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The streets of san francisco

Written by Jason Yantha.

Looking finally fills the gap for some good gay television.

Have you ever stalked an ex-boyfriend on Facebook, only to find out that he's gotten hotter and richer since the break-up? Ever use Grindr solely to boost your self-esteem? Has an open relationship ever crossed your mind? Maybe you have a crush on your new gay boss, and all of sudden feel like working weekends. Surely you've said something awkward during foreplay, right?

Well if you can answer yes to at least one of the above, which most of us can, you might be able to relate to the characters of a new series called Looking. There's long been an opening for a good gay TV show. And a few years ago writer Michael Lannan set out to fill that void with what he calls a "modern take on the UK version of Queer as Folk."

The series, which premiered on always edgy, never shy HBO last month, follows three handsome, thirtysomething gay men living life in San Francisco. Each of them are quite different in regards to career and relationship status, but one thing that they have in common is finding comfort in having honest conversations with each other about sex, life and love. And the best part is we get to listen in.

Their discussions are real and similar to ones you’ve had with your friends. It’s a “choose which character you’re most like” kind of show. The second best part is that it airs on HBO Canada. Let's just say, the hookup scenes don't end with a closing door and commercial break.

It's a huge milestone that a program of this nature can be picked up by one of the biggest networks out there, but writing a gay TV show can come with a lot of pressure. There aren’t a lot of gay characters on TV, so we expect to see ourselves represented in the best, most realistic light, and rightfully so.

IN spoke with creator Michael Lannan just before the series premiere about the pressure, his gay characters and what Toronto had to do with the conception of the show.

IN: Congratulations, Michael. One day you’re a writer with an idea for a TV show, and the next you're calling Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano your co-workers.
MICHAEL LANNAN:
Gosh, it sounds so epic when you say it that way. It’s still surreal seeing all of the billboards and buses here in L.A. with the cast's faces on them. I can’t wrap my head around it.

So how does one go about getting their very own series picked up by HBO of all networks? That's such a feat.
Looking was based on a feature film script that I started writing when I was actually [on location] in Toronto, working on the movie Hollywoodland. I wanted to write a story about a group of gay friends who felt very familiar to me. So I started collecting stories and making notes about things that had happened to me or my friends. When I started putting them all together, these three characters emerged. Then a friend of mine at HBO had read my script and really liked it, so he introduced me to [some network executives there].

I imagine HBO headquarters to be this huge, factory-like edifice, full of television masterminds. It must be very intimidating.
You’re kind of right, yes. When you walk into their office in Santa Monica, it’s a massive white space. There’s a receptionist named Virginia who’s this fierce, imposing figure, with a two-story tall HBO logo behind her. I was terrified.
HBO was always a huge inspiration for me. When I first saw The Sopranos, I thought it was incredibly entertaining, poetic and cinematic and that was when I decided I wanted to work in television.

So what is Looking all about?
It’s really about three gay characters just trying to get by in the city, make connections and live their lives in a more authentic way. We're dropping in on these guys in the midst of their lives, so it's not about people coming out of the closet or struggling to reconcile with their sexuality in the most basic way. I don’t think you can encapsulate the entire “gay experience” in one TV show. So we didn't try to.

Did you ever feel pressure to accurately depict gay life or was it about entertainment first and foremost?
We had our vision and stuck to it. We wanted to make a show that felt the most real to us based on our experiences. We tried not to think about any outside pressure. All we could do was make these characters feel real to us and hope that other people could relate to them as well.

That being said, gay viewers can be sensitive about how they're portrayed on TV.
Oh yeah, definitely, and understandably. I’m the same way. I’m always scrutinizing any kind of gay TV show or movie that I see. I start thinking, “Does this represent me? What does this say about gay people?” I think it’s only natural to do that.

Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because a lot of us grew up without any representation of gay people on TV, so you feel very proprietary over them when we do see them. I also think that people are defensive about how gay people are portrayed on TV in regards to the way straight people will see them, which is completely understandable.

Can straight people watch Looking, too?
Yes, certainly. Straight friends of mine who’ve watched the show said that they've learned things that they didn’t know about gay sex and gay relationships. They found that quite intriguing and exciting. I think a lot of non-gay people will be tuning in to see what this world is like. There are also aspects of the show that are really relatable whether you’re straight or gay.

There are a lot of great conversations in the show between your three main guys. Some scenes are done so well, they don't even feel scripted. Do you ever let the actors improv their scenes?
It’s more like we let the actors embellish the script. It's written in a very conversational tone to begin with, but then we let them add their own bits and pieces. That was always important to us: being loose and trusting the actors to get conversational with their lines. They’re lovely people and I think you can feel that in the show.

Was it important for you to use actors who are gay in real life? (Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett are openly gay, while Frankie J Alvarez has a wife in New York City).
We wanted to have the most authentic version of the show possible, so we just wanted actors who really understood the roles. A lot of gay actors [auditioned] and brought a great authenticity, based on their own personal experiences. And then honestly a lot of non-gay actors were really excited [about the show] and had their own takes on the characters as well. A lot of times we just didn't know [if they were straight or gay]. We didn’t ask. When it comes down to it, [the job goes to] whoever can do the part the best.

The show is set in San Francisco, which offers a beautiful backdrop. The city is famous for being gay-friendly, but is homophobia a theme you’re going to explore this season?
I don’t think it plays too prominently in the first season. We didn’t want to pretend that it doesn’t exist because it absolutely does in this day, so there are little elements of it, but our goal was to show these friendships and to be in their world, rather than [that of any homophobic] people outside of their circle.

 

Looking Airs Sundays at 10.30pm ET on HBO Canada