With all the buzz surrounding HBO’s new show Looking, we think it would be pretty safe to assume that you cannot be gay if you don’t know that the show premieres this Sunday at 10:30 after Girls. Seriously, it’s been everywhere. You’re probably looking at an ad for it right now. So before you watch the premiere and begin obsessing over every detail of the series, we decided to take a look back at five other shows that paved the way for Looking.
Queer as Folk
For the first, let’s just go ahead and get the obvious out of the way. There would be no Looking without Queer as Folk. Not the (superior) British version, but the American one. The soapy drama about gay men in Pittsburgh, well, looking for love, was groundbreaking for American television in its unflinching and many times graphic depiction of gay sex and relationships. Semi-embarrassing side note: it was also where this writer first learned what “rimming” was.
Yes, it was over the top. Yes, the Brian Kinney archetype is a complete and total fantasy that doesn’t exist on planet Earth. Yes, Sharon Gless was getting on our nerves about 5 minutes into season one too, but you cannot deny the cultural impact these guys and gals had on the gay community and on cable television. Now that Showtime is winning Emmys left and right and is a major power player in TV, it’s hard to think of a time when they were a second rate cable network, but they were. Over 10 years later, QAF still inspires a passionate and devoted fan following and will go down in the history of gay television. Queer as Folk helped to put Showtime on the map, and helped usher representations of gay men into the next generation.
A group of friends navigating life and love while living in a sun-kissed city in California? Sounds familiar, huh? It’s definitely an attractive concept, and Noah’s Arc certainly filled it with an attractive cast. Set in Los Angeles, the LOGO series followed struggling screenwriter Noah and his friends Alex, Ricky, and Chance (his arc, get it?) through their various career and relationship ups and downs.
It was the flagship show at LOGO until a certain legendary drag queen sashayed into the picture. The show’s African-American and Latino cast reflected the diversity of the gay community, and while Noah’s Arc was not without its campier moments, (the closeted, homicidal “straight” friend of Alex’s partner comes to mind) it was still a vision of gay life that had never been seen before. After the show abruptly ended on a cliffhanger after the end of season 2, the film Noah’s Arc: Jumping The Broom was commissioned by LOGO, and was one of the top-grossing gay indie films that year.
Even in 2014, gay themes on mainstream network television can court controversy, so you can imagine what went down in 1989 when ABC made the decision to air the “Strangers” episode of their hit show thirtysomething. In the third season, the show creators decided to contrast a typical heterosexual relationship on the show with that of gay supporting character Russell Weller (out actor David Marshall Grant) and decided to show him in bed after having sex with a new boyfriend.
The decision led to outrage, boycotts, and the loss of $1.5 million dollars in advertising revenue after five regular sponsors pulled out of the show the week the episode was to air. The scene itself was rather chaste, and the actors were even forbidden to touch each other. Still, it was an important moment in gay representation on TV. Without that scene, we surely wouldn’t be seeing bi-hunk makeout sessions on ABC’s Revenge 26 years later…
Will & Grace
Will & Grace wasn’t about the controversy. It was about the funny, and for years they brought it on NBC. The most subversive thing about the series was its lack of controversy or an “agenda,” so to speak. When a show puts an agenda before the funny, it can often end up disastrously, but W&G chose to make its biggest political statement by presenting its gay characters as normal as sitcom characters are allowed to be.
Sure, Sean Hayes got his share of crap (mostly from other gays) for his swishy Jack McFarland which oftentimes walked the line of caricature, but he created an indelible character and gave a completely winning comedic performance. Was Will Truman a bit stiff? Absolutely, but with Will & Grace, gay characters and camp sensibility were brought into mainstream in a way that they hadn’t been before. W&G is without a doubt the most important show in regards to mainstream representation on this list. While others courted controversy or meant to shock, the biggest strength of Will & Grace was in allowing everyday Americans to laugh at and with gay characters, showing them our humanity in the process.
A-List: New York
You hated them. You loved them. You loved to hate them. But you watched. And you tweeted. And you streamed. You’re still buying their calendars. You’re still booking them to host events. You’re still following them on twitter. You blasted them for not representing the gay community. You wanted something “real.” You wanted diversity. You wanted gay men that looked like human beings and not Ken dolls.
Whether or not The A-List: New York was awful, whether or not the characters were unappealing, whether or not you found it hilarious or deeply disturbing when Austin was “fluffed” on camera for his ill-fated Playgirl photo shoot, these boys were still a part of the first reality series built entirely around gay men. That is something. That is substantial. That is representation, though it may not be the representation that you liked or wanted.
It is arguable that The A-List: New York paved the way for a show like Looking because based on the response, The A-List is exactly what most gay viewers didn’t want. Less than three years after the boys of The A-List: New York left television screens for good, we have Looking, which is getting a majority of its press based on it’s “natural” looking aesthetic.
Television is now giving you what you wanted. The only question now is whether or not the gays will watch…