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HBO's 'Looking' looks for understanding

Michael Lannan's HBO show 'Looking,' starring Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez and Murray Bartlett, is a next-generation, nuanced view of gay relationships.

January 25, 2014|By Yvonne Villarreal

"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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