Created by Michael Lannan; executive produced by Sarah Condon & Andrew Haigh
Reviewed by Chael Needle
Any book or movie or television show that involves more than one gay male character needs to figure out how HIV/AIDS is to be represented. Not because gay male characters automatically should equate with representation of the pandemic, but because the pandemic has arguably affected gay male identities to such a degree that not referencing HIV/AIDS must seem like a rebellious resistance (“you can’t force me to talk about my or my friends’ positive, or negative, serostatus”), strategic parity (if “straight” shows aren’t representing HIV, why should the burden fall to gay ones?), or willful delusion that we can represent gay men in North America without representing this part of our collective history.
It’s still early in the season of HBO’s new series, Looking, which follows the lives of three gay male friends—Patrick (played by Jonathan Groff), Agustín (Frankie J. Álvarez), and Dom (Murray Bartlett)—in contemporary San Francisco, to tell exactly how HIV/AIDS will be represented, but already there are glimmers of how the realities of the pandemic will be woven into the storylines. HIV, though treated slightly, is on the side of life-affirming pleasure and the pursuit of happiness. But is anyone talking about HIV/AIDS?
One of the lead characters, video-game designer Patrick, tries for a hook-up in the park and, in a bit of slapstick that endears viewers to his human foibles, first tries to converse with and even kiss his would-be partner, and then drops his smartphone on the ground, amid the condom-wrapper debris, as he answers the 16-bit arcade music trill. It’s his friends, who recruited him for this shared lark in the park. The scene instantly connects communication with identity. What Patrick and his friends say, and how they say it, will determine whether or not they find what or whom they are looking for—sex, affection, relationships, professional success, a place in the world.
It’s telling that Patrick’s OK Cupid date, Benjamin the oncologist resident, meets him in a “hetero”-ish bar and comes with a checklist of what he is looking for. Almost instantly he asks Patrick if he is “drug and disease-free,” a simplistic and HIV-shaming way for bigots to weed out those who do not live up to their “clean” ideal. They pore over each other’s business cards like American Psycho characters. Patrick corrects Benjamin’s pithy Khalil Gibran quote. And then Patrick makes the mistake of mentioning that he went cruising earlier, for Benjamin immediately sees this as proof that Patrick may not be serious. Patrick backtracks, and even voices the fact that he feels he is not representing himself properly.
This project of communication is what Patrick will undoubtedly work on as the series progresses. In the very next episode, Patrick again feels he has failed to represent himself properly. He cluelessly asks his date, aspiring barber Richie, who is Mexican-American, where his family is from and voices surprise when he finds out that they live in San Francisco and San Jose. Later, he is again surprised that, contrary to what he’s been led to believe by Agustín, Richie is not uncut. Richie leaves, mid-foreplay, disappointed to have been turned into a Latino sex object by someone he liked.
Yet, in this sex scene, no one mentions serostatuses or talks about prevention tools. Perhaps viewers are supposed to assume that we are in “post-HIV” San Francisco, where all gay men are apparently so highly literate and sophisticated about prevention and treatment that they can detach HIV from the flow of communication without missing a beat. Or maybe the writers do not feel that every sex scene needs to have dialogue about safer sex. At any rate, I do not foresee any pillow talk about HIV.
But, if the sex partners do not talk about HIV, at least Looking sets up the friends to do so.
After all, looking is what helps glue these friends together—they talk about looking for sex, affection, relationships, professional success, their place in the world, with each other, and, in this way, they nurture their own bonds.
This point is driven home when Dom, almost forty, visits a bathhouse and meets Lynn (Scott Bakula), a mid-fifties “institution,” as Dom calls him, in the gayborhood. When it comes to sex, no one talks to one another, they surmise. Lynn says it didn’t always used to be like this, back when San Francisco “was cool and then it wasn’t” (arguably meaning the devastation that AIDS wrought on the gay male community). It was “friendlier,” says Lynn. People had sex, but they also talked to one another, he assures. Is this one of the effects of AIDS—sex and friendship were placed in different boxes? And if so, what has been the cost to gay male sex and communication?
So perhaps I, or we, are looking in the wrong place if we expect the lovers of Looking to talk about HIV. Would-be sex partners or would-be daters inhabit a space of silence (wordless cruising) or interrogation (where words are used to put people in boxes and as careless weapons). Looking traces the limits of both while embracing the possibilities inherent in friendship for intimate communication. So it seems if anyone is going to talk about HIV, and its reality in the lives of gay men, it’s going to fall to friends, not lovers.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.