The reviews are in, and HBO's new, indie-film-paced dramedy about contemporary gaydom, Looking, has been declared both a quiet triumph and a bore. Among the adjectives frequently employed on both sides of the debate, "unremarkable," "boring," and "tame." But as Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson rightly observes, "Looking not only has to bear the heavy burden of having to be a consistently engaging show on its own merits, but is also laden with the rather impossible demand that it be correctly and ecumenically representative of the Gay Experience entirely." Which, of course, it's never going to be.
Now, first, the positive reviews:
The LA Times gave it a rave, calling it "charming and significant" and saying, "HBO's 'Girls' will have to shove over and cede some of the Frank New Voice limelight to 'Looking.'" Critic Mary McNamara says Groff's performance is "antic, unfiltered, anxious and adorable," and she astutely points out:
"Looking" probably owes more to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" than it does "Queer as Folk." Like the lead characters of so many "working gal" shows of the 1970s, gay men young and old face a landscape for which there is no map. They are the first of their kind, but as women, still grappling with the work/family conundrum, have found, freedom can be a burden or a paralytic, just as easily as a gift.
Variety calls it "tonally compatible with 'Girls,' but a lot less whiny," and "happily, occasionally pretty funny."
Time also likes it, saying that unlike shows with gay characters in the recent past, like The New Normal and Queer As Folk, the stories here "are informed by the fact that its characters are gay, but not dictated by it." They also say the show does for San Francisco a bit of what Treme did for New Orleans. "Looking... isn’t telling a broader story of the city as Treme did, but it has the same grounding dedication to specificity, to showing the city as actually lived in."
Vulture/NYMag similarly makes comparisons to Queer as Folk, saying Looking is a lot more complex and that it presents "San Francisco singledom circa 2014 as anthropologically specific but otherwise unremarkable" via some characters who "happen to be gay." Also, "the major characters have a core of mystery that prevents them from being written off as mere types."
Now, the bad:
Allessandra Stanley at the New York Times says the show has the "unhurried" quality of gay indie films like the acclaimed Weekend, with "a studied disregard for dramatic structure and polished dialogue." She adds that the characters are all "wryly self-aware, make one another laugh and share a fundamental decency that is both commendable and a little boring," and unlike Girls, "Looking is actually tame and muted and, accordingly, less compelling.
Gawker similarly finds the characters "barely remarkable," but says the creators do "an adequate job" at portraying contemporary gay life for a mass audience, which it must court without grossing them out to be successful. "It compromises and humanizes." Openly gay critic Rich Juzwiak admits that he "has more in common with these gay guys than any I've seen on TV before." But he adds, with Looking, "gay men get to be boring on TV at last."
Slate agrees, saying, "There was a time when this obvious truth [that gays are just as boring as everyone else] may have needed stating... But surely that time was at least 20 years ago."
Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson writes, on the basis of watching the first four episodes, it's "by no means a perfect show, but also ripples with enough smarts and sensitivity to register as a plenty diverting, though perhaps sneakily shallow, success." He adds that the pressures on the show to "not fuck it up" when it comes to portraying gay life in 2014 are ridiculously huge, especially given all that's happened, politically, since The L Word ended its run in 2009.
And, finally, there's this dolt over at Esquire who wrote "A Straight Man's Guide to HBO's Looking," and it sounds like he's about 25 and hasn't ever watched a gay film or TV show besides Will & Grace and Philadelphia. He finds the show boring, which is fine, but he also seems genuinely grossed out by all the "hooking up with guys" that all other critics have basically said there isn't enough of. Like, the sex is pretty non-explicit and edited out. He also finds it remarkable, despite the fact that these are all references that only gay men over 50 tend to employ, that "there is not one reference to The Wizard of Oz, All About Eve, or Barbara Streisand."
So, there you go. Plenty of good and bad, and while some find virtue in the show's pace and unremarkableness, others find a snoozefest. And so it will likely go.
Check back here on SFist for recaps every Monday, for as long as these measly 8 episodes of Season 1 play out.