HBO's new show Looking was being called the Gay Girls even before it premiered Sunday night.
Maybe because it's a half-hour dramedy about youngish people living in a big city. Maybe because the two shows air right after each other. Maybe because they both feature a lot of sex.
But after watching the first episode, it's clear that comparison couldn't be more wrong.
Aside from the fact that the shows don't have much in common (they differ on everything from setting to character motivation to tone), Looking wasn't burdened by tons of negative publicity before its debut.
The backlash to Girls started before the show even premiered in 2012. It was, among other things (like 27-year-old creator Lena Dunham's nudity and the show's unvarnished sex scenes), centered mostly on how it should be the show of its generation, that the series needed to encapsulate the 20-something female experience for an entire group of millennials. Dunham's show didn't fit into that forced mold — how could it? — and it seemed to prevent people from seeing the show as it was instead of the show they wanted it to be.
Unlike Girls, Looking doesn't arrive with pressure to be the Great Gay Show on TV.
And it benefits from that greatly.
What's so striking about Looking is that it doesn't act like the relatively groundbreaking show that it is. (Yes, Showtime's Queer as Folk, about five gay men living in Pittsburgh, came out 14 years ago, but since then gay characters on TV have been reduced to stereotypes that suck the humanity out of them.)
In its pilot episode, Looking ambles along without any of the weight that could have come with a show about three gay men of varying ages. It's just a show about their lives — their boyfriends and roommates and jobs and dating problems. They're just people.
Theater vet Jonathan Groff brings great charm to his character Patrick, a 29-year-old video game designer who recently broke up with his boyfriend, who, after four months with someone else, is already getting married. Patrick is the sweet, sorta naive, sorta prudish one of the group, and Groff (who's openly gay) plays him with a combination of wide-eyed vulnerability and good comedic timing, kind of like Matt Damon's younger gay brother. Patrick's roommate Agustin (played by Frankie J. Alvarez) is an artist of sorts who's on the verge of moving in with his boyfriend. Their friend Dom (Murray Bartlett), who with his former lover Doris (Lauren Weedman, a hoot), is pushing 40 and has outgrown his job as a waiter.
All of the characters feel lived in, especially this core trio, who seem like they've been hanging out for years, a testament to the actors and the no-frills writing that never tries too hard.
The most significant way this show differs from Girls is that it's not about that post-college period. The guys have settled, if not perfect, lives, a place to call home and a group of friends they feel comfortable with just being themselves. They know who they are. The girls on Girls started out with none of that self-awareness (it remains to be seen whether any of them have gained it), and that gives Looking a very different, welcome feel.
So what are they Looking for? In Patrick's case, it's intimacy, whether from sex (when we first see him, he's hooking up with a stranger in a park) or a relationship (he also goes on a disastrous date with an oncologist). And that's what stands out most in this first episode: It's striking to see two men kiss and cuddle and flirt on the train, not because the notion is particularly groundbreaking on TV, but because it's rarely done with this much intimacy.
On a show this unconcerned with being momentous, it's pretty remarkable.