Grace Dent on TV: Looking & Girls, Sky Atlantic

Give me Looking & Girls’ likeable gays over Lena’s toxic girls any day

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Looking, but Sky Atlantic’s imported drama about gay men – and one woman, the formidable Doris – snuck into my heart. Any drama which attempts to nail a “scene” or “tackle issues affecting a group” can end up either cliched, or worthy, or worse than that, cliched and worthy, with an added slap of “controversial”, when all that was really needed was a relatable look at the way a certain strand of society lives. But in Looking, from the outset, here was a beautifully gentle – with the occasional bout of allusion to anal sex and rimming – and compelling little tale. I say “little” as not a great deal goes on.

Patrick is a preppy, wet-eared video games designer. He’s the least streetwise gay man to ever be let loose in the Lower Haight. A perfect-toothed Abercrombie & Fitch-clad ingenu, inherently programmed to do the “right” thing. Augustin is an artist, now reduced to working as another artist’s assistant. Dom is a wine waiter, now on the cusp of his fortieth birthday, growing bored with the male sauna scene and hoping to begin a Portuguese chicken restaurant.

They bumble around San Francisco, over its hills and round its bays, from bad Grindr.com date to confessional brunch to backstreet dive, to slagging-off sessions over exes’ naff engagement parties. It’s all done with an affable and cordial aplomb. They pretend over the phone they’re eating kale salads when they’re actually eating Mac’n’cheese. They gossip about what race boasts the most non-circumcised penises and pretend to be supportive when one of them gets loved up and moves to boring-snoring Oakland.

Patrick made an absolute mess of his first date with Richie, taking preppy naivety to the point of casual racism, but righted things over the following episodes. I adore Richie and his patience and his sessions with the Mexican woman who rubs his body with eggs then cracks them to see his fortune. The Looking boys are heavily likeable. Not flawless, but warm and engrossing.

The Looking gang are the distinct opposite of Lena Dunham’s Girls, (preceding Looking on Tuesday on Sky Atlantic) where every single character is – to use a technical phrase – “a complete arsehole”. Looking has a cast that I’d happily fritter time with. OK, aside from Dom’s ex-boyfriend Ethan who took $8,000 off Dom for a meth treatment programme and is now a holier-than-thou-airport-bookshop-business-self-help-manual-regurgitating-ne’er-do-well who won’t give Dom cash back as it was “a gift”. Ethan can vanish.

Looking’s “hard-necked friend of the gays” Doris came into her own as a character in episode two. Dom spoke about Ethan in vaguely forgiving, sympathetic terms and Doris’s face flashed for a millisecond with the sort of fury that suggested she would rather kill Ethan, dispose of the body and serve the prison sentence, rather than let Dom make the same mistake again.

I’m being unfair about Girls, perhaps. The Hamptons episode this season when Shoshanna broke and informed all the other characters they were self-absorbed, toxic, narcissistic wastes of breath was truly invigorating telly. It was also memorable for Dunham’s pale arse in a bikini which terrorised the entire episode as a reminder of how little we see actual, real human beings’ bodies on screen and was only a problem to everyone else. Her character Hannah was having a ball.

“I just want to prove to everyone via Instagram that we can still have fun as a group!” moaned Marnie, trying to meld the bleak rabble into some sort of cosy photo opportunity. Dunham has been skilful during this season in pushing her characters to the brink of tolerability, leaving the viewer doubting our belief about whether they were ever friends at all. Looking, meanwhile, is the epitome of bonhomie. No-one tells Augustin his talent for artistry is debatable or tells Dom that maybe, when you think about it, no-one wants to eat his stupid chicken. Not even if his dad used to cook it. Cute story, but I’ll stick with Nandos.

Where Looking will go in season two – slated for 2015 – I can’t guess. It can’t stay so cosy, even if Patrick does occasionally end up with his ankles behind his ears. Russell Tovey had been a  great addition as British video-wunderkind  Kevin Matheson and I could certainly watch more of his slightly stereotypical cold British schtick rubbing Patrick and his breezy San Fran gang  up the wrong way.

And yes please to more Doris, who may be the only female voice but snatches most of the best lines. “What, did you fuck the pain away with the cast of Wicked?” she drawls after finding Dom’s one-night-stand crooning in the shower. Dom and Doris righting the world’s wrongs at Zumba classes are a thing of joy. Whatever they do in the next series, I shall be looking.

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