In Defense of Looking

LOOKING

As you may or may not already know, there is a new show on HBO called Looking, following a group of gay friends navigating relationships in San Francisco. The main character is a ‘gaymer,’ so I knew that as soon as the show started I had to watch it and write about it. As of a few days ago, I’m fully caught up (there have been 5 episodes so far) and I have to say that overall, I think the show is just okay. I find that there are too many awkward scenes, there needs to be a touch more comic relief (the female roommate of one of the guys fills this role perfectly and is comedy gold every time she’s on screen but her part is not that big), and I basically want to murder the main character despite his gaymer status. So why I am writing a post called ‘In Defense of Looking’? It’s because this show is constantly being attacked online by various members of the gay community and I believe that most of these attacks are undeserved. The attacks are centered around two main points of contention: 1) That the show is boring, and 2) That the show puts gay people in a negative light by being overtly sexual. I will discuss each of these points in turn.

looking poster

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD

One of the most common things I’ve seen people post about is how they watched the first couple of episodes of Looking and stopped watching because it was too boring. Not every show is for everyone and I get that. My problem with the boring critique is that I think a lot of people are going into the show with a different idea than what the show actually is. If you go into the show expecting it to be a gay drama where boyfriends get into explosive fights with one another and a group of friends that are constantly fighting over the same guy, then you are going to be disappointed. Likewise, if you go into Looking expecting it be a gay Sex in the City-style comedy romp, then you are going to be disappointed. Looking is about trying to portray a realistic look at the modern gay dating scene. It’s about guys going on awkward dates with people they met online, hitting on gay coworkers and failing, going through a slut phase after a bad relationship, seeing the only guy you’ve dated for longer than six months getting happily married to someone else, trying to hook up with someone when all you really want is a relationship, getting too drunk and doing something embarrassing around the guy you’re trying to hit on, hooking up on grindr as a means of coping with depression/anxiety, and couples wanting to try something new to spice up their relationship. I, personally, have experiences with most of the things on that list, and, between me and my gay friends in LA, I’m pretty sure we have it all covered. While not everything is super realistic (of course one of the main character’s love interests has a British accent … urrgghh), I think it’s realistic enough to paint an accurate portrait of the gay dating community.

From left to right: The older gay who is promiscuous, the gaymer who is looking for love in all the wrong places, the artsy gay in a committed relationship.

From left to right: The older gay who is promiscuous, the gaymer who is looking for love in all the wrong places, the artsy gay in a committed relationship.

This actually brings me to next point. A lot of people put down Looking for being too sexual, and thus hurting the gay image in the media by being too stereotypical. Again, Looking is just trying to be accurate. It’s a show about gay guys dating so of course it’s going to have sexual themes. There is no way around that. I saw a comment recently on Facebook about the show, and the guy said that he stopped watching after the first 10 seconds because the show started off with two guys cruising in a park. Seriously? That is what you’re mad about? If you watched for literally another minute, you would have seen that one of the guys couldn’t actually go through with it and part of the episode was a frank discussion about whether or not cruising is even appropriate or right for that person. To be honest, I think the show actually needs more sex in it. If you’re going to go for realism then I think you have to take it all the way. Just speaking from personal experience, I’ve known a friend who got blown in public during pride last year, I’ve known friends who left parties I was throwing to go have sex, I’ve known friends who have left my house after hanging out to go on a grindr hookup with someone in my apartment building, and I’ve even heard tales of gaymer parties turning into literal orgies. Honestly, I feel like the show’s producers probably did tone down the sexual aspects of the show because they were anticipating some push back from the gay community. Granted, that push back happened anyways, so they should’ve just gone for it.

The scene at the Folsom Street Fair where Looking showed the only penis thus far.

The scene at the Folsom Street Fair where Looking showed the only penis so far.

Thus far, there has been maybe one sex scene per episode. That is not that much and they’ve all been pretty tame. Hell, Game of Thrones shows more sex than Looking does, despite Looking literally being about guys trying to have sex with each other. Games of Thrones has even shown more penises and male asses than THE GAY SHOW ON HBO. Let that sink in for a second and then come back and tell me how sexual this show is again. And if Looking is still too sexual than what’s the other side of the spectrum? Does a show about gay people have to be like Modern Family, where the gay couple is so heteronormative than they could be replaced by a straight couple and it would literally change nothing? The gay community is so splintered with regards to how gay people should be portrayed by the media that is impossible for a show focused on gay people to avoid criticism.

Personally, I applaud Looking for even trying.

Why I Hate Game of Thrones

A couple weeks ago I re-watched the TV miniseries Merlin, lying in bed, sick with the flu. I loved it, not only retroactively, having since fallen in love with Sam Neill’s European horror movie career, but nostalgically, because I remembered how big a deal it was to me in 1998. It might have been the most important televised event in my childhood. This was at the height of my obsession with sword-and-sorcery, when I was reading more than one epic fantasy novel a week, and playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons each weekend. I was so enthralled by the commercials, I threw tantrums at home. I didn’t care that it aired during prime time and my parents had other things they wanted to watch. I needed to see it. I even had nightmares about missing Part 2 at its scheduled airdate (back when that was a thing).

So I’m lying there, feverishly half awake, reliving this childhood memory via Netflix instant stream, surprised at how much I still enjoy the cheeseball special effects, when a scene in Part 2 starts to feel eerily familiar. Guinevere sits in a royal tent as queen beside Arthur, watching a jousting tourney, and I think, where have I seen this before? By 1998, thanks to my friend Josh, I’d already read Game of Thrones a couple times, and I waited impatiently for the 1999 release of A Clash of Kings, book two of A Song of Ice and Fire. At age ten I’d been to Las Vegas for Excalibur’s dinner show, at age eleven I’d been to a Renaissance Fair, and as a boy fond of outdoor activities, I was completely taken by the idea of medieval tourneys. In 1998, at age fourteen, I must have paid extra attention to this scene in Merlin, of jousts and play-melee.

Fifteen years later, I’ve read all of George R. R. Martin’s books more than once. I’ve seen the first two seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones. I’ve returned to Excalibur’s dinner show in deference to nostalgia. Heck, I’ve seen (and loved) A Knight’s Tale. And there I was a couple weeks ago, re-watching this seminal moment in my childhood, with Guinevere played by Lena Headey, and thinking: whoa, is that you Cersei?

Which fictional adulterer-queen am I?

Which fictional adulterer-queen am I?

In my 1998 paperback version of Game of Thrones, in the back, below the picture of the author and his bio, George R. R. Martin listed his email address, an ancient AOL.commer that he probably canceled not long after, with the success of A Clash of Kings. At age fourteen, having obtained that year my first email account myself, I decided to email the author of what was then my favorite book. I wrote that I wanted to be a writer, too, and I wanted to know, having never encountered a book without an obvious main character, whom he considered the hero of his story. The truth was, at the time, I was in love with the character of Jon Snow. We were the same age. We both felt like outsiders. And my permanent dream-reality at the time included the kind of adventuring that involves undiscovered, wild landscapes with a loyal animal at my side.

A couple months later, I received an email reply. It was short, but polite. To paraphrase by memory: he (or whoever responded) didn’t consider any of his characters as heroes or villains, that each time he sat down to write, the protagonist seemed to be someone new, but that if he had a favorite, it was Tyrion. Looking back now, if I were to apply my literary training on Martin’s novels, I would probably single out Tyrion as the series’ true hero, but that’s beside the point. I was fourteen years old, and I had been endowed with a new gospel. There were no heroes or villains! This to me seemed the most important insight in the world. Look at that stupid Lord of the Rings with its Sauron! How old and backwards, with its elves and dwarves and magic! How can you take that silliness seriously? Look instead to George R. R. Martin! These are real people! The characters aren’t just anti-heroes. They are free from the shackles of high fantasy cliches!

Looking back now, I realize I was overcompensating. I was ridiculed for liking elves, dwarves and magic, for being a fantasy geek, so I enjoyed pointing at George R. R. Martin’s books as an example of smarter fantasy, of “more acceptable” fantasy. As someone who arrogantly fancied himself a future fantasy novelist, I pointed at A Song of Ice and Fire and decided, if only mainstream people read this kind of fantasy, they wouldn’t write it off as a silly spectacle. It was literature!

Teenage angst, quoth the raven

Teenage angst, quoth the raven

When the Lord of the Rings movies took the world by storm, I fumed. I made fun of them, not because they were awful, but because they perpetuated the silly things about fantasy that I’d become ashamed of. Funny looking people with pointy ears. Wizards with pointy hats. Short people walking through a forest. Worse, Lord of the Rings, being blockbuster successes, inspired a decade of copycats. At a time when being a nerd was becoming more and more okay, with blogs and podcasts and zombies and Battlestar and J.J. Abrams, “high fantasy” was kept in its dunce cap, pushed in the corner, wearing an Eragon tee-shirt, sipping Mountain Dew, and playing World of Warcraft.

All the while, I kept thinking, if they made movies about A Song of Ice and Fire instead, well, then it wouldn’t be so silly! Not only us geeks would respect it. People would realize how cool fantasy can be! I remember, specifically, my friends Josh and Alex and I sitting around, thinking, what if A Song of Ice and Fire were made into a TV series, on a cable channel even. Wouldn’t that be the bomb? Wouldn’t that be dope?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4XSeW4B5Rg

When HBO began running Game of Thrones, it seemed exactly what the doctor ordered. In many ways, I got just what I wanted. The mainstream does like Game of Thrones. The same people who gave me a hard time in middle and high school are quoting George R. R Martin in politics and fashion blogs. The same film critics who patronized the Lord of the Rings films as out-earning their “genre category” are now treating Game of Thrones on par with HBO’s other shows. The phrase “pay the iron price” is en route to replacing “pay an arm and a leg,” and its found use in something as culturally disparate as the NFL draft. A Song of Ice and Fire did cross over. It’s not just geeky now. It’s also goth chic. It’s also bro-ey. Frat houses gather around the keg to watch episodes on Sunday nights.

But I’m not fourteen anymore. Over the years I’d built a dream adaptation of the books in my mind a million times over, and my initial reactions to someone else’s version were overly sensitive towards the overuse of exposition, toward its obvious fallbacks on those very same tropes abused by Lord of the Rings a decade before. I was seeing the same thing all over again, my beloved “smarter” fantasy series transformed into a spectacle, with boobs and CGI creatures and special interest group fanfare.

But what was I comparing it to? I watched and saw HBO’s Jon Snow and was upset because he was portrayed as a bratty teenager. But isn’t that what he is in the books? Somehow I managed to retain my fourteen-year-old innocence regarding A Song of Ice and Fire until HBO finally made me confront the fact that Martin’s books were only great, not transcendent. My Wizard of Oz, the messiah that would (by example) inform the masses that it was “okay” to like fantasy epics, was really just another tropey fantasy epic behind the curtain.

That’s unfair. A spectacle it remained, but as a show, HBO’s version definitely got better. By the end of season two, it was great, and knowing book three as well as I do, seasons three and four should only be better. It still has the potential to be one of the best television shows ever. I don’t hate Game of Thrones because it isn’t good. I hate it because I’ve lost the ability to enjoy it with the same carefree hunger for sword-and-sorcery I had watching Merlin in 1998. I can blame the old fantasy cliche, be careful what you wish for, because sharing Game of Thrones has in essence handed over my teenage crawlspace of Westeros to the same bullies from whom I’d been hiding. But that’s not it. Somewhere along the line, I took over as the bully. I’ve never let myself stop being ashamed of reading fantasy novels, of playing D&D and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve just been a jerk scapegoating a bunch of things I should love as much as I loved Merlin.

Let’s Kiki About RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 5

I have to admit that when I first saw RuPaul’s Drag Race, I didn’t really care for it. I was still a little bit of an effeminophobe at the time and I found the over-the-top campiness of some queens, like Manila Luzon, more irritating than endearing. Last year, I was introduced to season 4 by several different people at the same time, and I loved it. I’m not sure if I just had a better appreciation for gay culture at the time or if I just really loved Sharon Needles, but after watching season 4, I was hooked. I went back and watched all the previous seasons (and loved them this time around) and my friends and I got so into the show we were actually planning on having a drag party.

Manila turned out to be one of my favorite queens of all time.

Manila turned out to be one of my favorite queens of all time.

Then RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars happened. That season seemed poorly produced, rushed, and the team format was awful  All Stars left a sour taste in my mouth and killed the drag race momentum that had built up among my friends. I had looked forward to season 5 with the hope that Ru would redeem herself after All Stars … and thus far I’ve been disappointed.

WARNING: FROM HERE ON OUT, THIS POST MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!

My biggest problem with Season 5 comes from how poorly produced it is thus far. This season is significantly more manufactured than previous seasons. It’s like the producers are instructing all of the queens to be extra bitchy to each other all the time. It really shows when they cut to a quiet queen like Honey Mahogany or Ivy Winters forcibly trying to throw shade and failing miserably at it. I realize that previous seasons of drag race had fake manufactured rivalries and fights all the time, but this season’s are so much more blatant  At least the Sharon and Phi Phi rivalry in season 4 built up slowly and made sense on a philosophical level. In season 5, you had queens start fighting with each other in the first ten minutes of the first episode, and half the time, you don’t even really know why they are fighting.

I still don't know why these two bitches are fighting. I do know that the producers are going to milk this feud for all it's worth.

I still don’t know why these two bitches are fighting. I do know that the producers are going to milk this feud for all it’s worth.

That brings me to my next point – the editing in this season is terrible. There was one episode where they cut Ru’s explanation for the main challenge, and last episode they truncated the runway walk (which is blasphemous since the runway is the best part of every episode). The producers also keep editing the dialogue between the queens to make there be more drama in the workroom than there actually is. There has been several times when a queen gets cut off mid-sentence in order to make the scene more uncomfortable. Even when they aren’t trying to create drama, the editing is not smooth and some scenes seem like they were edited by an amateur YouTube vlogger. The untucks this season are particularly painful for this reason.

This is definitely the only good thing to come out of the untucks this season.

This is definitely the only good thing to come out of untucked this season.

The last thing I have a problem with this season are the contestants themselves. This season has been described as ‘The Fishy-est season ever,’ which I just find boring. I have to admit that I’m a little bit biased in the kinds of drag queens I find entertaining. I tend to like queens that have edgy/editorial fashions or are campy. This season, there are a couple camp queens, a couple edgy queens, and the rest are just fishy showgirls. I’m sorry, I’m just not impressed by one’s ability to look like a realistic woman. In addition, there are just too many contestants this time around. It was hard for the first few episodes to even have a handle on who is who, especially since the style of drag is so similar among all the queens. I haven’t been blown away by a runway yet, and since we’re four episodes in, that’s a bad sign.

Fishy: The ability for a drag queen to realistically pass as a woman.

Fishy: The ability for a drag queen to realistically pass as a woman. Sentence example: Damn, Kenya is serving some fish in that picture!

There is one thing that season is excelling at above all other seasons – the challenges. In previous seasons, the first few challenges are usually team-based acting challenges (like acting out scenes from a sitcom or B-movie or something). This season, all of these acting challenges have been taken to a new level. The challenge where the queens had to act out scenes from previous RuPaul’s drag race seasons was amazing and super meta. Last night’s ballet/opera challenge was also fantastic. This season has raised the bar in terms of the challenges and I am excited about what’s planned for the later episodes.

opera

Brilliant!

Overall, I think this season is pretty bad, but it keeps getting better with each episode. Last night’s double elimination is going to go a long way to make the number of the queens in the workroom more manageable, and maybe we’ll actually get to see some of the contestants’ real personalities. I think this season is going to end up being like season 2, where it starts out slow, gets better as the season goes along, but ultimately ends on a disappointing note. Hopefully, Ru will prove me wrong.

BONUS:

My favorite queens so far this season are Jinkx Monsoon and Alaska. Jinkx is shaping up to be this season’s Pandora Boxx as she is a funny, campy queen, who is a good comedic performer but has a questionable fashion sense. Alaska started off as a more annoying version of Sharon, but I think that at this point, she has really come into her own. She is by far the most entertaining to watch and she manages to continue on with Sharon Needle’s drag commentary on beauty while not emulating Sharon’s gothic style.

Some random dude is in the middle of an Alaska/Jinkx sandwich.

Some random dude is in the middle of an Alaska/Jinkx sandwich.

My least favorite queen this season is Alyssa Edwards. She is basically this season’s Phi Phi/Rebecca/Tatianna/Shangela. She is a show girl (yawn) who is constantly bitchy and is a major player in the manufactured drama I mentioned earlier. Plus, she is hideous as a man. Seriously.

I can't even look at him. #AllTAllShade

I can’t even look at him. #AllTAllShade