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Television

Television Review

‘Looking’ for signs of modern gay life on HBO

From left: Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett, and Jonathan Groff star in “Looking”

David Moir

From left: Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett, and Jonathan Groff star in “Looking”

When Showtime debuted “Queer as Folk” in 2000, my friends and I anticipated and pined for it the way that a child anxiously waits to rip the paper off the largest gift under the Christmas tree. It was a premium cable show about gays, with gay story lines, and gay dialogue, and, unlike “Will & Grace,” lots of gay-on-gay contact.

I made it through the first few episodes before realizing that the only reason to watch was for the titillation of it all. The directing was heavy-handed and characters were as sturdy as parchment paper. We watched for concept, not story. And then we just stopped watching.

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“Queer as Folk” was a disappointment. HBO’s “Looking,” another show about gay life that debuts Sunday night, isn’t just disappointing, it’s infuriating. “Looking” offers one hopelessly out-of-date idea about gay life after another.

The show’s three protagonists, a trio of likable archetypes, dress as if they frequent Urban Outfitters and purchase their tank tops at Scotch & Soda. But beneath those cuffed jeans, these men are wearing whatever brand of undergarment was popular when Armistead Maupin wrote “Tales of the City.”

“Looking” offers so much promise because it was created by Michael Lannan and co-written and directed by Andrew Haigh, who made the well-reviewed film “Weekend.” The movie was a sad, beautifully filmed story about two men with a taste for drug and drink who fall in love over a weekend. Lannan recently collaborated with James Franco on the film “Interior. Leather Bar.” “Weekend” was heralded by many to be a rare and honest look at gay life in the 21st century.

The action in “Looking” focuses on Patrick (Jonathan Groff of “Glee”), a 29-year-old video game designer. He’s the naive, OkCupid-obsessed center of the three (flashback here to Hal Sparks in “Queer as Folk”). We meet him as his roommate, 31-year-old artist Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez of “Smash”), is moving to Oakland to live with his boyfriend. Chiseled Dom (Murray Bartlett of “Guiding Light”) is a waiter with lofty aspirations who frets about turning 40. He beds younger men to assuage worries that he is losing his looks.

“Looking” opens with the innocent Patrick cruising in a park, looking for sex, because he and his friends want to see if it’s something that people still do. My reaction while watching the first five minutes was disbelief. I hoped that this was perhaps a wink at the outdated stereotypes of gay life that the show would obliterate.

“You’re a perv now,” Agustin tells a blushing Patrick after his slight romp in the park. “You need to wear those colors with pride.”

“Looking” was to be the gay version of “Girls” (“Gurls”?), and by default, “Sex in the City” — although “Sex in the City” was already quite gay. At the very least, there were hopes it would offer a less scrubbed and polished version of gay TV characters presented in “Sean Saves the World,” “Modern Family,” and the departed “The New Normal.”

But cruising in the park, ironic or not, begets languid and Maupin-ean action that includes paying a visit to the neighborhood bathhouse, going to the local bar to watch a gentleman demonstrate the proper technique for hip thrusting in a jockstrap, and several predictable “Oh dear, what if someone sees me in leather” moments at the Folsom Street Fair.

The exact moment I fell off the sofa was when Patrick and his date danced gleefully to Erasure’s 1988 hit “A Little Respect.” Did I mention that this program takes place in 2014 San Francisco?

Scott Bakula shows up as Lynn, a florist Dom meets at the bathhouse. Lynn, older and therefore wiser and successful, has a penchant for sporting floral print shirts.

All of that said, “Looking” is still a unique moment in gay television. Finally we have a group of characters (many portrayed by gay actors) who are not all tremendously successful men living in pristine decorated apartments. Aside from some stale and by-the-book scenarios, the actors appear to have fun. Groff is especially endearing, despite slogging through the role of small-town boy in the big city. Bartlett’s insecurities around aging will be identifiable to many in his demographic, and he portrays them with humor.

Cruising, quoting the theme song to “The Golden Girls” in casual conversation, and dancing to Erasure still are things that happen — on occasion. But all of these things happen in the first four episodes of “Looking.” It is almost as if Lannan and Haigh feel the need to cram in as many references to gay life, modern or not, to appeal to the widest possible audience. When Agustin moves in with boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle), the question of whether to open their relationship to other men arises before the last suitcase is unpacked.

When the subject of the open relationship is introduced to the group, the ensuing conversation (over a shared cupcake!) feels as natural as women discussing feminine hygiene products over a cup of coffee in a commercial. In another context, “Looking” would be a perfectly sweet, somewhat predictable, and deliberately risque dramedy about a group of friends seeking love and contentment in San Francisco. But by now, the expectation is something more, and expectations can be dangerous things.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.
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