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Looking: TV Review

Looking
HBO

The Bottom Line

It does an excellent job of highlighting the contemporary gay experience of three friends in San Francisco.

Airdate

Jan. 19, 10:30 p.m. (HBO)

With its new dramedy, HBO looks to do for gay men in San Francisco what "Girls" and "Sex and the City" did for women in NYC.

With any luck, HBO's newest dramedy, Looking, about the lives of gay men in San Francisco, will sidestep all the trumped up controversies that continue to swirl around Girls. Any time you take a subset of people and build a show around them, those in that subset (who nevertheless have completely different experiences) will complain while others left out of the subset (for any number of reasons) will also find something to bitch about.

Sometimes viewers forget that a television series can be about these people, in this time, living their own stories.

Fortunately, gay audiences have a pretty good track record of realizing that they are too diverse to be covered completely in any one show, even if it's a show like Looking that does an excellent job of highlighting the contemporary gay experience of three friends in San Francisco.

Shot on location in a manner that's nontraditional -- in that it's not a postcard Valentine to one of the most beautiful cities in the world (and thus represented solely by the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf and the "painted lady" Victorians) -- Looking is nonetheless representationally beautiful as it becomes one of the rare shows to focus on real neighborhoods with real views -- and has a local's appreciation of detail.

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Written and created by Michael Lannan (along with writer-director Andrew Haigh), Looking follows three main characters: Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a 29-year-old video game creator; longtime roommate and best friend Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a 31-year-old artist who is leaving San Francisco to move in with his boyfriend in Oakland; and Dom (Murray Bartlett), a 39-year-old waiter who has been doing the same thing for too long (working at Zuni, a beloved local restaurant and another dead-on bit the writers got perfect).

Before delving into what's going on with the three main characters, it's probably restating the obvious, but also probably necessary, to point out that Lannan, Haigh and HBO want Looking to appeal to everybody, not just gays. It's not that they just happen to be gay (a state of being in dramas that many gay people often wish for in characters), since the whole point of Looking is to explore their lives distinctly as gay men. But the larger issues at play in the lives of Patrick, Agustin and Dom are relatable to everybody, not just gays, so the principals are hoping viewers will find something that hooks them in Looking.

There's a nice balance of humor (Groff in particular gets to milk the comedy) and emotional drama coursing through it (like Girls, which makes a fine pair for it on Sundays).

Of course it would probably be asking too much for there not to be discourse about a multifaceted representation of the gay community. Are these stories touching the entire spectrum? Of course not. Lesbians, at least in the first four episodes, aren't really a part of the show. Looking does a good job representing minorities (both gay and straight), makes an effort to span the generation gap (the addition of Scott Bakula as Lynn, an institution on Castro Street helps) and, because it's shot on location, gets neighborhoods and gay hangouts (both iconic and less well-known) down well.

Much like New York has been central to any number of series shot on location there, Bay Area viewers will see a lot of familiar spots that locals frequen, and places that are name-checked are legit. Beyond that, the cinematography is wonderful, catching the nonpostcard views that locals love. And Looking was also filming during the Folsom Street Fair, so there's plenty of leather jokes in one episode.

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Other details also lend legitimacy -- from Grindr to spot-on tech jokes to the disdain San Franciscans feel about Los Angeles in particular.

As for the story, Looking effectively builds beyond the three main characters. Patrick's partner at the game company is a straight Japanese guy named Owen (Andrew Law), who is deadly funny at mocking Patrick's often naive or geeky behavior. Patrick's new boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey), on the other hand, is gay -- that may cause some conflict because there's an attraction, although Patrick is dating Richie (Raul Castillo), who might be enough to keep Patrick from wandering. Dom's scene-stealing roommate Doris (Lauren Weedman) grounds Dom in ways others can't. And Agustin's boyfriend, Frank (O.T. Fagbenle), is more domesticated than maybe Agustin wants, even though the two just moved in.

There's plenty of stories in that lot, and the first four episodes cover a lot of ground while adeptly familiarizing all the players.

Looking is notable for doing the one thing other shows with gay characters can't or won't: depict sex and intimacy in a straightforward, unflinching way. The whole series would be rendered inauthentic if not. But again, it's fairly clear that what Lannan and Haigh want to do with this series is not just boundary-bust or titillate, but depict dramatic circumstances that are relatable to anybody.

Early on, the duo is accomplishing that impressively well.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
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