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Fans of HBO’s gay dramedy Looking lamented the network’s decision yesterday to cancel the show after just two seasons. Although the show will end with a feature-film-length special, fans have already created a petition asking HBO to bring Looking back for a third season. The show averaged just around 240,000 total viewers with low ratings in the coveted 18 to 49 demographic, but its demise points to larger problems with the show (and pitfalls for future gay programming to avoid).
Here’s five reasons Looking failed to grab a larger audience:
1. It wasn’t topical enough.
In an world where GamerGaters harass gay game developers, where people can still be fired from their jobs just for being gay, where HIV meds remain unaffordable for many folks despite Obamacare, and where trans and racial issues pop up everywhere, Looking kept its navel-gazing on humdrum issues like open-versus-closed relationships, “fag hag” friendships, and Patrick’s perpetual class consciousness. Even when the show started to introduce sex workers, radical faeries, bears, HIV-positive folks, trans kids, and ageism, it did so in a superficial and somewhat sanctimonious way.
2. It had no star power.
Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap and Daniel Franzese from Mean Girls hardly added heft to the show’s roster of lesser-known stars like Jonathan Groff and Raúl Castillo. Granted, HBO’s Girls started with a cast of similarly small-name actors, but Girls has much more comedy and irreverence to keep folks coming back week after week. Which brings us to the next reason…
3. It wasn’t much of a dramedy.
Though Looking stayed mostly on the lighter side of melodrama, the show wasn’t funny enough to call a comedy nor cathartic enough to call a drama. Instead it hovered somewhere in between, figuring the angst of its late 20s to early 40s characters would suffice. But in an age of ever-increasing social acceptance, homosexuality alone no longer makes for compelling television.
4. It wasn’t edgy enough.
Will Dom open his chicken restaurant? Will Patrick sleep with his two-timing boss? Will Augustin stop being a flake? All these storylines paled in comparison to HBO’s other shows where royal families execute their blood-thirsty competitors (Game of Thrones), Robert Durst dismembers corpses (The Jinx), and Matthew McConaughey uncovers a underground cult of child rapists (True Detective).
5. It was predominantly white, male, and wealthy.
Apart from Augustin the flaky artist, Richie the modest barber, and Eddie the nonprofit worker, the show’s characters were mostly well-to-do video game developers, aspiring restauranteurs, wisecracking nurses, and other affluent, upwardly mobile men. Only about five of the show’s recurring characters were non-white in San Francisco, a city that is only 41 percent white in real life; also only one regularly recurring character was female. One.
And yet for all its deficiencies, Looking was still one of the few gay shows on television that featured realistically-flawed characters (many of which eventually grew souls in season two), beautiful camerawork, and nuanced performances by its talented cast. While undoubtedly flawed, the show still represented a distinguished-step forward and an important watermark in the maturation of gay media.
So what’s next for gay TV?
It’s also been said that the show wasn’t very well marketed, creating few reasons for its gay and non-gay audiences to come and stay. Adam Baran — a Brooklyn-based queer filmmaker, former programmer at Outfest LA and NewFest NYC, and co-curator and co-host of New York’s Queer/Art/Film, every month at the IFC Center — who will soon launch a Kickstarter for his new film Northwest Passage, lamented the end of Looking yesterday; specifically the large number of gay viewers who have rejoiced at the show’s cancellation while ignoring its bad portents for the future of gay TV and film.
Here’s his comment in full (republished with the author’s permission):
For years LGBT people did not see themselves on the screen in films. You had to look for side characters who may not have represented who you were, you put up with because that was all you got. The sissy. The villain. The butch gym teacher. The majority of gay people wouldn’t allow themselves to even enjoy or see those characters as positive steps, and so they turned to coded portrayals of straight relationships, and tried to read between the lines. Was Brief Encounter actually the story of a gay relationship?
Nowadays, things are different. Sort of. We have gay movies, but since straight people won’t go to see them, they have to be made for far less money, and so they often have lower production values. Gay people don’t want to see movies that don’t look like big-budget Hollywood fare, or read subtitles, and so they don’t go see these movies either – the wonderful and the garbage alike. The Way He Looks. The Duke of Burgundy. Pride. 52 Tuesdays. Dallas Buyers Club.
But everyone has TV and TV is our American birthright and so we think we get to decide what should and shouldn’t be on it. The decisions of filmmakers, writers, and other artists should be determined by a popular vote, by the audience. We’re the fans. We want to see the show done this way. You wanna make it some other way? Fuck you I wrote a blog post about why you suck!
I’m not free from sin on this one either, as anyone who follows my Facebook knows. And calling out TV shows can be fun. But Looking was a peculiarly hot button show from minute one. The reaction was loud and vociferous – I don’t see myself in the show. Those guys don’t behave realistically. It’s boring. The lead character is sex negative. It’s not an accurate representation of San Francisco. It’s not diverse enough. It’s not an accurate representation of what I think gay people are or should be or how I want other people to see us.
Maybe these concerns were legit. Maybe not. Maybe they were the result of people’s internalized homophobia, and the fear that straight people would look at us in a bad light if they saw how we behaved – which was my reaction to Queer As Folk when it aired. But guess what? There’s literally no pleasing all gay people as a monolithic bloc.
Working at Outfest and NewFest for three years taught me that. Some people will look at a wonderful gay movie that has sex in it and hate that there’s sex. Some people will lament that there’s a sissy character. Some people will say there’s not enough sex. Some people will watch the worst piece of shit and say it’s wonderful because there are shirtless guys or topless gals in it. Most people don’t want to see anything that’s challenging. Some object to the casting. How dare Jill Solloway cast a brilliant cis male actor to play a character who’s beginning her transition!
And so when Looking was cancelled today, and I started seeing reactions on my feed like, “Good!” “At last” I felt sick, and I felt like I finally understood what my subtly homophobic screenwriting teacher at NYU meant when she told me that if I wrote about gay people it would be “limiting” – a note I have spent years proudly ignoring.
It’s not that I didn’t have my own feelings about Looking‘s strengths and weaknesses. I would have loved to have written for it, but I wasn’t hired. Still, I watched. And I think it really is the ghost of the generations of homophobia that forced our own stories to be squashed, hidden, and coded or put unwholesome characters in our films that caused us to react the way we reacted to Looking. Better no representation than imperfect representation! Instead of protesting a blatantly homophobic film like GET HARD, we are cheering the demise of a piece of film by a great gay filmmaker which starred all openly gay actors giving moving and powerful performances.
Nowadays we criticize every single bit of representation or lack thereof and shun the films and media by not watching. I’m not saying those conversations were wrong, and shouldn’t have happened, but the failure of Looking to make it past two seasons is a bad thing for gay filmmakers, and a bad thing for people trying to put gay characters on the small screen. Doubtful HBO or any other network will put time or effort into making another show about predominantly gay characters – starring REAL gay actors for ten or twenty years. Producers will think twice about funding gay TV, and even film.
And so we have one less explicitly, openly gay show on TV today, and it makes me feel like the future is bleak for gay filmmakers in general, and I wish we could all just take a breath next time, consider the context for the work being made, and cut each other some motherf@cking slack. Every film’s not gonna be perfect. LGBT filmmakers have it rough. It’s hard to get money, and it’s hard to get good actors willing to play gay, and then you can’t find anyone to watch it if and when you finish it. So lets just cut each other some slack. Even if you didn’t like Looking, don’t cheer it’s demise, please.