Nice try, ‘Looking’ - but being gay isn't a side issue quite yet

It's enjoyable, and its intentions are beautiful, but if the show wants to depict the reality of life as a gay person in today's world, it is far off the mark

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In all fairness, you can generally measure the success, or at least the significance, of a TV show by the amount of people who have an opinion on it. In the case of Looking, HBO's latest foray into American urbanite truth-telling and titillation (albeit focused on a group of San Francisco-residing gay men rather than you know who), which made its debut here last night on Sky Atlantic, unanimously positive opinions have been aired across the pond for months.

From what I've read, these reactions have fallen into one of three camps. One – it's the gay Sex and the City (actually, Sex and the City was the gay Sex and the City); two – it's the gay Girls (a marketeer's dream, yes, but also a recipe for self-aware disaster and thankfully, inaccurate). Third is the 'it's so like my life' school of thought, which is something of the elusive holy grail in an age where queer inclusion on the box is still largely stereotypical – Vicious, moi? – or simply absent.

Its supposed hyper-realism has become Looking's mission statement, despite the series' British director Andrew Haigh's protestations to the contrary (a double bluff perhaps, given he so masterfully depicted a transcendently universal gay love story with 2011's Weekend).

As a gay male adult and avid watcher of TV, here are my two pennies' worth. Judging by the episodes I've seen, Looking is absolutely nothing like my life, or to my knowledge the lives of any gay men I've met, ever – and I've interviewed Andrew Haigh and been to San Francisco (the show is at least complicit with reality in that two of its characters are in the process of moving to nearby Oakland, because it's cheaper). But who says this is a bad thing? Realism is great, but so is fantasy; the inexplicable pleasure of immersing yourself in the fictional story of a person whose life strikes no resemblance to your own. Understated, yes, but Looking is still aspirational: the characters are young, attractive, in work and living in gay Disneyland. And with, apparently, absolutely no hang ups about being gay.

Its intentions are beautiful, but on that last point, if it is looking to depict reality as I suspect, Looking is umpteen generations off the mark. Every non-heterosexual person alive today – from Kampala to Sochi and San Francisco to London, even in that metaphorical little Nottingham flat in Weekend – faces an ongoing battle for self-acceptance and/or survival, or at least lives with the bitter memories of striving for one or both – for we live in an age where heterosexual supremacy is still a global standard. Because, newsflash, gay marriage or not, real equality is decades off, and a TV show about 'real', 'normal', and, dare I say it, seemingly happy gay men without a rainbow flag in sight does not signify its arrival.

To that end, I'm already slightly (and wildly prematurely) worried about Russell Tovey's upcoming involvement in the show: he seems to be one of the most popular gay men in the UK because he's so convincing at playing straight (to enough of an extent that he can now cherry-pick the best gay roles, it seems). Gay men fancy him for it, straight people respect him for it, but this ongoing trend towards awarding 'Sneaky gays', as Glee's Sue Sylvester would call them, higher status than whatever or whoever the alternative is, on TV and in life and especially in sport, makes me very uncomfortable.

For so squarely representing gay life, albeit in an excessively focused and convenient capacity, Looking deserves ample applause; for its sophisticated direction and likeable characters it deserves your viewing attention. But before we hysterically decide it's Queer As Folk-style groundbreaking (bearing in mind, Russell T. Davies next gay TV project is just around the corner) let's look a little further.