The Oral History of 'Looking', HBO's Short-Lived, Groundbreaking Gay Series

There was a lot of buzz in the run up to the show’s premiere. HBO threw their full support behind Looking.

Haigh: We all came down to L.A. and there were billboards everywhere. There’s that big tower on Sunset in West Hollywood, and there was just a massive poster of Looking. I was like, “Oh, my God.”

Groff: I remember the premiere was at The Castro, and I remember feeling like I was in a fairy tale. The Castro, the audience is lit as fuck, and it’s a lot of gays. They are there to celebrate, which is just such a special, unique energy at a premiere of any sort.

Michael Lombardo and Richard Plepler were running HBO at that time. I remember being at that premiere and Michael was standing there, talking about, “This is the first exclusively gay show we’ve ever had on our network.” It felt like, “Oh my God— we’re in this. We’re a part of this moment in history.” It felt like more than a TV show. It felt like a big deal when he would say that.

Despite all the excitement and press attention, the series eventually premiered to what Variety called “a slow start,” with an audience of just 338,000 (with the encore, it gained an audience of 606,000). Critical reception to the first few episodes was mixed too. An early review that called the series “boring” quickly became part of Looking’s narrative—a tag that became hard to live down. Beyond that, the gay community itself was very critical of the series, projecting different expectations on a show that, at the time, was arguably the only one that spoke for the community.

Condon: Andrew completely anticipated this, and I did not—that the gay audience is very critical of their own material, all the things that are made for them.

Bartlett: When it’s one of the few things that gets to represent a queer perspective, then everyone wants it to be everything. And it was never intended to be that—and it would’ve been a mistake, I think, for it to be intended to be that.

Haigh: There were a lot of gay execs on the show, and a lot of gay people within the writer’s room. It’s a lot of burden of representation, that you can feel sometimes. It’s quite heavy.

Tovey: That discourse around it at the time, especially from within the queer blogosphere, was quite negative and damaging. It did turn back positively within half of season one, but by that point there had been this position cemented in people’s response to it. We were filming in San Francisco, and there would be people going, “What are you shooting?” “Oh, we’re filming Looking.” They’d be like, “Oh, yeah, I’m not going to watch that.” I’m like, “Why?” They said, “Oh, we’ve heard it’s boring.” I said, “But have you watched it?” They were like, “No.” It’s in your city and it’s about you.

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