to accept without even realising. LGBT representation in modern media is undeniably progressive in 2014; shows such as Glee, Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine all feature queer characters and narratives as part of the fabric of modern life. However, all these shows seem to promote inclusion with a catch: gay characters can be get screen time as long as they don’t act on their sexual desires.
The problem can be traced back to the canonical birth of the modern TV homosexual, Will & Grace. The show’s original premise (gay guy and female best friend decide to live together following simultaneous breakups) should have positioned Will Truman as an exuberant, active participant in the New York gay scene but instead he sits around and pines for (literally) years. Despite premiering almost fifteen years later, Modern Family encountered similar problems with its physically unaffectionate relationship between gay partners Mitchell & Cameron. Only after a Facebook campaign from fans of the show did the two actually kiss on screen.
LGBT inclusion can be understood to have reached a similar stumbling block in films and television as encountered by ethnic minorities. Although it now feels strange to watch anything without a range of sexual identities and ethnicities in the mix, these characters often gravitate to the background of stories and their differences are only referenced when a specific narrative needs to be told. For all that Glee’s cast boasts significant diversity, the universal issues tend to be reserved for the straight, white characters while the black woman Mercedes is only called upon to represent cultural oppression or sassiness or the gay guy Kurt a camp musical number.
And while the original white characters were thrown together in every romantic arrangement imaginable, the cast’s two Asian characters were immediately paired off and pushed to the sides of the ensemble drama. Glee’s only particularly memorable use of the characters was when Mike’s family demanded that he abandon his musical dreams after scoring an A- in Chemistry (an ‘Asian F’) in order to secure his future as a doctor. Although modern television loves to brag of its successes in portraying equality, the narrative spaces open to minority characters are often revealed to be stereotypical and limiting upon closer inspection.
Within this context, Looking begins to look pretty revolutionary. The San Francisco-based sitcom following the lives of a group of gay male friends not only positively depicts romance and sexuality but also doesn’t treat these stories as restrictively queer. In fact, while specifically gay issues are addressed within the show, the majority of the problems encountered by the characters are inherently mundane. Although some queer critics have argued that Looking comes across as too ordinary, ‘ordinary’ actually offers wider possibilities for acceptance and inclusion.
Despite groundbreaking queer media such as Queer as Folk and Brokeback Mountain depicting intriguing characters facing huge identity and cultural challenges, they’re not the kind of people you’d necessarily want to be related to or have to work with. Just as HBO’s Sex and the City proved in regards to female sexuality, the only way to promote cultural acceptance of anti-normative behaviour is not to portray it as radical, divisive and dangerous but to celebrate it by treating it as merely an everyday occurrence.
Looking’s eagerness to promote queer romanticism beyond the realms of anonymous casual sex is both long overdue and likely a hard sell to many straight viewers reluctant to watch a show they fear is primarily about the challenges of douching. Thus it’s not surprise that the show homages pretty much every mainstream sitcom in TV history, from the constant allusions to the Golden Girls to Patrick’s romantic date at the planetarium lifted straight from Friends’ mythology. There’s even an extensive conversation about tops and bottoms in terms of being ‘the Ross’ and ‘the Rachel’, very much sounding the death knell on gay sex being a culturally transgressive act ever again.
Looking shows that gay people face the exact same kinds of problems as everyone else, whether they are exciting, steamy, controversial or downright tedious. It may not be the most original, most controversial or even most attractive show on television (Russell Tovey’s butt, aside) but Looking achieves something very important: proving that gay people are just as incapable of getting their lives together as anyone else.