Through the ‘Looking’ glass

How the Texas Bear Round-Up impacted one of the stars of ‘Looking,’ and other thoughts on the legacy of a groundbreaking series about modern gay life

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It was “goodbye for now” as the cast and crew of HBO’s modern-queer dramedy Looking stood in the rising San Francisco sun tearfully hugging as they concluded production on the story-ending made-for-TV movie. Just like in the film’s final scene, Daniel Franzese, who plays Eddie, reminisces, “We broke night.”

Of course they did. Looking was, ultimately, extraordinarily ordinary, a time-capsule of contemporary queerness revolving around a chummy, could-be-your-own friend group navigating love and life in the Mission/Castro district.

That final diner scene — which bowed on July 24 and will be re-aired on HBO — wasn’t just our last time with Patrick and Dom and Agustin and the others who became part of our lives during these last few years; for the actors, it was, provisionally, their last time, too. “It was like the last two of weeks of high school, like the weekend after everyone graduates from college,” Franzese muses.

Premiering in 2014 to critical praise but a modest following (the series reached a peak of 519,000 viewers its first season), Looking was divisive from the get-go, with viewers either drawn to its languid style of storytelling or vehemently against it. Was it too gay? Not gay enough? When Doris, the group’s straight girlfriend, comments on a squabble between main-gay Patrick and his ex’s new boyfriend during the film, she spoke for many: “Ohh, I love it when gays argue with other gays about being gay,” she cracks.

Still, there’s no arguing that Looking broke ground merely by existing. Beyond that, however, creator Michael Lannan and director Andrew Haigh (who helmed the gay love story Weekend in 2011), spent the last several years tapping into the queer Zeitgeist, past and present. The result was special, relevant and sincere.

Jonathan Groff, who portrayed neurotic boy-next-door video game designer Patrick, shared that sentiment even before Season 1 premiered, saying, “I feel so excited to be a part of a show that could potentially be a great moment for the gay community, because it’s crazy how few shows there are where there are a lot of central gay characters. I feel really lucky to be a part of this specific show because I believe in it so much as a television show.”

So did Lannan. The screenwriter never believed his idea for Looking could be more than the images swirling around in his mind, and even when they did land on the screen, and Season 1 aired, and then the show got HBO’s go for a second season, “I don’t think I ever thought it was really happening.”

Before Looking, Lannan was living in New York, where his own group of friends and their stories became the catalyst for the series, which he initially wrote as an indie film script before HBO expressed interest. They envisioned his idea as a series.

“I always thought it should be a show,” says Lannan, whose 2011 short film Lorimer was the seed for Looking. “I think one of the reasons HBO wanted to do it, and we all wanted to do it, was because the world has changed so quickly in the past 10 years. This isn’t the Queer as Folk world — it’s a different world, and we wanted to do a show about people just living their lives in a time of great change.”

Now, he says, in the wake of its final-for-now chapter, it feels “bittersweet.” Looking: The Movie is a heartfelt send-off with Patrick, currently living in Denver, returning to San Francisco for a wedding and meeting up with BFFs Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett), Doris (Lauren Weedman), Eddie and former flames Kevin (Russell Tovey) and Richie (Raúl Castillo).

“We wanted to find some midpoint between resolving their stories and sending them off on their way for new adventures and leaving that door open,” Lannan explains. “It’s tricky to do both of those things.”

Lannan confirms that they’d already been plotting a third season when HBO announced the show’s cancellation, optioning, instead, to tie up loose ends with a feature film (and to finally offer closure to Patrick’s ongoing romantic drama). And so, though “we were heartbroken,” Lannan and the writers condensed the storylines into an 86-minute movie.

“We just went back to the heart of the show, which is Patrick, and we let him drive the story,” Lannan says. “I think everyone’s lives are really reflecting on Patrick, and his on theirs. At its heart the show was really as much about friendship and the family of friends as it was about anything else.”

Eddie, one of the show’s popular periphery characters, plays a pivotal role in Patrick’s life in the film. It almost wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Initially, Franzese was only booked for a few episodes. That changed once showrunners witnessed his natural chemistry with Alvarez during his debut on the Season 2 premiere, “Looking for the Promised Land.”

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Daniel Franzese, above left, had an epiphany about the important of his ‘Looking’ character — an HIV-positive man of size — when he met a sero-discordant couple at TBRU. (Photos courtesy HBO)

Even though Franzese’s HIV-positive bear character may not have had as much screen-time as his co-stars, the actor and his watershed onscreen part left an indelible mark on the show and the people who watched it. And for many reasons. According to GLAAD, Eddie was the first poz character in six years on scripted TV (since an arc on ER). His character represented what it means to be HIV-positive today, introducing PrEP to the TV landscape as he pursued a relationship with Agustin, who’s HIV-negative.

“Andrew told me, ‘Eddie will never get sick, that’s not what this is about,’” Franzese recalls. “Knowing that, I just kind of put it to the side and didn’t really think about the impact it might have. I was more happy and excited to be a larger guy, a man of stature, on a television show and shown in a sexual light and not as castrated comic relief.”

Because it was “just shown,” the feedback from viewers has been rich, which demonstrated to him that, “Representation matters, and education matters.”

Still, bears continue to reach out to him on Instagram expressing an admiration for a character on TV they can finally identify with. But “most moving,” he professes, was meeting a “magnetic” couple — one HIV-positive, the other negative — when Franzese made an appearance during the Dallas Bears’ annual Texas Bear Round-Up in 2015.

“[The HIV-positive partner] said to me, ‘You know, I hope that I’m with my partner forever, but if I’m ever not and somebody wants to date me I’m going to show them Season 2 of Looking and say, ‘If you can get through this, then you can date me.’”

Franzese leaves Looking with a fondness for his influential character, the show and also the cast. Inside jokes, that already-established vibe, the camaraderie — sometimes, he says, speaking from experience, joining a show after it’s already launched feels like a “fleeting relationship.” But Looking was different. “When I’m a regular on a show and I have a guest star coming in, I will treat them with the same grace and respect and friendship that I learned on this set.”

Franzese was only recently out when the show premiered. Now newly engaged, the 38-year-old acknowledges that Looking was “profound for me in a lot of ways.”

“I had just come out and this was my first job after that,” he recalls. “To not only be accepted for being gay but to be celebrated and to have it not be a big deal — like, it was cooler to be gay on that set — it was so freeing and reaffirming.”

Not just for Franzese. Looking’s greatest legacy could be, perhaps, how it rendered the gay experience as simply the human experience. It wasn’t about coming out. It wasn’t about gay people dying of AIDS. The narrative felt fresh because finally gay people could just… be.
Before Season 2, Tovey said, “It’s such a true voice for gay people. This is, right now, where it’s like to be a gay man who can get married and adopt.”

As the show’s creator, Lannan has been forced to contemplate the show’s legacy, and if anything, he says, he wants it to represent a moment in time… and also the passage of time.

“We wanted to see what happened when Patrick grew up,” he says about the finale, “and I think it’s exciting to see Patrick in command of his sexuality in a different way. He certainly hasn’t solved all of his problems, sexual or otherwise, but he has grown throughout the seasons and throughout the movie and I love seeing that.

“Patrick was always a character who had one foot in the past as a gay man. He grew up with the shadow of AIDS in the background, yet he wasn’t a part of that generation, so he had one foot in the past and one in the future. I hope that’s part of the legacy of the show, that it spanned a transitional period for gay men like Patrick.”

As advances in the queer community continue to evolve, could Looking become an ongoing TV narrative where we check in with these characters every now and again? What will Patrick be like in 2026? What will we all be like then?

The thought has crossed Lannan’s mind.

“We’ve definitely talked about it,” he reveals, “and I think if the stars aligned we’d all love to do it again in the future. I think it depends on a lot of things, but I would say, none of us would count it out.” He says that “one of our spirit-animal shows while we were making Looking was The Comeback ” — the Lisa Kudrow cult sitcom was renewed for a second season after a nearly decade-long hiatus — “so maybe we’ll do sort of a Comeback thing and check in again in the future.”

Franzese still has plans for Eddie and for the lives of the young transgender characters who were a part of the character’s story arc while working at a homeless shelter for LGBT teens.

“That would’ve been such a beautiful thing,” he says. “That would’ve unfolded in Season 3. I would really look forward to that in the future.”

So the end may not be the end after all. Maybe the sun hasn’t fully set on Looking just yet.

“Who knows — later on down the line I’d love to revisit these characters again,” Franzese says. “Knowing the people I worked with, I can’t even think of a production assistant who would say they wouldn’t want to be back on that set again. But I think this movie is a beautiful next step in the story, and if we all love each other and we love these characters, and I think if Andrew and Michael are inspired with some story, why not?”

— Chris Azzopardi

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 29, 2016.

 

—  Dallasvoice

GLAAD, Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation release new PSA on AIDS; CDC releases new statistics

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Elizabeth Taylor speaking at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation — GLAAD — and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation today (Tuesday, Oct. 20) announced the release of a public service announcement intended to “inspire, inform and re-ignite the passion and action needed to beat the HIV and AIDS epidemic once and for all.”

Created as part of an ongoing partnership between GLAAD and Elizabeth Taylor Foundation and produced by Martian Entertainment, the PSA begins with Taylor’s speech at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert as a way to introduce a new generation to the realities of HIV/AIDS and the tools available to overcome the epidemic. Meredith Viera, Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Groff, Michael Emerson, Tituss Burgess and Bebe Neuwirth are also participating.

A 30-second version of the PSA will air nationally, with support from Comcast-NBCUniversal, and an extended version will run online.

Joel Goldman, managing director of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, said his organization is “thrilled” to be partnering with GLAAD for this effort, noting that GLAAD was created “to respond to misinformation in the media about HIV and AIDS at a time when conversation in the zeitgeist about the epidemic was very high, but understanding of the virus was very low.”

Today, he continued, “it’s the opposite. Conversation about HIV and AIDS is barely discussed in individual circles and has comparatively fallen out of the news cycle. This is despite the fact that the U.S. has not seen a decrease in new infection rates in nearly two decades.”

GLAAD and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation announced the release of the PSA on the same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new statistical information regarding HIV among people aged 50 and over and regarding HIV among Hispanics/Latinos.

Here are some of the CDC numbers on HIV/AIDS and people over 50:

• In 2012, people aged 55 and older accounted for 24 percent — almost one quarter — of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV infection in the U.S.

• In 2013, people aged 50 and over accounted for about 21 percent of the estimated 47,352 HIV diagnoses in the U.S. Of these, largest number — 44 percent — were among those ages 50-54. The majority of the HIV diagnoses in those ages 50-54 were in African-Americans (59 percent), followed by Hispanics/Latinos (23 percent).

• In 2013, people aged 50 and older accounted for 27 percent of the estimated 26,688 AIDS diagnoses in the U.S.

• Of the 6,955 deaths related to AIDS in 2013, 37 percent were among people aged 55 and older.

Now here are some of the CDC numbers on HIV and AIDS among Hispanics/Latinos:

• In 2013, Hispanics/Latinos accounted for 23 percent of the estimated 48,145 new diagnoses of HIV infection in the U.S. and six dependent areas. Of those, 85 percent were in men.

• In 2013, gay, bi and other men who have sex with men accounted for 81 percent of the estimated HIV diagnoses among Hispanic/Latino men, and the annual number of diagnoses among Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men has increased 16 percent since 2008.

• Of the HIV diagnoses among Hispanic/Latina women in 2013, 86 percent were attributed heterosexual contact.

• In 2012, Hispanics/Latinos accounted for 21 percent of the estimated 1.2 million people with HIV infection in the United States, and by the end of 2012, an estimated 125,051 Hispanics/Latinos with AIDS had died in the U.S. and the six dependent areas.

• In 2013, 13 percent of the 6,955 deaths related to AIDS in the U.S. were among Hispanics/Latinos.

—  Tammye Nash

BREAKING: HBO cancels ‘Looking’

looking15_10[1]UPDATE: In an official statement, HBO confirmed the cancellation, adding, “HBO will present the final chapter of their journey as a special, We look forward to sharing this adventure with the show[‘s] loyal fans.

Looking, the controversial but low-rated series about gay men in San Francisco, has not been renewed for a third season, writer Kevin Sessums and star Jonathan Groff have confirmed. Groff, however, is promising a follow-up movie, according to NewNowNext. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise; HBO, which airs the series, typically announces next-season renewals early on, to convince viewers of their commitment to a show. The second-season finale of Looking aired Sunday.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Russell Tovey: The gay interview

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Russell Tovey of ‘Looking’

Despite roles in the BBC supernatural drama Being Human and The History Boys, both on stage and screen, it’s the HBO dramedy Looking that has presented Russell Tovey with considerable exposure. Premiering one year ago, the show centers on a group of gay friends in San Francisco as they navigate relationships, family and sleeping with your boss. When Kevin (Tovey) and Patrick (Jonathan Groff) finally got down to business during a steamy lay at the end of the first season, the hunky Londoner revealed more than his acting chops.

As Looking returns to the network this Sunday,  Jan. 11, the openly gay  33-year-old opened up on a variety of topics: his mom’s reaction to his thigh thump with Groff, the advantages to shooting a sex scene with a fellow gay actor and how, despite his famous butt, fans of the show who meet him aren’t “rape-y.”

Chris Azzopardi for Dallas Voice: The Season 1 finale set the stage for a whole lot of drama. What does that mean for this upcoming season?  Tovey: Season 2’s gonna pick up three months on with the fallout from that experience with Patrick, Kevin and Richie (Patrick’s boyfriend played by Raúl Castillo). They go away on a big adventure and it all unravels. What it means is there’s gonna be tension, and what unfolds is going to be very good television. And I love it. I love seeing hashtag Team Kevin / Team Richie. People are really loyal to Kevin or Richie. They’re like, “Sorry — I really like you, Russell, but I’m Team Richie.” “Kevin’s a cheat!” “Leave Patrick alone!”

What’s your hope for Kevin and this love triangle he’s gotten himself into?  I want Kevin to be happy, but I want him to find his way to happiness with a lot of drama that’s gonna be entertaining for an audience watching an HBO show. [Laughs] But he has to fuck things up, and I think that’s part of his personality. The more Patrick gets to know him, that’s gonna unravel.

Soooo: Team Kevin or Team Richie?  Hmm … would I fuck myself? Or would I fuck Raúl? If I could have a threeway, it’d be quite nice. You know, a bit of both. But in reality, you’d want a boyfriend like Richie because he could cut your hair, and that’s great — you don’t have to worry about that expenditure every month. He’d do that for free! And he can play guitar, so he can entertain you.

Or, of course, there’s Kevin, who appears to be at least from the Season 1 finale experienced in bed.  Oh yeah, he’s very good. A lot of me went into that!

I hear you’re a method actor  Totally. I’ve done all the research.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

HBO renews ‘Looking,’ sets premiere date for ‘Normal Heart’

normalheart02HBO knows a good formula when it sees one. Last year, it premiered its gay-themed made-for-cable movie Behind the Candelabra on the last Sunday in May, and it’s doing so again with its latest tentpole telefilm, The Normal Heart. The screen adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Tony Award-winning play about the fight against AIDS (and the ignorance of the Reagan Era) is set to air at 8 p.m. on May 25. The production, directed by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, features out actors Matt Bower, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, Denis O’Hare, Stephen Spinella, B.D. Wong and Jonathan Groff, as well as Julia Roberts, and Mark Ruffalo and Taylor Kitsch, pictured.

Groff had some more good news this week as well: His HBO series Looking got a second-season pickup. The drama about 20something gay men navigating the dating life in present-day San Francisco will return next season.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WATCH: Preview of episode 2 of HBO’s new gay series ‘Looking’

Groff1The excellent new gay series Looking, which began airing last Sunday on HBO, is a mature and sexy look at the modern urban gay male. We spoke with the series’ star, Jonathan Groff, here, but you can also check out a preview of episode 2, which airs on Sunday, after the jump. (Take, note, though! Episode 3 will air next Saturday, not Sunday, so as not to compete with the Super Bowl.)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘Looking’ star Jonathan Groff: The gay interview

Jonathan Groff

Jonathan Groff has had a pretty good week. The animated film he stars in, Frozen, was just nominated for two Oscars and his new HBO series, Looking, debuts on Sunday. So it was a good time for our Chris Azzopardi to sit down with Groff to discuss all his gay projects, idolizing Mark Ruffalo and how Looking freaked out his family.  

Jonathan Groff is remembering a scene he shot for the upcoming HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart. It’s his only part with Julia Roberts, and he doesn’t have a single line with her.

“She plays a doctor and I collapse on the street, and then they take me into her office and she’s like, ‘He’s dying,’” the actor recalls. “So I didn’t get to act with her because I’m, like, hyperventilating on a stretcher. I was foaming at the mouth. She was probably all, ‘This kid is really going for it.’ But she was really nice, very chill, very undramatic and easy.”

The same could be said for Groff. The affable Pennsylvania native got his start on stage, nabbing a Tony nomination for his role in the 2006 Broadway musical Spring Awakening before battling it out with New Directions on Glee, portraying a young David Sedaris in the recent feature film C.O.G. and voicing Kristoff in Disney’s hot winter hit Frozen. Now the actor plays Patrick, the charmingly clueless lead in the new gay-friends-living-in-San-Fran series Looking, which debuts Sunday on HBO. Will there be foam? Probably, but only if it’s at a party.

Dallas Voice:  With Looking and The Normal Heart, it must be nice knowing that HBO is gonna pay your bills for at least the next year.  Jonathan Groff: Right? It’s great. But I’ve already been paid for those jobs in 2013!

In the Looking pilot’s opening scene, after a phone call interrupts a hand-job hookup, you tell your friends you worried it was your mom calling. Has your own mother seen the show?  My mom has always been really supportive of my work. When I was doing Spring Awakening she took bus trips of people to come and see the show — like, seriously, 40 people on a touring bus up from Pennsylvania. That was before she had even seen it, so she was shocked when she saw the sex and the nudity and me hitting Lea Michele with a stick, but she obviously enjoyed it … because there were three more bus trips after that! So she overcame the awkwardness of seeing my butt on stage, but ever since they cast me in Looking, the big question in my family has been: “Are they gonna watch it or not when it comes on TV?”

When I came home for the summer to Pennsylvania, I brought the pilot home on DVD and I just said, “I don’t know if you wanna watch this or not, but I feel like if you do watch it, you probably won’t wanna watch it with me in the room.” I think that really freaked them out.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

WATCH: Debut trailer for upcoming HBO series about gay guys, ‘Looking’

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January is fast becoming the season of gay TV premieres. Yesterday, I shared a video for Chozen, a gay animated comedy for FX; today, HBO one-ups FX with a live-action show that’s just as gay.

Looking is the highly anticipated new series from out actor-producer Jonathan Groff (guest actor on Glee and co-executive producer on Happy Endings). Groff stars as a gay man looking for love in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, it’s set to debut immediately after the third season premiere of Girls on Jan. 19 — so, we have the girls and the boys right after.

Based on the trailer — which you can see after the jump — it’s apparently along the lines of Queer as Folk with honest portrayals of love and sex … and some nudity (don’t worry, the trailer, at least, is safe for work).

Looks like the winter is heating up!

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

High nooner

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LAID ON END Jeff (Jonathan Groff, left) seduces three women but is cursed with talking to them as well in the unfocussed sex parable ‘Twelve Thirty.’

Even getting ‘Glee’ star Jonathan Groff naked can’t make ‘Twelve Thirty’ interesting

In classic 18th century picaresque novels, young men bounce bawdily from maiden bed to maiden bed, banging a few horny housewives in between, usually in service of a comic satire of sexual liberation peppered with commentary on politics and cultural mores. They are lascivious and funny — that’s what gets people reading them. It’s what makes them part of a genre.

Twelve Thirty follows a similar structure — Jeff (Glee’s Jonathan Groff), a flirtatious young man, claims sexual inexperience but gets laid more often than beige carpeting during a remnants sale, bedding two sisters and their mother. But the thing is, the film isn’t especially (at all?) funny; it has a frank, raw energy (there’s a good deal of sex and nudity) and it’s character-driven with intensive exposition, but it doesn’t amount to much.

Twelve Thirty is ripe with sexual liberation and tons of quirk, but the quirkiness feels forced. Writer-director Jeff Lipsky’s style echoes indie filmmakers Henry Jaglom and Hal Hartley: It’s sophisticated and smart in a cocktail-party-chatter way, but the emotions are treated with academic aloofness. You don’t feel the movie, you merely experience it.

Lipsky doesn’t mind addressing sex, or even showing sex pretty explicitly, but he prefers to talk about sex. And talk and talk and talk. (The title, I’m guessing, is a joke about having a “nooner” — after it’s over, you still need to find something to talk about from 12:30 on.) So, we get a few tantalizing moments of a naked Groff (and some naked ladies, including a surprisingly perky Karen Young), but much, much more conversation. If the dialogue were scintillating, that might suffice. But while the characters are painstakingly conceived (Young’s character, the mother of two girls, is a furrier who still sleeps with her gay ex-husband), there’s not much insight and the chats generally go nowhere (two British women turn up for moments of colorful backstory, then disappear). The film does take a dark turn bordering on cruelty or madness, but then ends as suddenly as it began. Huh?

The film itself has as much a crisis of identity as Jeff himself: It’s a romantic comedy in search of comedy. And romance.

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— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 20, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas