Looking s1 ep 1

For us bookish heteros of a particular age, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series of books provided (as well as entertainment) part of our consciousness-raising education about one facet of gay life, and gay San Francisco culture in particular. HBO’s new series Looking covers a bit of the same ground, although it would be doing both Maupin and Looking a disservice to claim that the latter is anything other than original. What connects the two, though, is a free-wheeling spirit, and the sense that San Francisco is a place where a young gay man can find himself, and then be himself.

This first episode, ‘Looking For Now’ was directed by Andrew Haigh, who also exec produces; Haigh was the writer/director of the excellent Weekend (2011), which for UK viewers is being shown on Channel 4 at 11.20pm on Friday 7 February. The main focus of the show is on three friends in their 20s and 30s, all attractive, and all in jobs that my late father would not have recognised as “work”. We first encounter games designer Patrick (Jonathan Groff) getting a “very, very small hand-job” in a park from a “gym-teacher hairy” dude with cold hands; Dom (Murray Bartlett) is the sommelier at an upmarket restaurant; and Agustín (Frankie J. Álvarez) makes art installations with what looks like bits of chair.

The episode is loosely about their love lives: Patrick, spurred into action by the news that a former lover is getting engaged, goes online and sets up a date with a doctor, although he makes the mistake of adding a “winking smiley-face” to his reply (“What are you, a Japanese teenager?” snarks a work friend, who used to be a Japanese teenager). The date goes delightfully, horrifyingly badly, although on the way home Patrick is chatted up on the train. Agustín, Patrick’s flatmate, decides it’s time to move in with his boyfriend. Dom fails to pick up the cute new boy at the restaurant, and leaves a voicemail message for an ex-boyfriend who, it is hinted, was bad news.

And that’s pretty much it. It’s not really a show about plot, though; it’s about people. To succeed, therefore, it’s going to have to make characters that you want to hang out with. About which I have two things to say: firstly, the amount of detail and backstory crammed into a thirty-minute episode, which never felt crowded or hectoring, was something of a minor miracle. And, secondly, I have to say that I loved it: I like the characters, and I found the show charming, amusing, and beguiling. With a few Unpopcult favourites returning shortly, further reviews will probably depend on whether I have the time. I’ll be making time to watch, though.

Public Service Announcement 7 of 2014: Damages; Looking

Although television has always created its own stars, for many of them TV was just a stepping-stone to the movies, long seen as the creative and financial superior. This continued into the present Golden Age, even as it became more and more apparent that well-made TV offered unrivalled artistic opportunities. The tide had to turn, and Glenn Close was one of the first proper movie stars of the current era to head the other way, when in 2007 she starred in the first season of legal thriller Damages.

Damages was one of the very first shows we covered on Unpopcult: we liked the first season, didn’t think as much of the second, and regarded the third as a return to form. And there, in 2010, on the brink of cancellation, we left it. But Damages was revived for two more seasons, and now, nearly three years after its transmission in America, season 4 has finally found a home on UK television. (It has, I should say, been available on Netflix for a while.) Close and Rose Byrne are back, joined by John Goodman and Dylan Baker, who is one of my favourite actors. The season attracted decent reviews when shown in America, but I kind of feel as if the thrill has gone. Film stars turning up on TV is no longer a big deal – we in the UK, for example, are getting HBO’s True Detective, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, in about four weeks – and with so much competition around, its time may have passed. On the other hand, of course, “when I am through with you…” (Monday 27 January, 9pm, Lifetime).

There is, however, another – potentially more interesting – example of TV/cinema cross-pollination the same night. Andrew Haigh managed something of a cult triumph with the charming and deceptively profound low-budget British film Weekend (2011). This brought him to the attention of HBO, and as a result he’s exec producing and showrunning Looking, an eight-part comedy-drama about gay men in San Francisco, which started a week ago in America. (Haigh also writes and directs some of the episodes.) It’s been generally well-received by US critics, and if it’s as good as Weekend it’ll be worth watching. I’ll be reviewing the first episode at least (Monday 27 January, 10.35pm, Sky Atlantic).

Also starting the same night: apparently dreadful Giovanni Ribisi/Seth Green sitcom Dads (9.30pm, ITV2). And coming very soon – to much Unpopcult excitement – The Good Wife.