The Outs’ Adam Goldman on Why We Need Fewer Coming-Out Narratives and the Problem With Gay Sex on HBO

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Adam Goldman in The Outs' second season. Photo: Vimeo

Adam Goldman’s 2012–2013 web series The Outs follows Mitchell (Adam Goldman), his best friend Oona (Sasha Winters), his ex-boyfriend Jack (Hunter Canning), and Jack’s new boyfriend Paul (Tommy Heleringer) through breakups and upsets that rearrange their relationships with one another. The first season (with seven episodes in less than three hours altogether, a very manageable binge) was funded on Kickstarter, and, after a three-year hiatus, the series was given a second season, which premiered Wednesday as a Vimeo Original.

Goldman conceived, directed, and co-wrote the series with Winters, his real-life friend and roommate, and much of the show’s feel is due to their smart, sharp writing and the distinct aesthetic of the show’s director of photography, Jay Gillespie. “From our perspective it still feels very scrappy,” Goldman told me, explaining that he and Gillespie edited the season together, much as they did the first, to save money on editors. “It’s the same team, and it still feels pretty DIY — just better-funded DIY.” 

Over lunch in Brooklyn, I talked to Goldman about season two, the problem with gay sex on HBO, and why we need fewer coming-out narratives.

Now that you’ve made one season of The Outs in this DIY way and a second season as a Vimeo Original, what do you see as the value or the place of web series in the television landscape?
The only variable that exists is the quality, because now more than ever, people are ingesting this work — I hate the word “content,” so I never use it — on laptops. Or you’re watching it on your Roku or on your Apple TV. You’re watching it all the same way, and that’s incredibly intimate. So if it’s bad, people won’t watch it. Vimeo can produce that or Amazon can produce that or Netflix can produce that, and in a funny way those things are at an advantage, rather than network television that you have to watch on your TV.

The tricky part is, there’s nowhere to discover anything. This is why I ask everyone that I talk to, Is there any queer web stuff that I should be aware of? Because it’s everywhere. And if you have a friend who has a friend who has a friend in Portland who made a great gay web series, there’s no reason I should have heard of that. There’s no central channel. And not that there should be, or that there even can be because so many people are creating stuff, but I like what Vimeo is doing because they’re picking artists that they like and they’re supporting their work.

Did Vimeo approach you about picking up The Outs or had you reached out?
They approached me. They did several episodes of High Maintenance, High Maintenance got picked up by HBO, and Vimeo wanted to keep doing original narrative work, so they reached out to me and said we should work on something. We talked for a while about doing a second season of The Outs or a second season of Whatever This Is. [another Goldman-Gillespie web series about reality-TV production assistants working in New York] and that was kind of my preference, and they were like, “We would rather do The Outs.” The more I thought about it, it made sense to return to The Outs. I resisted a little at first, but I got over it.

I’ve been talking a lot lately about this artsy-fartsy term I use: “longitudinal storytelling.” A longitudinal science study [takes place] over years and years; so it’s the same thing with narrative. I like returning to characters, and my favorite movies are big movies, like There Will Be Blood or Boogie Nights, that are about people over the course of their whole lives, so I love the idea of television that you can, in real time, weave in and out of people’s lives. It’s a really cool opportunity to do that.

It feels more realistic, the idea that you might lose touch with a friend, or that all your friends don’t hang out all the time at the same time. It’s a great twist on what sort of is a “friends” show — or, a show about relationships.
It’s a show about relationships. That’s a good way of putting it. And to take those characters, frankly, out of the Girls-y realm of “What am I doing? Where am I going? I don’t know, I’m just an aimless millennial,” you know, to give them a little more grounding. Also to prove that that can happen. Because, for example, on something like Girls, it doesn’t seem to happen. Those characters are still very much up in the air. Which is valid, but we don’t have a lot of narratives of millennials landing. The only stories that have been told so far are like, “I can’t get a job, I can’t pay rent.” I wanted to capture that landing trajectory a little more.

I like that Jack has a job that he just doesn’t like, and that a job is not a main trait of any of the characters on the show.
People bristle at that sometimes, but I feel like everyone I know in our cohort just gets a job and is dispassionate about it, until it crushes you and then you realize you have to do something else. There’s this wonderful English show called Pulling from a few years ago that ran for two seasons — it got a Christmas special and then it got canceled. It’s the biggest influence on the show. It’s the same main woman as on Catastrophe, Sharon Horgan, she’s a genius. You never learn her job on the show — and I didn’t realize this at the time, but it’s the same thing that we did on The Outs — because she was like, if it doesn’t matter to her, it doesn’t matter to the audience. So she’s always just in an office, answering a phone, doing a thing with paperwork. That’s really in the first season what Mitchell’s job is.

In the second season you know what he’s doing, but Jack is now in this anonymous paper-pushing job, and that is his arc of the season. I wrote that scene in the first episode of the season, where he has this ridiculous interaction with his co-worker that’s a really nothing interaction, as a placeholder, and then I was like, no, when you’re in that job, every day is a placeholder. And that wears you down, and then you go home, and you have your beer, and you talk to your boyfriend who’s away, and it’s not fun.

It’s an uncommon way of framing anyone’s life in New York, but work is the least interesting part of most of my friends’ lives.
It’s funny, I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about, like, where is our gay medical drama? Or our gay cop procedural? So much queer media is just about being queer. And that’s tricky, and I think that was a problem with, for example, Looking. I was thinking the other day about how many bad queer movies there are, and how many coming-out narratives, and the truth is, in a funny way, all those shitty movies about coming out need sequels. Because I’m interested in who all of those people become, I’m just not interested in where they started. Like, they’re all superhero origin stories, and that’s not interesting because queer people are more interesting than where they came from, inevitably.

I wanted to talk about queer politics. One of my favorite scenes in the first season of The Outs is in the Chanukah Special, when Mitchell talks about getting called “faggot” at a Whole Foods. Those kinds of conversations are so central to queer friendships, the fact that you can empathize and argue about what you’re supposed to do because it’s a common experience.
I mean, you look at a lot of other gay stuff and it’s just about being a cockhound. And that does represent six hours of your life a week, but that’s not all we do all the time. And in a funny way, it’s rare to see queer people talking about that stuff.

I agonized over that [scene] in the days leading up to shooting it, because I really didn’t want to have anyone get the shit beaten out of them. You’re not going to get beat up in a Whole Foods, but you know … I had just heard Margaret Cho saying her advice to people who [encounter hate-speech] is to walk away, because that person being hateful to you is not all there, and they hate you, and you should swallow your pride and you should take your safety into your own hands. But at the same time I couldn’t find someone else out there saying, Actually, it’s okay to stick up for yourself sometimes. And that felt important. [That character] says in the episode, “Use your brain, but use your balls, too.” And I do think you have to strike that balance. But yeah, almost in this Bechdel Test way, there’s just not a lot of queer people talking about queer politics. People are like, “Is it a gay show? Does it appeal to a gay audience?” I don’t know the answer. I would like to think that the straight people in my life would be interested to hear how gay people talk about gay politics. I don’t know if in a mainstream way that’s sexy for people — and I don’t care.

I love a sex scene, but it has to be in service of something. I’m not going to do it just because it’s hot. There’s enough of that. One of the things about Looking that bothered me was the sex, because it felt engineered to titillate, but HBO is still extremely squeamish about male nudity, so they couldn’t do anything interesting. There was a little gay sex scene on [a recent episode of] Girls, and it had more heart and humor and honesty in it than anything that happened on Looking. Just because they have a level of frankness on that show that, you know, sex is ridiculous, and it’s okay to admit that sex is ridiculous, and not have it be all blurry rim jobs and moaning. ... But unfortunately, that’s sort of what we have to work with.

I don’t want to be caught talking shit, but we have a lot to be angry about. If you’re an engaged viewer of queer media, you have a lot to be up in arms about. I said some terrible thing in an Interview magazine interview in 2013 where I was like, “I don’t want to say broadly that more representation is better,” and I regret that now, because of course more is better. I know at the time I was reacting [to] a different media landscape, and when there’s so little, you really do put a lot of pressure on every representation that comes out, and if it portrays your whole culture as, like, a hard cock, then that’s something we are allowed to object to.

The Outs is frank and nonchalant about sex — casual references to having had threesomes, for instance. In the Chanukah Special it’s an aside that comes off like it could be a joke, but it’s not a thing.
And it’s not relevant. It’s interesting to know that they had threesomes with people, but it’s not about figuring that out. I was talking to someone the other day who was like, “I’m so curious who in those relationships is the top and who’s the bottom.” Like, really? You’re so curious about that? That accounts for, like, 4 percent of that relationship. I’m happy that you can think of the show when you’re jerking off and, like, plug and play, but that’s so irrelevant to character.

Paul and Jack talk about their relationship in this very adult way that feels open to the possibilities that queer relationships have. It’s a strength of The Outs that you bring things up, and you have issues that are present, but they’re not, like, “A special message from The Outs.”
I had to lean into that, giving the audience credit, or assuming that part of the reason the audience is there is for those conversations, is for that very granular, talking it through, and that that’s not boring to people.

Mitchell and Jack feel like they’re still the heart of the show, that they’re friends in this way I think gay men can be uniquely. It’s not a Rachel and Ross thing.
It’s so funny because straight people, like my roommate Sasha, who plays Oona, she’s like, “I really want Jack and Mitchell to be together.” They see it and for them the will they/won’t they is central to the show, but really the impetus of the show is that they won’t. [Laughs.] That’s not the point of the show. And even if they do, they won’t. Even if they slept together, it wouldn’t mean that they’re soulmates. And that was where the whole show came from, was examining that — knowing people who loved each other and then hated each other and then came out the other side, and you still have that intimacy with someone, but it doesn’t mean the same thing.

How did you get Alan Cumming to be on the show?
Oh! So he tweeted at us after like the fifth episode of the first season. He was like, “I’m obsessed with this show.” And then I met with him and he was like, “I wanna be on the show, can’t I just like shag one of the guys?” And I was like, “No, because at a certain point it will become the Alan Cumming episode.” So I’m actually really proud of the way in the Chanukah Special when he shows up, you’re like, “Why is this cameo here?” and then it turns out to be a plot point and it fits in. So he’s back in the second season.

I like that he’s kind of a sad sack.
He’s a sad sack, and he’s playing a very slutty version of himself. It’s fun to play with him. He always wants to be more involved, but he just has a crazy schedule because he’s doing The Good Wife, and so it’s about finding the right way for him to enter the story, cause a little chaos, and leave.

This interview has been edited and condensed.