More than ever, it’s difficult to determine what’s going to stick and resonate with television viewers. Will a new series on Netflix be the next big thing? What did Empire do different from other network television series to breakout? There isn’t a formula for success with any type of culture, whether it’s books, music, art, etc. A lot has to do with promotion and buzz, especially in television, factors such as subject matter, time slot, and the lead-in and lead-out. Some of these terms may be unfamiliar, but they go a long way in determining what will succeed and what won’t.
HBO’s half-hour Looking never had a chance. Season one took its time with the characters and their world, but it turned into a really good show by the end of its first season. There wasn’t much buzz surrounding the series with the oft-discussed Girls taking up most of the think piece space everywhere, which has allowed for Looking to get lost in the mix. Where Girls often created divisive conversations about its creator/star Lena Dunham and the types of subject matter and situations she would put her character Hannah Horvath in, Looking kept it confined to the San Francisco bay area and its characters, who just happened to be gay.
What Looking has accomplished in two seasons compared to what Girls has struggled to do in four, is astonishing. I enjoy Girls, but what are we getting at with its idiosyncratic character choices, and its odd methods of advancing their journeys? There’s no question it’s a messy series, but that’s part of its charm.
Looking understands what it is and who its characters are, which helps me understand their choices better and who they are as human beings. Then you add the element of gay culture and it’s like icing on the cake. This subject matter isn’t chronicled anywhere else to this magnitude on television, and I think it’s a series that will ultimately be known as “that TV series that was ahead of its time.”
Cancellation of Looking
It isn’t surprising given that the ratings were never stellar, but this has become normal for HBO. Enlightened was cancelled after two seasons even though it was wildly acclaimed and listed as one of the best shows of the year for its second season. The underrated Bored to Death only lasted three seasons and that’s a downright shame. Remember How to Make it in America? That series was hitting its stride before it was taken away from us. Hung never lived up to its potential, but it was a kooky little series that was its own thing.
Were all of these shows ahead of their time? Maybe Enlightened was, but likely no. What separates Looking from the other short-lived HBO half-hours is its subject matter and the pressure that comes with telling a story like this. Is the series making sure it checks off every box about gay culture? Probably not, but it’s not trying to be the one show that will reveal every detail of it either. I’m not familiar with gay culture, it was fascinating to see a depiction of it at all, let alone for 18 episodes.
The thing with HBO is that it’s trying to be trend setting yet it’s not patient enough to allow those trends to fully form. It has a library of great shows, but more specifically, it has a great library of half-hour shows that will be forever viewed on HBO GO, HBO NOW and On Demand and we’ll be thinking to ourselves, “Wait, how come I didn’t know about this show when it was on?” Looking is just another addition to that category now that it’s cancelled.
There is a sliver of good news though. It has been reported that HBO will wrap up the series with a one-off special. It’s not clear yet when that will happen, but at least it will have a conclusion knowing that there was a lot of story left open at the end of season two. No other network does this, which is nice, but it’s also hard for me to think of another network that cancels so many shows before they’ve had a chance to truly blossom.