Director Andrew Haigh’s big break came in 2011 when his low-budget rom-com Weekend, a charmingly funny film about a one-night stand between two men that blossoms into something more, became a critical sleeper-hit in the UK and US. Not long after, HBO came calling, asking Haigh to help writer Michael Lannan turn his short-film Lorimer into an 8-part TV series about the lives and loves of three gay men in San Francisco.
And here it is. Looking (Sky Atlantic) is a heart-warming, comfortable comedy-drama that manages to take a look at the lives of the gay-community without ever turning their sexuality into the issue. There’s no emotional coming-out scene or dealing with social rejection here, the three men and their friends are all completely comfortable in their own skins – well, nearly all of them – and have mightily impressive facial hair – well, nearly all of them. Their only problem, it seems, is that they aren’t really any good at the whole relationship thing. But then, who is?
Paddy (Jonathan Groff) is a shallow video-game designer who trawls OKCupid and the local park in search of a husband who can impress his mother. Dom (Murray Bartlett) works as a wine waiter and spends most of his time looking to get laid, only he may be getting too old to lure his usual prey of naïve young waiters. Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) is the only one actually in a relationship, but it seems to be going rather well as they consider moving in together, although the impromptu threesome beneath a baroque art-installation suggests that Augustin might not be ready to settle down just yet.
It’s all shot in a subtle low-fi style that is similar to Haigh’s previous work, which marks Looking out from previous gay-focused shows such as Tales of the City and Russell T. Davies’ Queer as Folk that were more overtly dramatic. It lends a brilliant authenticity to most scenes with the main characters already feeling like established parts of the furniture. This is in no small part down to the excellent performances of the three leads, all of whom are unfailingly genuine and comfortable in every moment.
Without the obtrusive crutch of stereotypical gay-issues, the plot is open to exploring the universal problems of all relationships and giving them a unique flavour. Paddy encountering his ex in the men’s room was a genius move, playing on the inherent awkwardness and vulnerability of both situations, while the episode also deals with looking for love and a couple wanting different things from their relationship.
Most of these issues are addressed by Paddy as he suffers numerous awkward encounters in his flapping attempts to find love in San Francisco. It starts with a dodgy, fumbled hand-job from a hirsute stranger in the park (“cold hands”), which is halted abruptly when Paddy answers his phone, and doesn’t get much better. Paddy is, frankly, awful at the dating game with an embarrassing use of emoticons (really? Winky smile face?) and some even more embarrassing small-talk about business card-styles (“embossed, which is very fancy”). It’s unsurprising, yet still crushing, when his date tells him it’s not working out.
However, though Looking has oodles of charm and honesty, it is severely lacking in humour for a comedy-drama. It’s shooting for the kind of cringe-inducing moments that Girls does so well, but these characters – Paddy especially – are far too likeable for it to work. The key to this kind of humour is that victim brings it on themselves through an act of hubris, but Paddy is so desperate and tries so hard to make a good impression that when he is brought down it’s painfully upsetting rather than ruefully funny. I think a lot of this is due to Paddy’s lack of facial hair: his smooth face makes him look like a sad little puppy. Awww.
There’s a warning for Looking in the recent announcement that Stephen Merchant’s sitcom, Hello Ladies, has been axed by HBO. Like Looking, Merchant’s comedy often strayed too far into melancholy by playing up Stuart Pritchard’s feeling of loneliness. Still, even if the humour doesn’t quite land in this episode, there’s something overwhelmingly refreshing about Looking that it feels unlike anything else on TV right now. Including Girls.
Click here to watch the trailer for Looking