Tonally compatible with “Girls,” but a lot less whiny, “Looking” has a strong indie-film sensibility, including a serialized narrative that’s less episodic than being simply an ongoing story split into half-hour installments. Focusing on a trio of gay friends in San Francisco, it would be easy to mischaracterize this as another “Queer as Folk,” but the show quickly establishes a voice and characters that firmly stand on their own. In that regard, this half-hour does more than just capitalize on the license of pay cable, and while it’s obviously not for everyone, “Looking” deserves to be found.
At its core, the show centers on tension between commitment-free hookups and the more painstaking search for serious relationships, with Patrick (Jonathan Groff, the stage star who had a recurring gig on “Glee”) serving as the de facto tour guide. At 29, Patrick has a career as a videogame designer, but spends part of his time at work surfing matchmaking sites, and he tends to agonize over little things, like whether he can pursue a guy from a different socioeconomic background — a part-time doorman (Raul Castillo) at a Latin drag club.
His two friends, meanwhile, are at slightly different stages: Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a couple years older, has just agreed to move in with his boyfriend; and Dom (Murray Bartlett), a waiter at a high-end restaurant on the verge of turning 40, is still promiscuous, while seeing his dream of opening his own eatery slipping away.
“You look good for your age,” Dom is told at one point, one of those compliments that, in this context, comes with a serrated edge.
Spearheaded by writer Michael Lannan and director Andrew Haigh, “Looking” doesn’t break new ground, although it does take the license one would expect of an HBO series, and the sex scenes, while infrequent, are explicit and raw. Yet the show gets past that aspect, in part because, unlike “Girls,” it feels less self-conscious about being provocative, with the situations flowing organically out of the characters.
It is also, happily, occasionally pretty funny — something of an afterthought in many single-camera cable half-hours — such as a moment when Patrick earnestly quotes the “Golden Girls” theme song to one of his buddies.
HBO has been guilty over a recent stretch of feeling a bit too narrow in its development of comedy series, and given the subject matter, “Looking” would appear to fit that description.
Get past the log line, though, and this is a show with a strongly universal quality to its themes — foremost among them being what people sacrifice in the way of freedom and excitement as they look for love, or a longtime companion, in at least some of the wrong places.