Why You Need to Be Watching “Looking”

The hook for HBO's latest is gay sex. But it's the characters who'll get you to stick around.

For those who think of gay men as sexually-obsessed predators, the premiere of HBO’s “Looking” does little to disabuse that notion.

In the very first scene of Sunday’s debut, Patrick, one of three main characters, has an anonymous sexual encounter in a park. Later, Agustin, Patrick’s longtime pal, engages in a three-way at his job, and Dom hooks up with a much younger man via grindr.

It’s San Francisco, we get it. Every man with a pulse is a potential trick.

Once you get beyond the hormonal trope, however, “Looking” becomes more interesting as a character study — three friends in a homosexual Valhala on a search for Mister Right, as opposed to Mister Right Now.

Part “Sex and the City,” part “Girls,” part “Queer as Folk,” part “Tales of the City,” “Looking” has much to recommend it. Excluding the title, of course, which could mean anything. Definitely not HBO-worthy, in my view.

The lead characters go beyond stereotypes, as do their storylines. Video-game producer Patrick (Jonathan Groff), 29, strikes out in non-virtual relationships. Aspiring artist Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), 31, experiments with monogamy by moving in with his boyfriend in Oakland. Dom (Murray Bartlett), 39, a waiter, frets about not having found the right fella or business opportunity.

Guest stars Scott Bakula and Rossell Tovey chew up the scenery as the owner of a flower shop and Patrick’s new boss, respectively. Bakula’s character, an older man who has seen – and done — it all, acts as a mentor to Dom but would like to be more. Tovey’s, a Brit, alternately flirts with and intimidates Patrick.

The comparisons to Lena Dunham’s “Girls” are inevitable, but not universal. While the “Looking” leads are bottomless pits of self-absorption, they are also older, wiser and more focused than are their counterparts at “Girls.” They know who they are and what they want. Their struggle is in getting it.

Like Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” graphic sex abounds in “Looking.” There is no full-frontal nudity, though, which comes off as prudish for a network that prides itself on creative license. Perhaps more important, it reflects a double standard, given the saturation of naked women engaged in heterosexual sex on “Game of Thrones.”

With the “Looking” men, sometimes the sex is white hot, sometimes fumbling and awkward. Sometimes the characters themselves aren’t sure if they’re in the throes of a one-night stand or a first date. The same could be said for “Girls” or “Sex and the City.”

There are several laugh-out-loud lines in “Looking.” My personal favorite: After Dom has a robust round of sex with his young grindr pen pal, his roommate asks him, “Did you fuck the pain away with the cast of ‘Wicked?’”

The story arcs are familiar to HBO viewers, albeit not in a man-on-man context – the pursuit of sex, having sex, hoping sex leads to a relationship, surviving a relationship, not hating your ex when it inevitably ends.

Each of these can be comical in its own right. And yet, I don’t see “Looking” as a true comedy. I picked up an undercurrent of sadness beneath some of the humor, almost a recognition by the characters that stable relationships among a certain swath of gay men are rare, indeed.

It made me think of the old joke: What does a lesbian bring on the second date?

A U-Haul.

What does a gay man bring on the second date?

Whatsecond date?

And that’s why they’re always “Looking.”