HBO's 'Looking' Is Breaking Audience Boundaries in More Ways Than One

Actor Frankie J. Alvarez said his conservative friends are coming to identify with his character despite the difference in sexual identity.

(Photo: HBO)

Mar 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

The people watching HBO shows are probably not who you think they are.

More boys—or rather, grown men—watch Girls than girls or women, for example, according to Nielsen data from 2012. Despite a common misconception that women aren't fans of the medieval fantasy drama Game of Thrones, Nielsen data proves they account for almost half of the viewers of HBO's most popular show to date. It's no shock, then, that Looking, the HBO show about a group of gay male friends navigating the dating world in San Francisco, attracts more than just an LGBT audience.

We can't know yet how many viewers tuned in to Sunday night's funeral-centered road trip episode, as HBO opted to forgo overnight Nielsen ratings this year, but last week's Paley Center for Media panel in Los Angeles revealed a great deal about the show's unexpected audience. Actor Frankie J. Alvarez, who plays the struggling artist Agustin on the show, says Looking not only charmed several of his non-LGBT friends back home in Florida but also gave them an opportunity to relate to gay characters—potentially for the first time.

"I still have some lawyer conservative friends who stuck with the show and are excited that they see themselves in these gay men," said Alvarez, who, like his Looking character, is Cuban American and hails from Miami. But unlike Agustin, Alvarez is straight.

"And so when I get these texts like 'Bro, I never thought I would watch a show about gay guys' and 'That's me, bro,' it's beautiful that we're breaking that wall down," Alvarez said at the Thursday-night Paley Center panel, held a week in advance of the annual television-fan festival PaleyFest. "For that small percentage of people that it's making a difference, it's worth it. It's a big deal in our community."

That Alvarez's character resonated with his straight friends hints at Looking's larger on-screen representation of racial and sexual diversity. Viewers might identify with Agustin not just because he's gay or because he's an artist but also because he's Latino—a rare sight on television. Latinos made up just 2 percent of broadcast roles and 3 percent of cable roles in the 2012–2013 TV season, according to this year's Hollywood Diversity Report, which was issued by UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

"After they cast me in the part, [cocreator] Michael Lannan and I had a chat about using some of my innate personal characteristics to our advantage in the show. I am an articulate, well-educated Latin man, and I thought it would be interesting to tell that story; we don't get to see it often enough in TV and on film," Alvarez told Remezcla last year.

While Latino characters are sorely underrepresented on TV, the number of LGBT characters on prime-time scripted cable increased this year, according to the 2014 Where We Are on TV report. GLAAD tallied a total of 64 recurring LGBT characters during the 2014–2015 TV season, up from 42 characters last year.

Looking is making gay men's stories relatable to new and diverse audiences, but there are still some stereotypes that some viewers can't seem to shake: "He's too gay to play this" or "A straight guy can't do that," Alvarez said of the way actors are pigeonholed by their sexuality. "For actors, we want to transform, you know, and to limit us in that way is, I feel, frankly, disrespectful, you know?"

Chief among the questions he gets asked the most is "What's it like to do a sex scene with another man?" "I have no other experience," he said. "I've never done a sex scene with a woman. It is what it is: It's a sex scene."