HBO Looking

From left: Frankie Alvarez, Murray Bartlett and Jonathan Groff of "Looking." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

It was just over a week before the leads of HBO's gay-centered new series "Looking" would ultimately be seen — and examined closely — and the trio of friends (or "dream team," as they dub themselves) were too occupied to be overwhelmed by the burden, thumbing through humorous cellphone videos of one another taken from the set.

"I hope my phone is never stolen because these are so humiliating," said Jonathan Groff, an impish grin tugging at his face as he shared a video of regrettable singing moments by costars Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett. (Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" among them.)


FOR THE RECORD:
"Looking": An article in the Jan. 26 Calendar section about the HBO series "Looking" misidentified Nick Hall as the network's director of comedy. Hall's title is vice president of original programming for HBO.

The carefree scene unfolded on a recent afternoon at the Palomar Hotel in Westwood; all the while a mass of billboards of the wistful-looking threesome heavily dots the surrounding neighborhoods, promising viewers will "find something real." It's a profusion that prompted Bartlett to inquire, as a spread of quinoa salads arrived, "Do you think people know there's a show called 'Looking'?"

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"Looking," which premiered Jan. 19, centers on three out-and-proud gay friends navigating adulthood in progressive San Francisco. It comes from writer Michael Lannan and is being helmed by writer-director Andrew Haigh, who directed the 2011 gay indie-romance film "Weekend."

"Looking" lands at an interesting moment in the gay narrative: last year, marriage equality gained steam in the U.S. just as Russia instituted anti-gay laws. At a time when television may be less stingy with its offering of gay characters (3.3% of series regulars on scripted prime-time broadcast television were LGBT, according to a GLAAD study), few series have zoomed in on the nuances of contemporary gay relationships. "Looking" appears to be a descendant of groundbreaking forefathers such as "Tales of the City," "Queer as Folk" (the U.K. and American versions) and "The L Word."

"Our show is less about people just finding themselves," said Lannan, 36, in a separate interview with Haigh in their Hollywood office. "It's not about coming out and accepting your sexuality and being a twentysomething. We wanted a stage of life that was a little more formed. People in their 30s now who are gay grew up with a different set of expectations. Whereas, when Andrew and I were teenagers, it was such a different world."

Haigh added: "Even just the idea of being completely open — it was something I couldn't even think about when I was like 18. Gay marriage wasn't even something within grasp."

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The series, which opened to modest ratings, has already set off predictable comparisons to "Sex and the City" and that recent cultural touchstone (and its lead-in), "Girls" — similarities the guys are willing to accept and challenge.

"It's just the way the industry works," Alvarez said. "Hopefully, the work will speak for itself and it won't be called the gay 'Girls,' it will just be 'Looking' because we're presenting something supplementary, not the same."

It's already serving as quite the spotlight for the actors: It's the first headlining TV role for Groff, who is mostly known for his theater work. Alvarez, the straight man of the trio, also comes from the theater world and appeared in episodes of NBC's short-lived "Smash." Bartlett is probably best known for his run on CBS' former daytime soap "Guiding Light."

The series introduces viewers to Patrick (Groff), a 29-year-old genial but dorky video game designer with sexual inhibitions; Agustin (Alvarez) is his slightly older roommate and an aspiring artist who finds himself in an artistic and romantic rut; and Dom (Bartlett) is their approaching-40 waiter friend undergoing a midlife crisis.

It might not be a show "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson will add to his DVR list but realistically is being scrutinized by the gay community. Detractors found its pilot boring and cliche-ridden, while others saw promise and honest realism.

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Jesse Oxfeld, who serves as a theater reviewer for the New York Observer, told gay and lesbian professional network dot429.com, "if the writing holds up 'Looking' will be a fun series to watch, regardless of its success in nailing its sociocultural point." Slate's J. Bryan Lowder was less flattering:  "What can be the appeal in watching a show that amounts to a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straights?

Groff recognized the pressure the eight-episode first season carries and is just as dogmatic in the belief that it can't and won't please everyone.