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HBO's 'Looking' looks for understanding

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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.

"When you make a show like this, it's hard," he said. "We can't represent an entire demographic. It's a weird thing, because there are different expectations at play: 'Will it represent me as a gay person?' and 'Will it alienate me if I'm not gay?' It's a hard line to toe because you want it to be universal but you also want it to be specific to the gay experience. You don't want to water everything down."

Real connections

This modern tales of the city is rooted in Lannan's friendships. About eight years ago while living in New York, he started jotting down notes on friends he had during his time living in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. "It wasn't that conscious. It wasn't like, 'I'm going to take these stories and do something with it,'" said Lannan, who was an assistant to director Allen Coulter ("The Sopranos," "Sex and the City") at the time.

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His script reached Nick Hall, director of comedy for HBO, who met with Lannan about crafting it into a half-hour series based on the three central characters.

Michael Lombardo, HBO's president of programming, was attracted to the idea that there was no apology for being gay. "It wasn't gay as court jester," said Lombardo. "What Michael presents is strong, sometimes flawed individuals who are living their lives openly as gay men, without gay being the only defining aspect."

Those involved with the show credit Haigh, whose film "Weekend" centered on two men who meet at a gay bar and embark on a fleeting, emotionally charged romance, with bringing the naturalistic and raw qualities of his film to the series.

"I had seen 'Weekend' in New York when it was in movie theaters," Groff recalled. "I was with a friend who is straight, and we were both so damn moved by the end of that movie. Andrew had such a way of making the gay experience universal in that movie, and I felt like if he was going to lend his voice to ['Looking'], then it had the potential to do something great."

"There was something about it that felt very new and very relevant and very kind of present." Bartlett added. "It was very sort of now."

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More than a decade after "Queer as Folk" presented unfiltered gay sex, the first few episodes of "Looking" picks up where that left off, albeit with more narrative pertinence. There's cruising in the park, a threesome and Grindr flubs. And while "Girls" has had no shortage of raw sex acts, which have generated countless think pieces — love portrayals and sex scenes among same-sex individuals still face a double standard, Lombardo acknowledged.

"We struggled with this," Lombardo said. "How much do you sanitize storytelling to make it more palatable? ... But Andrew and Michael don't put in sex scenes for shock value."

Amid joking about the technical aspects of filming such scenes, Groff pulled it back to center, noting a reaction one awkward non-sex scene in the third episode elicited from his brother and sister-in-law in Pennsylvania.

"I was watching them watching it, and I was like 'Whoa, they're connecting to men — gay men — and they're seeing themselves.'"

They were looking. And maybe understanding.

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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