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.
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.