Kill Your Television: On Location in the Tinselloin

San Francisco doesn't give a shit if you are famous. I'm sure Sean Penn gets a few glances when he bellies up to the bar at Tosca, or Robin Williams starts a few tongues wagging in the Greek markets along Geary near his Sea Cliff mansion, but mostly we treat celebrities like any another naked guy with a wild afro doing backflips off the exits at the 16th Street BART Station. Nothing to see here; carry on.

Actually it's a lot like the relationship an entertainment writer has with her sources — your presence is appreciated and certainly adds to their promotional landscape, but that doesn't necessarily translate into acting like you actually exist.

So when the venerable HBO invited me to see the last week of filming for its upcoming show based in S.F., Looking, I expected to slink around and scribble notes and try not to get in the way. Imagine my surprise when I showed up to the filming on 22nd Street in the Mission and met the spunky vice president of media relations, Tonya Owens, who then took me to the catering truck and told me I could order whatever I wanted. Meanwhile, I started up conversations with the head writer, the director, and a few producers, all of whom felt they were creating something exciting. I'm sure every show claims that it is trying something maverick, but there's a certain energy to the fact that a show about gay men in San Francisco is being created by predominantly gay men who really know San Francisco.

Looking is about three main characters who wouldn't be caught dead at Badlands, nor own a Chihuahua, nor like Britney Spears. They aren't hipsters, but they aren't 18th Street dipshits either. Naturally, it's being called “The gay Girls,” or “The gay Sex and the City.” Creator Michael Lannan told me he took inspiration from Armistead Maupin's series of novels, Tales of the City, but that he doesn't want it to be a show about gay dudes and their gayness, being gay all the time, and did we mention they are gay? No, this show is supposed to be about a group of friends who happen to be gay.

All well and good, but having said that, the pilot opens with one of the main characters getting a handjob in a park from a stranger (Glee actor Jonathan Groff). Later, a giggly morning sex romp happens, then a three-way. The focus is on their friendships and relationships, but this is HBO, so get ready for a ton of fucking. Is the title a play on that campy Pacino film, Cruising? Or perhaps the Village People album, Cruisin'?

They set me up with a director's chair in front of the live feeds and gave me headphones. Owens and I chattered the entire day. Everyone was down to earth and interesting, so much so that I forgot that I was dealing with a multi-billion dollar entertainment company. It didn't really occur to me until Owens mentioned having to do the red carpet at the Emmys every year. Holy shit, I thought, this is HBO. But even though I was star-struck by the whole thing, no one passing by was. In fact, most people who stopped to check it out did so to bitch that the sidewalk was blocked. There were zero gawkers lined up across the street, craning to get a better view. “This is so not L.A.,” said Owens.

Even though we seem to be unimpressed by the Hollywood in our midst, this show is treating our fair city right honorably. This, gentle reader, might be the very first time that a TV show set here is authentic. Location Manager Matthew Riutta is the reason. He lives in Oakland and previously did the location scouting for Fruitvale Station. “I wanted to get it right,” he said. Riutta only picks projects that have some social-justice element; in this case it's showcasing a stereotype-free version of S.F. and its gay residents. The characters live in the Haight and the Mission, and the wide shots of streets look gritty and a bit forlorn. There ain't no Lombard shot, and Fisherman's Wharf is relegated to Never-Never Land. There is the requisite shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, but it's at night, and the rest of the city sprawls out in a dingy sparkle. It is indeed the city the way actual residents see it.

So, yes, they are showing us the love. And for that I'd like to personally apologize for the people who have yelled, “Fuck you, Real World!” to them during filming.

Looking premieres Jan. 19 on HBO.

Go to to read Katy St. Clair's reviews of Ravenswood and Project Runway All-Stars.

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