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HBO's 'Looking' EPs: 'Obviously It's More Than Just About Being Gay' (Q&A)

Looking
HBO
Frankie J. Alvarez, Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett

Executive producers Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh speak with THR about being identified as a gay show, drawing comparisons to "Girls" and betting on gay marriage.

When discussing whether to keep a reference about gay marriage in the pilot script, Michael Lannan, Andrew Haigh and Sarah Condon -- the executive producers of HBO's new half-hour dramedy, Looking -- decided to leave it in, even though it hadn't been legalized in California yet. "We were the two people who allowed gay marriage to happen," Haigh jokes to The Hollywood Reporter.

Looking is based off Lannan's short film Lorimer and Haigh, who directs the first episodes of the season, wrote and directed the 2011 acclaimed gay drama Weekend. The show centers on three friends living in San Francisco: 29-year-old video game designer Patrick (Jonathan Groff), 39-year-old Dom (Murray Bartlett) who's looking to expand his career and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a 31-year-old artist who just moved in with his boyfriend in neighboring suburb, Oakland.

While joking they willed gay marriage into being, Haigh emphasized to THR the show is "one with gay people, which is slightly different than calling it a gay show." He adds: "We never wanted it to be an issue-based show; it's about the lives of these characters."

Why did you decide to position these three guys as quite settled into their sexuality, as opposed to just having come out?

Michael Lannan: In early versions, the characters were younger. But as we went through development, it seemed more exciting and interesting to have characters who have come out quite a long time ago, and not really struggling with that as much as what is going on in their present lives. They can look back on their 20s and look ahead to their 40s, thinking about what comes next.

Haigh: You may think when you do finally come out, everything's going to be sorted. But it's an ongoing process -- these guys have defined themselves initially with their sexuality, and now they're trying to redefine themselves and sorting out the more important parts of their lives. It's about how you deal with being gay in the long-term, as opposed to initial coming-out story.

STORY: Looking: TV Review

I love the reason Patrick gives for playing the female character in video games – they're both outsiders in society. Is that why you made that his line of work?

Lannan: That was part of it. We like the idea of him having a job that isn't a typical gay male job. We also want him to have one foot in old San Francisco as a gay man and one foot in new San Francisco as a highly-skilled tech worker. Gay nerds are cute, too.

Haigh: He doesn't really fit in anywhere -- the cliché version of straight world or the gay world. He's meandering through these worlds, not really fitting in, and much of it is finding his place within the world at large. I think that's always compelling.

San Franciscois its own character in the show. What landed you there?

Lannan: There hadn't been a TV show in San Francisco for quite a long time, and we thought it was cool to go back there and do a portrayal of the city that's maybe a little more real than past portrayals. And it just seemed like an interesting time to go back to this city, the homeland of gay culture.

How long has Looking been in the works?

Lannan: Seven or eight years ago, I started taking notes on things that happened to me, and stories I heard. Then I combined them into a feature script with these three characters in focus. Then we wrote it, and HBO asked me to write a half-hour. That was two years ago. We developed for some time, and then we saw Weekend and thought it had a lot of the qualities we wanted in the show…it had this beauty and rawness that fit the world and the characters very well, so we were excited and honored when Andrew [Haigh] agreed to the project.

Haigh: Realism doesn't have to be ugly. It can be beautiful, tender and intimate.

Being identified as a gay show -- is that a good thing or bad thing?

Andrew Haigh: It's an inevitable thing. People like to define things and pigeonhole things. For me, it's absolutely about these three gay people, and we're not embarrassed or ashamed of that; we want to explore those things. But obviously, it's more than just about being gay. I don't mind if someone calls it a gay show, but I wouldn't want that to limit the audience because I it offers a lot more than just that.

So, a show that happens to star gay people.

Haigh: It's just a show with gay people, which is slightly different than calling it a gay show. It doesn't necessarily put people off, but it does make it sound like it's all about being gay. And we never wanted it to be an issue-based show -- it's just about the lives of these characters.

It's a few years since shows like Queer as Folk and The L Word, but with gay marriage now legalized, how do you perceive the current viewer landscape?

Haigh: Only time will tell when we see who watches it. I think the dominant audience is initially going to be gay people, but it will expand. Especially young audiences who have no problem watching gay content, and as things have changed, so many more people have gay friends, and their brothers and sisters have come out, and they know more gay people in their lives. Hopefully it's a more inclusive society, and more people are ready to watch this kind of thing.

Lannan: We've already got some initial signs that once non-gay people watch it, they do get invested and they can connect with the characters, and I hope that continues.

Haigh: I like the idea…you really engage with the characters, and they resonate more than just with their sexuality.

Did HBO seem concerned about not being able to widely market the show?

Haigh: There's always desire for the audience to be bigger. But I think they understood for us to make an honest and realistic show, we just had to do what we felt was right for us. We don't want it to be a niche show.

Do you invite comparisons to Girls?

Haigh: It's a tricky thing that's out of our hands. I don't mind that it gets talked about in the same sentence because I think Girls is a great show, but I do think they're different shows.

Lannan: It's always an honor to be compared to groundbreaking shows like that, but the show is so different, and we started developing it far before any of us had heard of Girls. So it does come from a different place.

STORY: HBO's Girls: TV Review

Do you wish the show had aired sooner?

Haigh: It's an interesting time for it to come out. Society has moved on rapidly in the past three or four years. I think it would have been nicer if it were a bit earlier, but it comes out when it does.

Lannan: It would've been different had it come out earlier. I think we're making a show that had to be made now. When we were shooting the pilot, gay marriage had not been legalized in California yet. I remember Andrew, Sarah [Condon] and I had a conversation about changing the script or just guessing that gay marriage will be legal. We guessed right.

Haigh: We were the two people who allowed gay marriage to happen.

Looking premieres Sunday, Jan. 19 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.

Email: brandon.kirby@thr.com
Twitter: @bkkirby