HBO has announced that its comedy/drama hybrid about gay men in San Francisco, Looking, has been cancelled after two seasons. It’s a disappointment to that show’s small cadre of fans who were left with a cliffhanger of an ending (the network has promised a wrap-up special, for what it’s worth), but still, it’s a moment that should be greeted with a valedictory spirit. Looking was a show that broke ground; it was by far the most prominent series ever to deal (almost) exclusively with the inner lives of gay men. And now that the ground has been broken, the next show about gay men can be as provocative, strange, and interesting as Looking was not.
That’s not to say that it’s true, as was advanced by critics and observers in the gay community, that Looking‘s dullness was a flaw that made the series bad. But it was undeniable that there was a certain studiousness to the way the show framed its characters. Here was the inexperienced naif, whose insecurities and lack of self-awareness are more plot catalyst than character trait. Here was the older gay man, symbol of the psychic scars suffered by those for whom homophobia was a daily part of home life. And here, introduced in the second season, is the bearish AIDS patient who manages his disease with complete aplomb, to carry across the notion that gay men’s relationship with the HIV threat has changed. Tuning into Looking, it was easy to feel as if the show had been caretakingly engineered to convey specific ideas about modern gay life. Each gay man on Looking was a different type. What was missing in the show’s boring scenes was character and oddity.
The show often transcended its nature to deliver sweet, lovely, and interesting moments—a day-long date in season one, a trip to a funeral in season two—that said things about these people, not Gay People. But it also did a great deal of important work in its duller moments. Any show about gay life that follows Looking comes upon an audience who’s already been primed. Gay men who had been waiting too long to see themselves onscreen may not have liked this fact, but Looking was forced to do the work that, say, I Love Lucy was doing in depicting an interracial marriage in the 1950s.
Yes, we’re all more enlightened today than we were then, but that doesn’t mean that there’s an established language for conveying the subtleties of gay relationships onscreen. The disappointment over Looking, even if it’s often conveyed in a smirking, over-it manner, is inextricable from the fact that there are so few shows about gay people at all. (The Jamal plot on Empire has been a recent reason for hope, though it hews as closely as does Looking to fairly rudimentary signposts of the gay experience.) Looking proved a show about gay people could exist in a literal sense, and also that it could, at times, work dramatically.
Looking was often hamhanded. But its characters, hewing close as they did to type, got a lot out of the way for future TV creators. Patrick, the anodyne protagonist of Looking, got an on-camera HIV test and experienced burning anxieties over sex apps, and both of these moments felt rudimentary for audiences who styled themselves more sophisticated than the material. But now gay anxieties about sexually transmitted diseases and Grindr have been broadcast on a prestige network, and whatever is the next show about the lives of gay people can’t deal with those stories without seeming to rip off Looking. Instead, these future shows can, and surely will, reap interesting and provocative new stories on the ground tilled by HBO.