When is Esquire like Homer Simpson? [Updated]
Russell: When they’re discussing homosexuals, of course.
To wit, this review of the new HBO series “Looking” they just published, helpfully tailored to straight guys apparently nonplussed by all the gayness in the series.
HBO has a new show called Looking that’s about three gay guys in San Francisco who are single and looking to hook up. Get it? It’s revolutionary in the sense that it’s about dudes who are gay and single and the focus of the entire program instead of supporting roles like “wacky neighbor,” “swishy guy,” and Mario Cantone. People will be talking about it for a while wherever you get your coffee, in the media and probably a lot of women, too.
Let me just tease out that subtext — straight guys, we know you have precisely zero interest in us homos. We must make do with your forcing yourselves to watch an episode or two so as to impress the ladies, but we also understand that our frightening ways require one of your brethren to provide you with a guide. Esquire is the Sacajawea to the terrifying territory that is our culture. Be strong.
Now, I will admit right from the outset that I have not seen “Looking,” and I probably won’t in the near future. I don’t get HBO, and between “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock” I’m just not ready to make another TV-viewing commitment. Sully seems to like it, but there are plenty of things (ginormous beards, Levi Johnston) that he’s into that don’t appeal to me. So maybe the show is really as lame as the reviewer goes on to make it seem.
Thankfully, I’ve rustled up a real, live straight guy whose opinion I trust to sit through (at least) one episode and offer some thoughts. But even if the show is every bit as dull as the bro from Esquire says it is, there’s no excuse for the laziness and blithe recourse to stereotype that he evinces in his review.
I was okay-ish with the review until I got to this:
5. The show strains credibility.
Also, after four episodes there is not one reference to The Wizard of Oz, All About Eve, or Barbara Streisand. (Erasure is played prominently in the second episode, though.) No one talks about fashion but in one of the early episodes, they watch a knock-off of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Slow deep breaths, Russell. Slooooooow deep breaths.
It “strains credibility” that the characters don’t blurt out shopworn cliches? That none of them hums selections from “Liza with a ‘Z'” while filing his nails? An indefinite period during which gays talk about things other than what this particular straight dude assumes we talk about is frankly incredible? Why, from what I gather, none of them are florists or hairdressers, either!
Seriously, Esquire. Where did you find this man? And did nobody there consider how horrifyingly bigoted his idea of what “credible” gay men would talk about is?
Gays have largely been depicted in television and movies as either extremely fun and funny (Will and Grace; The Birdcage) or starkly sad and depressing (Philadelphia; Angels in America) so perhaps it’s time for a Hollywood portrayal of gay life as normal, tedious, and bland.
Oh, good. A “Will and Grace” reference, the last decade’s gay minstrel show. Few characters set my teeth on edge more than Jack, that intensely irritating mess of tics, mannerisms and hysteria. If that’s your idea of “fun and funny,” where can I sign up for tedious and bland?
And the author is really unfamiliar with gay men in popular media who are neither looking for pumps in their size nor discovering Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions? He’s not seen Kurt on “Glee,” Max from “Happy Endings,” Thomas on “Downton Abbey” (whom I discussed in a post about this very issue not so long ago) or Tim Gunn? He’s not tuned in to “Chopped,” a show hosted by a gay man who somehow manages to be entertaining and informative without once breaking into song or making like Paul Lynde in a kitchen? Even “Queer as Folk,” a show I couldn’t stand, depicted gays as something other than hilarious sissies or dying plague victims.
Really? No clue about any of that? Huh. Then why should we pay any attention to a word of what this man says? If he is so uninformed about popular media’s depictions of gay men, what use is his opinion about this one?
Maybe the show really is boring. Maybe the characters really are lame. But that has nothing to do with their gayness, merely with the show’s writing and/or acting. I give the overwhelming majority of straight men enough credit to discern that difference. What a shame the author of this piece isn’t one of them.
And with that, I turn things over to someone whose opinion I’d actually care to hear…
Tod: I’ll start off with something of a confession, which is that I had not seen “Looking” when I first read Mick Stingley’s Esquire piece. Nor, for that matter, had I read anything of Stingley’s. Still, after my reading it was hard to resist the urge to issue an apology on behalf of all straight people everywhere.
Criticizing gay characters for not being “mincing” enough (or, for that matter, assuming that gays are there to mince so we straights can all have a good laugh at them) is worse than simply being offensive — it’s circa-1985 offensive. What the hell is a national culture magazine like Esquire thinking publishing that in 2014? It’s like Rolling Stone panning Kanye’s newest album because he isn’t “authentic” enough to write a single lyric about fried chicken or watermelon, or Sports Illustrated wondering if Alex Rodriguez is an illegal alien.
In fact, when I was reading the Esquire piece I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was really, really important to Stingley that I as a reader did not think that just because he watched a show about gay people that he must be gay himself. It’s certainly the only way I could explain this particular “criticism” of the show:
Lauren Weedman plays Doris, a friend of Dom. It’s too early to tell if she’s just a friend, a “token,” a “lipstick lesbian,” or a “fag hag,” but she doesn’t take her clothes off.
Since first talking with Russell, I’ve had a chance to both watch “Looking” and peruse some of Stingley’s other writing. As for the latter, I don’t know that there’s much to say. As to the former, watching “Looking” actually accomplished the astounding feat of making the Esquire review look worse.
First off, I should note that the show is definitely not for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. It’s a dramedy that Stingley describes as being a kind of gay (gayer?) “Sex & the City,” and that’s not a bad descriptor. I can certainly imagine it having been pitched that way. But where SATC erred on the side of being a goofily unrealistic fantasy for its viewers to live vicariously, “Looking” chooses to err on the side of realism. For example, the last SATC rerun I saw was maybe a decade ago, but I remember that the big joke of the episode was that Samantha was dating a man whose penis was so large it wouldn’t fit, but she had to keep trying because… Samantha! Big penis! Ha ha! “Looking” has no such gags, and its humor relies on those tiny moments in life that are just cringe-worthy enough for you to be able to identity with them.
My favorite moment in “Looking”’s pilot came during a blind date that is going very, very badly for the show’s Carrie-esque character. At one point he downs his entire glass of wine in one awkward swig, as a substitute for thinking of something to say. His date asks if he wants another, to which he falls back on common etiquette: “Are you going to have another?,” he asks. When his date says matter-of-factly that he isn’t, there’s a quick look of panic in our protagonist’s eyes before he decides to plunge ahead and says, “yeah, I’ll have another.”
That bit is emblematic of the entire show: humorous at a very subtle level, entirely relatable, and choosing a kind of meandering realism over quick belly laughs. And so when Stingley says he finds “Looking” to be too slow and boring for his tastes, I certainly understand why he might think so. But he should have stopped there, because the rest of his review makes him sound like an ass.
Let’s take Stingley’s assertion that “Looking” is about a bunch of gay dudes that just want to hook up and have unprotected sex. It isn’t. I mean, it really isn’t. In fact, here is a quick thumbnail of the show’s three protagonists:
- Late twenties man who has been looking hard for a long-term relationship for a while, but always seems to keep sabotaging his own efforts.
- Early thirties man who so badly wants a committed relationship that he is moving in with his boyfriend too early, to the point that its obvious in the pilot that a future story line is going to be that it doesn’t work out.
- Late thirties man who is promiscuous, but realizing he’s getting to an age where the younger people he is attracted to are not so attracted to him, and is trying to figure out where to go with that.
I put it to you that one could easily swap out any of those characters with lesbians, straights, or some combination and the storylines would work just realistically. Indeed, if the show had a single message to straight viewers, it is most likely this: when you get down to the important stuff, gay people are just like you in both the best and worst ways.
That Stingley views the show as being about a bunch of pervs “hooking up” for unprotected sex says as much about him (and as little about the show) as does his desire for gays in the media to be restricted to mincing waifs who prattle on like twelve-year old girls about shoes and tragic movie stars.
HBO’s newest admittedly isn’t for everyone, and because of that my final verdict is as follows:
A qualified thumbs up for “Looking,” and a very unqualified thumbs down for Esquire.
 Although I did enjoy his bit here on divorce announcements — partly because it’s really a pretty clever idea, and partly because I find it fascinating that a freelance writer really wants his readers to think he looks like Fabio. Seriously, if you are going to try to use your writing to separate yourself from what straight dudes think stereotypical gay dudes are like, using a supposed sefie that looks like a Chippendale’s publicity head shot is probably the wrong way to go.
 Normally I try to stay away from the word “homophobia,” because its classic definition requires an unnecessary pop-psychology insta-diagnosis of a person either having an actual phobia, or having a fear that they might themselves be gay. It assumes the mundane, boring explanation of simply being an ignorant bigot isn’t enough. Way more often than not, you just don’t need to assume secret, homoerotic fantasizes in others to explain prejudice in someone like Stingley.
On the other hand, there is that Chippendale’s headshot, so who knows?
Also, I could probably go on and on about a guy that wants to be seen as the straightest guy on the intertubes while pretty willfully adopting Perez Hilton’s culture-writing style, but I think I’ll just stop here.
Update from Russell: Silly me, I didn’t know that HBO was making episodes available on YouTube. (Or at least the first one.) Having now seen it, I can have opinions of my own!
I loved it. I thought it was fantastic. I have minor quibbles with each of the main characters’ stories thus far, but all are small and none detracted from my enjoyment of the show. I could see myself being friends with all of them, and could relate to a lot of their experiences. I’ve certainly been on disastrous dates like Patrick’s, and found myself cringing right along with him. Sure, it’s a very talky show, but that doesn’t mean the guys are boring. And if they are, that practically makes me fossilized.