A lot has happened in the 13 years since Queer as Folk premiered in December of 2000. Celebrities are out of the closet, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is dead, gay marriage is legal (sort of), and tons of shows have gay characters. However, homophobia is still a global issue, gay bashings are rampant, and HIV stats haven’t gone down. HBO’s new series Looking offers a glimpse at gay men on the other side of those 13 years. But is it an upgrade or a downgrade from the Showtime series?
Queer as Folk is an American version of a popular British series. It is historical for having the first sex scene between two men on American television. Despite (or possibly because of) its graphic sex scenes and unabashed drama, it became a flagship series for Showtime. It’s a precursor to other addictive series like Dexter, Weeds, Homeland, and new series Masters of Sex. Looking, on HBO, follows the ever-popular Girls on Sunday nights. It is vastly different in tone, format, and content from Queer as Folk. But is it a sign of tolerance towards the gay community or a step backwards for representation of gay men in the media?
LocationQueer as Folk is set in Pittsburgh but shot in Canada, and gives a fantastical version of the small Pennsylvania city’s gay population. Conversely, Looking is set in San Francisco, actually films there, and gives an honest portrayal of life in the city. This gives a more balanced view of gay men’s lives beyond stereotypical expectations.
Gay Cast MembersThe bulk of the cast of Queer as Folk was straight. Its stars Peter Paige, Randy Harrison, and Robert Gant are all out actors, but they reached their notoriety because of the show. Conversely, Looking's Jonathan Groff and British actor Russell Tovey are coming to the show established out actors. Their stardom is a definite draw to the show.
More RealisticLooking opts for a more realistic approach to portraying the lives of its characters. It’s more of a slice of life and less a soap opera or sitcom. The characters have real jobs, have long involved discussions about relationships, and just hang out. This differs from Queer as Folk’s exaggerated world of constant clubbing and consistent sex. Furthermore, Looking offers insight into awkward experiences only gay men can have. Most often, Patrick (Groff) will get into an uncomfortable verbal exchange with a potential lover or boyfriend. It humanizes the characters and makes them more relatable.
Smaller CastLooking zeroes in on three friends and the people in their lives. That differs greatly from the large cast of Queer as Folk. This allows for the characters to be more fully developed and to focus less on having to give everyone a storyline each episode.
Ignores IssuesThere isn’t pressure for Looking to get super political. As the first gay-themed show on television, Queer as Folk takes the opportunity to unabashedly reveal all kinds of issues affecting the gay community like drug addiction, HIV, and gay bashing. Looking ignores safe sex, HIV, and homophobia, which are still important issues worldwide, even in San Francisco. It doesn’t need to dwell on them but should at least acknowledge they exist. It takes a second for a character to grab a condom or mention using it.
Smaller Spectrum of the Gay CommunityQueer as Folk offers a United Colors of Benetton composite of the gay community. The core cast includes men on various parts of the masculine/feminine spectrum, lesbian cast members, and straight allies. San Francisco is renowned for its large gay population, queer activists, and transgendered men and women, but Looking only seems to follow a group of mostly-masculine, Grindr/OkCupid-obsessed, white-washed, gay men... with beards. That doesn’t give a very balanced view to the audience at large.
Race IssuesQueer as Folk is not a trailblazer of ethnic diversity. Looking actually has more people of color in the main cast than the Showtime series. However, the men on Queer as Folk were race-blind in their choice of sex and romantic partners. They never exoticized them or commented on their race. Looking sloppily brings up race and sex but it doesn’t open up a discourse about racism in the gay community; instead it marginalizes people of color.
TamerQueer as Folk is fueled by sex, nudity, and relationships. Looking opts for fewer sex scenes and less nudity. It is a great attempt at diminishing stereotypes of gay men being sex obsessed, and yet, the characters on Looking mostly discuss sex and check Grindr and OkCupid obsessively; plus, Patrick hits on every guy he meets. If the end result is still the same then why not opt for the sex scenes? After all, sex sells.
The end result is a draw. Queer as Folk is a show with no prior frame of reference for representations of gay men on television. It’s not perfect, but it’s a guilty pleasure that opens a dialogue about important gay issues. Thirteen years later, Looking opts-out of politics and some stereotypes while furthering others. However, it doesn’t have the luxury of not knowing any better.
HBO’s Looking is in a strategic position to present a fresh perspective on gay men. It joins a roster of water-cooler behemoths like Game of Thrones, True Blood and Girls. It may bring a new view of gay men to the mainstream but it seems to unintentionally (or intentionally) bash other minority groups in the process. It exposes an underbelly of class, race, and sexual discrimination inherent in our culture. But the most offensive part is that it’s not bothering to make a point.
Looking follows the lives of three gay men in San Francisco. Jonathan Groff plays Paddy, the anti-Casanova, a dating-obsessed video game designer with verbal diarrhea. His friends are Dom, a slightly over-the-hill waiter and Agustín, an artist in a new relationship. Compared to its lead-in Girls, it’s notable that the cast has people of color. Agustín is played by Cuban-American actor, Frankie J. Álvarez. His boyfriend, Frank, is played by English bi-racial actor O.T. Fagbenle. Paddy’s co-worker Owen, played by Andrew Law, is Asian-American. Paddy even gets a love interest, Richie (Raúl Castillo), who is Mexican. Great, a show set in San Francisco actually acknowledges the racial make-up of the city’s residents. However, with great minorities come great responsibilities.
The series may be diverse on paper but it doesn’t present people of color as full-fledged characters. Instead, it panders to stereotypes. Owen, the Asian character calls Paddy a “Japanese schoolgirl” for using an emoticon and then offers, “I have some Pokemon cards if you want to borrow them.” Then he rolls back to his desk. Yes, the choice of the video game designer being Asian is a little trite but must he constantly reference his race? Is his character the Asian guy who Asians a lot? When Richie meets Paddy on the bus, Paddy first responds with fear and timidity because Richie’s a working class Latino. Why is he scared? Up to this point, he’s had two failed attempts at romance, what’s wrong with a guy flirting with him on the bus? He later describes Richie as not his “type.” Is it because he’s Latino? When he describes Richie to his friends he whispers the word “Mexican.” The show is trying to make gay people seem like everyone else but it seems to take time out of the show to reference race but not make a statement.
The Richie/Paddy relationship quickly degrades into unabashed sexual fetishization. Paddy is so love-starved that he tries to get into a deep conversation with an anonymous white sex partner that he later reveals he isn’t even attracted to. And yet, Richie is never considered a viable romantic candidate and instantly designated a prospective “f**kbuddy.” Paddy spends the entire episode fixated on the prospect of seeing his uncircumcised penis. Because we’re meant to believe that 99.9% of Latin men are uncircumcised. But, since Agustin says it, it’s not racist. A guy obsessed with seeing an uncircumcised penis is the making of a hilarious plotline. But why does it have to be an uncircumcised Latin penis? If you had any doubts about the racial connotations, Paddy does a Latin-specific Google search.
The wanton sexuality assigned to men of color seems like a throughline throughout the first three episodes. Despite the somewhat tame nature of the show, Agustín and Frank have sex twice in the premiere episode. #firstimpression Agustin starts to entertain the idea of becoming an escort. It's great if the show wants to take a sex-positive approach and/or explore the lives of sex workers. However, given the treatment of the Richie character, it seems like the series creators think Latinos are only good as sexual playthings. Why not have the Asian game designer moonlight as a gigolo? In a later scene set in a bathhouse, Dom is able to have a civilized conversation with another gay gentleman, Lynn (Scott Bakula), until he’s summoned by a masturbating Latino man.
The show continues into murkier waters. In “Looking at Your Browser History,” Agustín gets painted as a delinquent. When asked where he got their placemats he says he stole them from Target. (read: Latinos are thieves). Later, angry for no reason (read: Latinos are feisty), he unabashedly tells his boss how much he dislikes her work. Then, obviously, he gets fired. Is the implication that Latinos can’t keep jobs? Granted, that might seem like a huge leap, if a few minutes later Owen didn’t say “I’m Asian, alright. Our DNA rends itself apart when we lose our jobs.” The implication is, as an Asian person, he is less likely to take risks with his employment. So, via the transitive property, are we supposed to see Agustín as irresponsible with his job? Isn’t the definition of racism that certain value judgments or prejudices are assigned to different races?
The show does deserve some credit for diversity. In a post-Sofia Vergara media world, the main Latino character doesn’t have an accent. However, in an interview Álvarez reveals that his character was originally meant to have an accent, be Venezuelan, and have green card issues. Despite this somewhat progressive take on one character, Richie, the other Latino character, is flummoxed by the word “oncology.” Are we meant to laugh because Latinos mispronouncing words is funny (see: every episode of Modern Family)? Richie has had no problem eloquently flirting up to this point so why do they need to insert a Dangerous Minds moment with Paddy correcting his English?
It’s not Utopia. It’s HBO. Looking shouldn’t have to be crushed under the weight of political correctness. However, you can’t ignore the irony. The show tries to give voice and authenticity to gay men not normally represented in media. And yet, it implicitly subjugates people of color with the same stereotypes we see everywhere else. It would be fine if these borderline racist moments were germane to the plot or made a statement. It would be great if Paddy’s racism taught him a lesson as to why he’s so unsuccessful with men. But he may have been speaking for the writers when he flatly said, “I think I may be racist.”
The upcoming HBO series Looking has already been compared to two post-feminist dramedies that firmly planted their flags in the sexual landscape of the 21st century, Sex and the City and Girls. But like those groundbreaking shows, your ability to find the sexual candor of Looking authentic might depend entirely on regionalisms or a generational divide.
Although that might be moot when it comes to O-T Fagbenle. While the other characters can hide behind a scrim of sexual choices, his rendering of Frank makes him the most easily visible character on the show. He seems oddly unconflicted, exactly the kind of queer everyman a show like Looking needs.
Even if Frank doesn't feel completely recognizable to you, you will likely wish he were, which is why we wanted to sit down with O-T Fagbenle. What better place to turn for insights into Looking than the actor playing the most centered character on the show?
So, O-T, we might as well start at the deep end of the pool. Looking calls some of the contemporary orthodoxies of gay life into question while it reinforces other ones. Are there aspects of the show that seem particularly true to you? Are there any you struggled with?
My experiences with people who are gay are so eclectic and diverse (as are my experiences with people who are straight), that having lived in the 'straight world' my whole life I recognize more similarities than differences. On the series, our gay characters are in long term relationships, short term relationships, online dating, struggling with the facts of being older and single - all things that straight, bisexual, and almost every other shade of the sexual spectrum deal with. Sure they have gay friends and go to gay bars but I think it's true to say the most interesting things about these characters isn't their sexual orientation, It's their individual perspectives on life and how they deal with looking for love, sex and friendships.
Gay characters have become fairly familiar on the small screen. Would you say Looking is breaking new turf in terms of representation, and did you feel some responsibility to "get it right?"
When representation of the LBGT community was much more scarce in the media, I think there was some kind of pressure to encapsulate an entire community in a single character - this can often be a fast track to generalization and stereotypes. Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh are so talented at bringing subtle and defined characters to the fore that the gay characters are real and identifiable without being these stock characters out of gay folklore. It's refreshing!
The pressure to "get it right" was definitely there for me, I didn't want to mess this bad boy up so I asked if HBO would fly me to San Francisco before the shoot, so I could spend more time researching and getting a feel for that amazing city and the places were Frank might hang out. I also pretty much tried to stay in character during the entire shoot, which was interesting.
Perfect segue. Because of its significance in American gay history, San Francisco is practically the show's main character. As a Londoner, can you give us some insights into your process for unveiling the soul of the city?
I cycled and walked around San Francisco a lot, made local friends, partied in The Mission, The Castro, the Folsom Fair, spoke to the homeless a lot. I also visited the nude beaches and the redwood forests - there is a lot to do in San Fran. I definitely think I scratched the surface but it's an evolving city so it would take time to get your whole finger in. Shout out to Oakland - that place is cool as #%!*.
There is something off-the-cuff about your reading of your character, Frank. Is he someone you were already familiar with, or was he something of a surprise to you?
Thank you ... I think! Walt Whitman said of himself 'I am large, I contain multitudes,' and I definitely recognize Frank very within my multitudes! Playing him was mostly a matter of allowing myself to reveal some inner shades of me.
When we meet Frank, he is the boyfriend of the only coupled character in the show, Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez). It's clear from the start that Frank has his hands full, but he seems unfazed by Agustin. Is he simply uncomplicated, or is something else going on there?
Frank is a healer, he desperately wants that independent and troubled lover that he can soothe and tame. He knows if he plays the 'Mom' and tries to control Augustin too hard and too quick it will push his love away. He's playing the long game.
If you were having coffee with Frank, what advice would you have for him about his new boyfriend?
Haha! Umm. Maya Angelou once said 'When someone shows you who they are ... believe them.’ It's good advice for Frank but hell, I'd give that advice to anybody.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.