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Blu-ray Review: Looking - Season 1

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★★★★☆

Although they have their differences (and I am probably being unfair saying this) there is something very Girls about Looking.

I mean Girls as in the sharp, intelligent, well-acted Lena Dunham-fronted HBO show. This sharp, intelligent, well-acted Jonathan Groff-fronted HBO show could very easily be called Boys, as it is about a group of young men navigating adulthood in the big city (although here it is San Francisco, not New Work). The men in Looking are predominantly gay as well, whereas the girls in Girls are heterosexual.

However, perhaps the closest resemblance can be found within their leading characters. Dunham’s character is trying to cope with independence without her difficult posh parents; she is more than a bit narcissistic, gets herself in a tangle with the men in her life and dates a less than conventional man. Groff’s character in Looking is also doing all of this.

The portrayal of modern, 21stCentury gay people is both entertaining and awkward. For a start, the show doesn’t exactly embrace the idea of assimilation between gay and straight people. Although homosexuals are seen to be working with heterosexuals they rarely mix with them (and if they do, they tend to be women). The idea of a group of friends being friends because they like each other and some of them just happen to be gay is not what this show is about. This group of friends (with Groff very much at the centre) is about ‘the Gay Experience’, and it is an experience they are all in together. Across the eight episodes one may feel that, even though gay people have found tolerance within society (or at least within decent societies), they are not part of the mainstream. They are still the ‘other’. And, in my opinion, the continued ‘other-ising’ of gay people in popular culture will generally hinder progress and acceptance.

There are some counter arguments to my comments above, however. This show is from HBO, the makers of Game of Thrones, Deadwood, The Wire and loads of other hit shows. They are mainstream, with a distinctive voice, and it is credit to them that they have backed a project that up until recently would only have been considered by companies such as the LGBT-oriented entertainment outfit Here! or would have been made as softporn webisodes.

Instead, we get a substantial, exceptionally well-acted, intuitively directed (largely by Weekend director Andrew Haig) show that has been marketed at, and can be watched by, more than just gay people. It is the post-Queer as Folk. It takes away the in-your-faceness of that programme’s attitude to sex and offers up a more matter-of-fact and realistic portrayal, at least of gay sex if not entirely of gay living. Queer as Folk (and I am talking more of the US version here, which continued much longer than the British one) offered its sex scenes with a pornographic sensibility, with music-video style camera shots and an emphasis on simulated penetration shots that practically invited gay (or bisexual) male viewers to masturbate whilst watching. Looking is in a different sphere. It asks you to engage your brain rather than your dick (if you’re male, which you don’t have to be of course) and makes you think beyond the orgasmic ecstasy and about the humans involved in the fucking, the experiences they are having and where their lives are up to (or where they perceive them to be up to).

Groff has an easy and carefree charm that is a joy to watch, even if it is a bit of a shock seeing the actor behind Kristoff in Frozen getting a blowjob. Another revelation is British actor Russell Tovey, who plays our protagonist’s boss. It’s great to see a lad from Billericay appear as an integral character in a major US series and do the job so well. US shows, once they have their hands on British talent, sometimes try to dilute their rawness or edge to make them more palatable for American viewers. Looking doesn’t walk into this trap. Tovey is allowed to explore his professional, confident and motivated character with the honesty and boyish candour with which he approaches his lazy, layabout persona in BBC Three’s Him & Her. He has a terrific talent and it is great to see it has been nurtured rather than squandered.

As I have mentioned, Looking is problematic, but it does a lot right and, laying one’s issues aside, it is an addictive and funny watch. Regardless of whether you are straight or gay, I think the demographic this may most appeal to is the young, middle-class demographic. I must add a disclaimer here and say that I do not mean this show cannot be enjoyed by those who consider themselves to be from a working class background, but it would be foolish not to notice that there is a growing trend of ‘young middle-class in crisis’ TV shows and films wandering onto our screens. They may be disguised as shows about being about gay or women or feminism or new masculinity, but they are actually about young middle class people who have degrees and sometimes good jobs but are struggling to find where they belong in the real world after a life of shelter and privilege. When we look back on this early part of the twenty-first century in decades to come, I think that will become one of the defining identity-zeitgeists of our popular entertainment.

A note on the release: A flawless transfer of the digitally-captured HD content. Warner Bros's release offers exemplary picture and sound. 

Looking Season 1 is available on Blu-ray, DVD and VoD from 12th January. Watch the trailer below:

              




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