HBO’s ‘Looking’ is unmistakably real

It is hard to believe that it has only been 15 years since the first romantic gay kiss on network television. It happened on The WB’s short-lived animated series “Mission Hill,” a show championed by organizations such as GLAAD for presenting realistic portrayals of gay characters who were not defined solely by their sexual orientation.

Television has changed a lot in that relatively small amount of time, and so went the nation. “Will & Grace” and “Modern Family” have effectively broken down the barrier for LGBT representation on television.

That said, being gay on television still means either being a caricature or being almost completely desexualized, like in the case of Cam and Mitchell of “Modern Family.”

In the case of last year’s one-and-done “The New Normal,” an honest representation of LGBT characters was bogged down by issue-driven story lines. Rarely on television are gay people allowed to simply just be gay.

“Looking,” which premiered Jan. 19 on HBO, seeks to change that. Set in San Francisco, “Looking” is about three ordinary guys (Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett) trying to make their way through life and love in one of the most exciting cities in the world.

Like anyone else in their twenties and thirties, their lives are defined by their relationships, platonic or otherwise, meaning that depictions of gay sexual intercourse is unavoidable. Much like the infamous sex scenes in its time-slot companion “Girls,” sex and intimacy are not titillating nor are they nauseating; its participants are good-looking, but not model-esque. The nudity (of which there is very little) is secondary to the subtext.

While the show is largely specific to the city of San Francisco and particular nuances of the gay experience, the lives of its three leads are easy to relate to regardless of where one might fall on the Kinsey scale.

Patrick (Jonathan Groff), is the show’s perpetually single character, casually strolling Ok Cupid in hopes of finding something, whether it be the man of his dreams or a one-time fling.

Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) is in a long-term relationship, but there’s trouble in paradise.

Dom (Murray Bartlett) is 39, almost a decade older than the other two, but is also the only one who cannot seem to put his life together.

Directed by Andrew Haigh (Weekend), the pilot of “Looking” is a half hour of shot compositions that would not be out of place on a Tumblr photography blog. The visual command of the episode clashes unexpectedly with the naturalism of the dialogue, with performances that are typically reserved for productions with less technical panache.

While those not familiarized with the lingo of a socially active gay San Franciscan may not understand every word, they will recognize its authenticity. “Looking” is a profound and true depiction of what it is like to live one day at a time, regardless of what thoughts the word “grinder” provoke in your head.

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu