HBO’s ‘Looking’ a gay San Francisco slice of life

01/19/2014 12:00 AM

01/18/2014 9:23 PM

“Looking,” the San Francisco-set HBO show debuting at 10:30 tonight, is compelling in what it is but more remarkable for what it isn’t.

The eight-episode first season follows the love lives of three gay male friends “without having it be about being in the closet or coming out,” series creator Michael Lannan said. “We wanted to drop in on them in the midst of their lives and progress, and meet them when they have been out for some time.”

Such a pure slice-of-life approach differs from previous gay-centric premium cable shows. Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” (2000-05) and “The L Word” (2004-09) touched on many aspects of characters’ lives. But each show started from the neophyte’s perspective – in “Queer,” a teenage boy first exploring his sexuality; in “L Word,” a young woman rethinking heterosexuality after a female cafe owner speaks to her in French. (It happens).

Slice of life is easier to show today, when gay marriage is legal in 17 states and coming out is only part of picture. Lannan, 36, said he and “Looking” co-executive producer and primary director Andrew Haigh, who is in his early 40s, wanted the series to reflect how things are for their generation right now.

“We are kind of at an age where we grew up with a certain set of expectations about what it was like to be gay and what our lives would be like,” Lannan said. “(Then) the world changed very quickly in my adulthood.”

In the past 10 years, “ideas about gay people have changed in the American public,” Lannan said. “I did not think (that) in my lifetime gay marriage would be legal in several states. ... It creates an interesting thing for people in their late 20s, or 30s or early 40s where you suddenly have all these options available to you.”

With so many story lines possible, it’s easier to start in the middle. “Looking” follows the romantic travails of main character Patrick (Jonathan Groff, from “Glee”), a 29-year-old video-game designer who already has at least one ex-boyfriend of note. Hearing that his ex is engaged to another man makes Patrick self-conscious about his own single status, though it does not make him wiser about whom he then attempts to date.

His waiter friend Dom (Murray Bartlett), though currently single, also has had at least one long-term relationship. Closing in on 40, Dom is dismayed to find that he no longer attracts young guys with ease.

Their friend Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) has moved in with his boyfriend (O.T. Fagbenle) in Oakland, where the pair explore whether to be monogamous or some variation thereof.

“Looking’s” focus on the love lives of a group of friends, its half-hour length and presence on HBO have led many to dub the show “the gay ‘Girls’ ” even before its debut. That it airs directly after “Girls” no doubt will invite more comparisons.

But although Lannan hails “Girls” as “an amazing show, and very visionary,” he said he began developing his show for HBO before he knew of “Girls.” (Lannan previously worked as a directing or producing assistant on several shows, including “Sons of Anarchy” and “Nurse Jackie,” and directed the gay-themed 2011 short film “Lorimer.”)

“Looking’s” trio of friends peel their eyes away from their navels far more easily than “Girls’ ” Hannah and her Brooklyn sisters in hipness and mid-20s ennui look away from their own. But the shows resemble each other in frank approaches to sex and to life in the city in which each is based.

“Looking” continues the recent trend in films such as Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine” and Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” of showing a more authentic Bay Area experience.

In “Looking,” that includes still having roommates in one’s 40s, scruffy sofas in equally scruffy living rooms and complaining about techies invading San Francisco.

“I had never seen the kind of lived-in side of San Francisco (on screen) – the city that I lived in when I lived there,” said Lannan, a San Francisco resident in the late ’90s and early aughts. “It’s always kind of the establishing shots for ‘Full House’ (Golden Gate Bridge, ‘Painted Lady’ Victorians) or something like that, and then the rest shot on a sound stage in L.A. or Toronto.”

Some “Looking” scenes were shot in the Castro district, the neighborhood that long has been shorthand for “gay” and “San Francisco.” But director Haigh and crew also shot in the Lower Haight and arranged an entire episode around the chaps-tastic Folsom Street Fair. The event happens every year South of Market, also site of the office building where Patrick works.

Lannan first approached Haigh, who is English, about collaborating after seeing Haigh’s highly naturalistic 2011 independent film “Weekend,” in which two men meet in a bar in the British Midlands and stoke a new romance. Lannan said he and Haigh sought a similar visual aesthetic for “Looking.”

Lannan said director Haigh “wanted (characters) to be able to walk in and out of buildings, and to look out a window ” and see what’s really there instead of green screen or other cinematic substitutions.

Lannan said he was concerned about the logistics of shooting entirely in San Francisco, a city with less filmmaking infrastructure than Los Angeles or New York, but that Haigh insisted they could and would. Lannan said he is glad for that insistence.

“There are so many things about San Francisco that you cannot fake,” he said.

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