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Review: HBO's 'Looking' an authentic glimpse inside lives of gay men

A continent may divide them, but HBO's "Girls" will have to shove over and cede some of the Frank New Voice limelight to "Looking," the network's charming and deceptively significant new half-hour series that premieres Sunday about a trio of gay men living in San Francisco.

What at first seems like your standard (if R-rated) banter-heavy, young-urbanites-seek-love/meaning tale, this time told from a gay perspective, quickly proves to have a truer heart and loftier ambitions.

Yes, creator Michael Lannan is clearly determined to depict and discuss male homosexuality with the same semi-erotic-realism that has become commonplace among heterosexual sex scenes — We're here, we're queer, we're copulating on screen, get used to it.

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Having established this (again and again and once more for good measure), the story becomes both more universal — who among us is not looking for love/meaning? — more pointed, and way more interesting.

In the decades following the Stonewall riots and then the AIDS crisis, gay men became symbolic of society's seesawing definitions of diversity and tolerance (see please the recent "Duck Dynasty" kerfuffle). This story too has been viewed through a mostly heterosexual prism — how are we as a nation, i.e., all the straight folk, feeling about "those" gays today?

Even shows like "Queer as Folk" and "The L-Word" often seemed to have "A Straight Person's Guide to Understanding Gay People" subtext.

Here, not so much. As with "Girls," the purpose is not the view as the vantage point. The world has changed, is changing, just as fast and radically for gay men as it is for everyone else and isn't it time a show dealt with that?

Why yes, yes it is.

"Glee's" Jonathan Groff pulls lead as Patrick, a 29-year-old Midwest transplant struggling to take his work as a video-game designer and his love life to the next level. Antic, unfiltered, anxious and adorable, Patrick can't quite align his vision of life with its realities. We meet him as he engages in a requisitely awkward first time in-park encounter (that evokes, almost litigiously, a similar park scene from "Angels in America") until it is interrupted by a cellphone call. Which he answers.

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Like many of his female counterparts on television, Patrick is so emotionally and sexually uncertain, he's more comfortable discussing sex with his friends than actually having it. Forget safe, is cruising cool? Ironic? Post-ironic? What about Internet dating? Or porn?

Desire barely gets a foot in the door. Allowed choices previous generations only dreamed of, Patrick has no idea what he wants or how to get it. If gay life is now supposed to end in gay marriage, does the dating scene have to be as ghastly as it is for straight people? Apparently so.

His friends face similar quandaries. Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) can't decide who he is either. An artist who has stopped making art, he reacts to his decision to finally move in with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) by immediately pushing against everything that that implies.

Meanwhile Dom (Murray Bartlett) is facing down 40 just as if it weren't the new 20. He's still waiting tables as his Don Juan days wane and love clearly is not the answer; he's going to need a business plan.

A coterie of fine supporting characters gather to aid and abet the trio's collective journey. Lauren Weedman is a standout as Dom's roommate Doris, as is Scott Bakula as the "older" gent who enters Dom's life and Russell Tovey, who becomes Patrick's new boss, Kevin. As its subject so often demands, "Looking" is a walkin'/talkin' show and most of its charm lies in amusing banter from which wisdom occasionally emerges; mercifully, Lannan keeps the "get in the car, Mary" tics to a minimum.

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At one point in the third episode, Patrick protests the lack of female characters in video games, saying he plays as a girl whenever he can because as a gay man he understands what it feels like to be an outsider.

And in fact, "Looking" probably owes more to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" than it does "Queer as Folk." Like the lead characters of so many "working gal" shows of the 1970s, gay men young and old face a landscape for which there is no map. They are the first of their kind, but as women, still grappling with the work/family conundrum, have found, freedom can be a burden or a paralytic, just as easily as a gift.

"Looking" doesn't make the mistake of arguing that gay men are just like straight women, or straight men, or gay women, or even each other. Instead it tells the story of three guys who are friends in a strangely wonderful and difficult time and what that looks like. To them.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Looking'

Where: HBO

When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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