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
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.”
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.