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The Joy of 'Looking'

With HBO's superb new urban sex comedy, pop culture's portrayal of gays (and San Francisco, and gays in San Francisco) finally catches up with reality. 

Looking star Jonathan Groff, photographed at Billy Goat Hill in San Francisco on November 2.

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From left: Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett, and Groff on Muni in a still from Looking.

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From left: Show creator Michael Lannan, director Andrew Haigh, and Groff on location in San Francisco.

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Groff on Billy Goat Hill.

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“I think one of the things that we’ve been trying to achieve is, what is the most contemporary version of a show with gay characters?” says Lannan. Part of that, he adds, is wrestling with a new set of questions. “Marriage equality presents a really strange situation for people like me. I’m 36, and I grew up thinking that never in my lifetime would I ever be able to get married. And then everything changes, and I face the same pressure from my parents that my sisters face. We try to play on that in the show.” He points to a scene in the pilot in which two of the characters attend a gay bachelor party at the Mission district bar El Rio. It’s a significant inclusion: It’s hard to imagine a television show even six or seven years ago taking gay marriage as such a given as to be a source of situational comedy. “In a world where gay culture has gone much more mainstream, what do you do with that?” Lannan asks. “What would a gay bachelor party look like? Do you do it together? Who’s there? What does it mean if you’re doing it together?” If Brokeback Mountain’s central conflict involved the malaise that comes from lack of choice, Looking’s just might be the problems that derive from endless choice, whether it’s the unrelenting stream of potential partners presented by OkCupid or the newfound right to marry (or not), or even the ability to receive an abortive, awkward hand job in the park with minimal fear of arrest. 

For a show as convention-bucking as this, the process by which Looking went from idea to pilot was relatively painless. Around 2008, Lannan wrote Lorimer—an eight-minute short that would eventually become the inspiration for Looking—during downtime while working on Sons of Anarchy. At the same time, HBO was interested in what Condon calls “a gay show with a unique point of view, to really explore the notion that there are so many different types of gay men and so many different types of gay life now.” By virtue of a convoluted set of favors and connections, HBO saw Lannan’s script and brought him in for a meeting. That day, they asked him if he’d write a half-hour pilot script.

“We don’t tend to approach our programming in terms of looking to fill holes,” says Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming (who is himself gay). “But we all felt that there have not been shows that felt like they spoke to a gay as well as a straight audience. Looking was fresh, it was irreverent, it was about struggling to be whole people. We thought, ‘There’s a voice here, there’s a perspective here, that we haven’t seen before.’” From there, Haigh, who was perhaps best known for the critically adored 2011 gay romantic comedy-drama Weekend, signed on, followed by Groff, and then Frankie J. Alvarez (who plays Agustín) and Murray Bartlett (Dom) shortly thereafter. It was, by all accounts, a near-perfect setup from the start. Any cast and crew will claim closeness for the benefit of a reporter, but in this case, it’s palpable. By the end of the show’s 10-week shoot, show staffers were doing yoga together on weekends and going out for drinks even after grueling 12-hour days. On set in late October, toward the end of shooting, several cast and crew members spontaneously started sharing their coming-out stories with an astonishing level of intimacy. “I hope it translates—you never can tell—but there’s a genuine camaraderie,” says Groff. “There’s a connection between all of us. I think we all really believe in what we’re working on.”

In person, Groff is uncommonly warm, unerringly polite, and significantly less neurotic than his character—the kind of person who smiles easily, hugs near-strangers, and doesn’t so much as shrug (much less complain) when he finds a long blond hair in his macaroon at a Mission coffee shop that shall not be named. It’s telling that no fewer than three people independently described him as “available” to the project during my visit to the Looking set. “He’s a really incredible performer and person,” says Lannan. “He’s so game. He really makes the show live.”

Groff joined the project almost a year ago and talks about it with an evangelist’s zeal and a born performer’s steady-eyed persuasiveness. “The minute we got the first two scripts, Murray and Frankie and I called each other and were like, ‘Oh my god,’” he says, maintaining eye contact while lapping at a massive peak of whipped cream atop his hot chocolate. “I felt immediately connected to the character.” Indeed, Groff himself—who is 28 and, like many of the show’s cast and crew, gay—makes for an apt representation of the rapidly changing political realities that confront Looking’s characters. Though he came up through the uncommonly tolerant theater world and says that he never considered not disclosing his sexual orientation publicly, he’s still one of the few out actors of his generation, and he seems happily surprised by the pace of change. “I recently went back to my high school, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to see the [school] musical,” he says, “and a lot of the kids were out. I can’t even imagine being out in high school. It’s crazy.”

Page 4: The anti-Blue Jasmine approach to setting a show in San Francisco.