The Way I See It…In Defense Of ‘Looking’

by | February 24, 2014 at 8:06 AM | General, LGBT

"Looking." (HBO)

By: Jim Halterman

First off, let me say a big hello to everyone who is dropping by the XFinity TV LGBT site. I’m the new Editor of this page and hope to bring you some great interviews, news, fun features and a think piece here and there.

If you’re not familiar with me or my work, I’ve spent the last five years as an entertainment journalist for sites like TheBacklot, AfterEllen, EDGE and Out as well as TV sites like TVFanatic and TheFutonCritic and print magazines like CBS Watch. I’ve always loved to write and I’ve always loved television so I hope you can see that I truly love what I do every day in my work.

And while I always have something to say about what’s going on in the TV landscape none of this is any fun if I don’t also hear your thoughts and what you want to see more or less of on the pages here. Don’t hesitate to tweet me @JimHalterman (follow me if you’re not doing so already) or just leave a comment on this or any of my posts. (Yes, I do read them!)

I wanted this first post to be about a big surprise I had recently and that was when I started hearing negative response about the new HBO series, “Looking.” The series about 3 gay friends in San Francisco stars Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett and Frankie J. Alvarez and while I was immediately drawn to the how original the show feels, how it isn’t driven by oversized plots (or vampires or zombie escapades) as well as the manner in which it presents a group of characters I feel I relate to so much, there are others out there that aren’t loving the series and I wanted to figure out why the show isn’t clicking for everyone.

For example, in David Toussaint’s February 4th essay on The Huffington Post, he called the show “clueless,” the characters “dullards” and said that “the show fails miserably in providing a narrative for its audience.”

Which Gay TV Character Are You? Click Here to Take The Quiz

I disagree with you wholeheartedly, Mr. Toussaint.

That said, Mr. Toussaint isn’t the only critic not loving the show and I found that even several of my friends, both straight and gay, admitted to me that they didn’t make it beyond the first episode because they either didn’t connect with the characters or they felt the show was, yes, boring.

Instead of just spout my own thoughts, though, I jumped on the phone with series creator Michael Lannan to get his impressions on some of the negative feedback on the show as well as his hopes for a second season.

Before the show aired, did you wonder if the audience would take to the show? What were your early thoughts?

Michael Lannan: I think with every show you can’t please everyone so I guess that’s just a basic rule of television is not everyone is going to love it. I think especially with our show we made some bold choices about style and the tone and we stuck to those choices. I think when you make strong choices like that people have strong feelings about it.

Honestly, we made the show that we wanted to make and that was always our primary concern and we hoped that people connected to it and it feels like most people have and some people haven’t. That’s just the nature of television, I think, to a certain extent.

I think also, as JC [Lee, "Looking" staff writer] was saying at the panel [a Writers Guild panel was held last week with Lannan, his staff and HBO comedy exec Nick Hall present], I think he called it a ‘minority trap.’ When doing a show about a certain kind of minority or a subculture, you’re going to have a lot of expectations from that group about representation, about how you’re portraying that group as a whole. I think we just sort of took the position that we weren’t trying to represent the group as a whole. If there is a way to portray a gay experience or an LGBT experience, it’s just too diverse a group and getting more and more diverse every day and you can’t even begin to try to encapsulate all of that in a single TV show.

And I think you tapped into something with the expectations people may have had early on when I was hearing people say it was like “Girls” or “Sex and the City” but, having seen episodes early, I didn’t see it as either one of those.

I think ours is a show that rewards your attention and I think as we were hitting episodes 4 and 5 people were starting to understand that more, that there is a greater story being told over these episodes. It’s not necessarily about the half hour on its own [but] that they all kind of add up to something. I think that’s one part of the show that people are understanding. And with episodes 4 and 5, people are starting to feel the characters more and kind of get emotionally involved with them more and that’s helping people understand the show as well.

And it has this cinematic taste from the way Andrew [Haigh] has directed it and our other directors have directed it. I just think it’s a language that has to be learned in a certain and I think people are starting to learn now that we’re half way through the season.

Even a show like “Girls” felt different at first and, if you stuck with it, you got used to how it was put together. I think it’s the same thing with “Looking.”

Certainly. Very well said.

Since I got the episodes early, I realized I did watch them back to back with the first four episodes and then, later, the next four. But one of the criticisms I’ve seen is that 30 minutes isn’t enough time to get to know the characters. Do you think 30 minutes is enough time?

I actually really liked the 30 minutes for our show. I think you’re right, it’s a little problematic in that it’s just not much time. You don’t get to spend that much time to get to know the characters each week. It’s a bit of a slow burn that adds up over the weeks. But I think overall, half an hour works really well and I think it keeps you wanting a little bit more rather than maybe going on a little too long.

The episodes are about 30 full minutes, right? There are no commercials.

They’re around 26-27 minutes.

So I need to tell people to calm down because you’re already getting more than the regular half hour series on broadcast, which falls between 21-22 minutes.

And it’s not a completely self-explanatory show. It’s one that you have to be with for awhile to get into it and I’m really pleased that that’s happening that people are sitting with it and really investing and getting into it.

I also noticed that there isn’t much of a soundtrack to the show in that sometimes in series and movies the music comes in to tell you how you’re supposed to feel. “Looking” doesn’t do that but I wonder if people aren’t used to that? I’m guessing that’s a conscious choice on your part, though, right?

Definitely. It is a conscious choice to not have the kind of music in the show and I think that affects how people see it. When I say ‘not that kind of music,’ I mean a score. If you really break it down, there is quite a bit of music in the background and our characters really love music themselves and they’re often playing music in their homes but it’s all kind of environmental and sitting in the background to give you that real life, slice of life feel.

But I think that you’re right. I think we use it in a slightly less conventional way than a lot of other shows. I think it really helps to ground the characters and the emotion and kind of gives you a different kind of viewing experience than other shows.

My fingers are crossed the show will get a season 2 but do you already have an idea where things will go in the next season?

Yeah, I think that having the first season under our belts, now we can step back and be a little more objective about what these characters have learned and we know more about who they are. I think we’ve got some good ideas about how their journeys will continue and how they’ll grow as characters.

I think there will be a natural progression in the second season so hopefully we’ll get one. My main hope is that the show just becomes more itself and kind of continues to mature and all of our characters continue to learn on their journeys.

“Looking” airs Sundays at 10:30pm on HBO.