Close Watch: ‘Looking’ Season Finale

Share Button

Looking has wrecked me. Like writer/director/producer Andrew Haigh’s devastating relationship drama Weekend, it believably captures the complexities, joys, and difficulties specific to being a young gay man right now, and miraculously situated them within universal realities such as living and loving.

The season finale builds upon the relationship mishaps magnified in last week’s episode by showing their impact in real world terms. Dom, Patrick, and Agustin all need a little bit of help in the relationship department. Unlike Sex and the City, the show to which it’s most commonly compared, Looking has a more nuanced and organic understanding of the love lives of its protagonists. True, it’s easy to see how Patrick’s gun-shy tendencies are comparable to Carrie’s, and the ways in which Dom’s early-mid life crisis mirrors Samantha’s relationship with Smith Jerrod, but at this point I’m genuinely unsure if Patrick will end up with Richie, or if Dom will get out of his own way and realize that Lynn is good for him. (I’m throwing a little bit of unnecessary shade here: Sex and the City is a sex-positive display of complex, independent women that was and would likely still be groundbreaking, and which I emphatically loved. Looking’s comparisons to it are both understandably flattering and reductive in equal measure.)

Following an impromptu and overdue display of truth last week, Agustin returns to the home which Frank has politely asked him to vacate. Frank brushes aside his sincere apologies by telling him about himself:  “You don’t know who you are” is the most damning of his exhortations, and it seems pretty clear that this chapter of Agustin’s life is over and he’s now forced to face the realities of who he is and the consequences of what he’s done. Frank is right, of course, and Agustin’s new rock-bottom status is likely the only and best thing could incite some self realizations. From the outset Agustin was the most grating character, by design, because his emptiness is masked by wit and bravado, and that takes some time to establish. He’s a lost soul who has emerged as the most tragic of the three leads, masking insecurity with hipster bravado in a Gen Y display of ennui instantly recognizable to the show’s core audience.

Dom brushed off Lynn in the anxiety of his pop-up prep, and Lynn reacted accordingly by stepping back and letting Dom take the lead in their restaurant endeavor. On opening day Lynn is nowhere to be found, and when he finally arrives with unexpected arm-candy in tow he’s pleasantly curt in an obligatory appearance. Doris, wondrous badass that she is, notices the coldness between them and advises him that “Dom is worth it.” In Doris we trust, so I’m taking her lead here.  Lynn maintains caution by brushing Dom off at the end of the night when Dom asks what their next steps are. He kisses Lynn, and they continue kissing and it’s a beautiful moment. But it’s also an uncomfortable moment because, as an audience member, you know that Lynn is good for Dom but you’re not really sure if Dom is taking this step out of professional self-interest. I hope not, but expect this quandary to dominate Dom’s story in season 2.

After last week’s pre-wedding kerfuffle with Richie, Patrick extends an olive branch by visiting Richie’s work to gauge the extent of the damage. Richie isn’t ready, and coldly says he needs time and will reach out when he wants to talk. Fair enough. In the meantime, Kevin tries several times to apologize for his drunken advances, but Patrick tells him, equally as coldly, that it’s unnecessary and water under the bridge. Coldness is the best/worst cover for fiery passion, and this comes to a head when Kevin in no uncertain terms lures Patrick to the office and professes his indefatigable lust. Sexy, sexy, sexy kissing ensues, as does a very meaningful act of anal sex in which Patrick is the recipient. If you’ll recall, he mentioned to Richie that he’s not comfortable with anal sex, but that he wanted eventually to do it with him because he trusts him. Well to hell with all that, because Kevin goes right into the ass on his first try. Does Patrick getting butt-fucked actually carry a lot of implications about which guy is a better match? It just might. (Though I hope not because Richie is amazing.)

Richie stops Patrick on his way home and tells him with heartbreaking candor that he’s this close to falling in love but that he doesn’t think Patrick is ready for the commitment. Haigh frames the scene perfectly with no cutaways or reverse shots, focusing with precision on the emotional stakes. Patrick starts crying as Richie kisses him on the cheek and walks away. It’s a crushing display of truth that hits close to home for anyone who’s ever felt they’ve not been worthy of the love that someone has been offering. In my heart, I feel like Patrick belongs with Richie, but, like Agustin, and maybe like Dom, he’s just not made enough progress to avail himself to what he deserves.

Patrick returns home to find newly homeless Agustin asleep on his bed. We hear that he’s watching an episode of Golden Girls on his laptop, and Haigh lingers on the dialogue of Blanche and Dorothy for a considerable amount of time. It’s a melancholy and particularly uplifting way to end the season, as it’s virtually impossible not to have the “thank you for being a friend” theme song in your head as the credits roll. It may’ve taken a minute for Looking to find its rhythm, but thank you to Andrew Haigh and HBO for creating such an intimate and finely observed display of the human condition.

Close Watch: ‘Looking’ Episode 7

Share Button

The penultimate episode of Looking’s first season is uncomfortable and heartbreaking in every way that it should be, as it circles back to each of the character’s major flaws while at the same time attempting to rectify them slowly.  At this point, Patrick, Dom, and Agustín are on parallel paths of self-destruction made marginally navigable by willpower. They’re each circumspect with regards to relationships—as we all are, really— hiding their fears of commitment and trying to battle through demons in an effort to allow themselves the chance of happiness. They’ve still got a ways to go, though.

Patrick is a mess as he preps for his sister’s wedding, a meeting with his high-strung mother (played with matriarchal mastery by Julia Duffy), and the introduction of new boyfriend Richie to his preemptively judgmental family. He’s nervous anyway because he doesn’t know what he really wants even though he thinks he does, and when he’s forced to deal with situations with actual stakes he tends to seize up. He’s snippy with Richie—but I have to say that I completely get where Patrick is coming from here. Richie chooses the most inopportune time to try and tie Patrick’s bowtie during a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge( the SFO landmark making its overdue debut), as if the stress of driving in traffic across an elevated platform needs to be exacerbated by a bowtie-tying passenger. Patrick freaks when they pull over and Richie tries to get him to smoke some pot to calm down and Richie bolts, mumbling “I knew you weren’t ready,” etc. But Richie should try and make the experience less about him and realize that, yes, maybe bringing pot to your boyfriend’s sister’s wedding where you’ll meet his family for the first time is not the best first impression. I’m giving Patrick a pass on this one.

One of the hallmarks of great television is when a show can successfully alternate between storylines without sacrificing momentum, and that’s proven to be the case with Looking, specifically with Agustín, whose character has forged the saddest arch. His abrasive condescension leaves you wondering how anyone could warm to him, particularly his boyfriend Frank, who seems like a genuine sweetheart.  Poring over the photos of his work with CJ, including the ones of Frank and CJ together, Agustín abruptly and unceremoniously cancels his upcoming art show. His self-loathing must have reached a boiling point as he tells this to Frank, who coordinated the show for him, and also admits that he paid CJ to fuck him. Frank has had enough and says quite calmly that he’s tired of the divide between them and that he wants Agustín to move out. You get the feeling this isn’t the sort of relationship that can be on again/off again, and Agustín in particular needs to go through the wringer in order to make some progress. Alone and broke is probably the best place for him to be.

Dom, too, is trying to make it work, and with the help of Lynn as his savior and pseudo-suitor, it might just happen. Like Patrick, he’s freaking out about the potential of something good happening to him, his peri-peri pop-up, and with good reason; it’s been long in the pipeline, and is the only tangible outlet he has at present.  Lynn is footing the bill and as such is his business partner, but Dom rebuffs all of his well-intentioned advice rather coarsely, leaving Lynn with nothing to do but throw up his hands and let Dom make a go of it himself. Lynn’s response is more understandable than Richie’s, and anyway Lynn is the sort to forgive and forget…hopefully.

There’s a rather ridiculous conceit drawing Patrick and hunky boss Kevin together at his sister’s wedding (he’s there for the following wedding), but it creates the necessary relationship drama that will likely carry through the newly pick-up season 2- Richie is great, but maybe he’s too great for Patrick to realize; meanwhile, Kevin is sexy and British, and there’s an easy chemistry between them, but who’s to say what he’s really like. Kevin drunkenly corners Patrick and kisses him, with Patrick rather unexpectedly pushing Kevin away. Is Patrick learning not to mix business and pleasure? Was it a reflex because he’s with Richie? Who knows.

In a great scene, Patrick and his mother have a heart-to-heart in which Patrick blames Richie’s not coming on the stress he feels to live up to her impossible expectations. She’s not having any of this misplaced blame assignation, and tells him as much. As we move into the season finale, we have three characters on the brink of happiness: Dom with his restaurant and the as yet undefined relationship with Lynn; Patrick with the difficult choice between Richie or Kevin; Agustín facing some overdue solitude and reflection.

Close Watch: ‘Looking’ Episode 6

Share Button

The realist approach Haigh and co. have taken with Looking is finally paying off in the sixth episode—the certainly, the best  yet. It’s taken some time for the characters to feel habitable, even though the idea is that they’re real people that we could really know. “Why should I care about these people?” is one comment I’ve heard fairly often. This characterization technique necessitates patience from an audience, but for those who are willing to make the journey, a beautiful show is emerging.

After last week’s Patchie close reading (Patrick and Richie? Too much?), things go back to normal as each of the characters is allotted an equal share of space. Things begin where they left off, as Patrick nervously tries to prep Richie for meeting his friends at Dom’s upcoming 40th birthday party. Patrick is, understandably, a bit nervous, and during the course of the conversation says that he’s excited for people “to meet his boyfriend,” for the first time referring to Richie by this moniker. Richie teases him at first that he didn’t know that he was his boyfriend, but, because he’s perfect (too perfect?), he’s just poking fun at Patrick’s needless anxiety.

Over in Agustín’s world, his somewhat new boyfriend Frank is going to be introduced to someone who’s become important to him—CJ, the escort-cum-art muse in whom Agustín has been finding some much needed inspiration. His work with CJ is not entirely on the up and up of course, as Frank has no idea that Agustín has been paying him $220/hour for the time they’ve been spending—also, how the hell can Agustín pay that as an out of work artist?).

The early stages of Dom’s restaurateuring seem to be going fairly well, as new friend/hopeful love interest Lynn (Stott Bakula) introduces him to some potential investors. Dom cooks everyone his perry perry chicken and hopes for some love to be thrown his way. He’s looking for a real love (Mary J Blige knows best) even if he doesn’t realize it. His promiscuity is something he’s teased about all the time (by Patrick, as he tells Frank that the two met by hooking up but by now Patrick is “a bit too old for him,” and by his BFF Doris (my current favorite person in the world) who teases that he’s worked his way through every busboy at Zuni). Now on the eve of his 40th birthday, Dom invites Lynn to his gathering but Lynn declines, probably because he’s weary of blurring the lines between business and romantic involvement.

At Dom’s park-set birthday everyone gathers for merriment, clearly the recipe for interpersonal disaster. Agustín is immediately bitchy when Richie is introduced as Patrick’s boyfriend, and he continues to be bitchy or downright awful for the rest of the episode by constantly throwing little digs here and there. At one point he corners Patrick and asks what he’s doing “slumming” with Richie, thinking, of course, that he knows Patrick so well as to pinpoint his exact motivations. This might be true, but it’s clearly not the right time or place for this discussion. Richie hears and tells Agustín off right quick, and he seems genuinely mortified to have been heard saying something so low, evidenced by the fact that he tells Frank and CJ as much. In reality he’s just projecting his own insecurities, because Frank and CJ have hit it off and that has ignited all those dark, ugly recesses of the human psyche.

There are some lovely moments, such as when Lynn sends flowers to Dom and Doris just about wants to announce an engagement between the two. I’m a big fan of the show’s subtle commentary on the insidious ubiquity of social media—which is shown most clearly through Dom and Lynn’s interactions. Dom shows up to Lynn’s later in the evening, apologizing for showing up unannounced and asking if Lynn received his texts. “I don’t have my phone beside me 24 hours a day,” he coolly responds, and the commentary follows as Lynn is clearly the most adjusted, grounded person on the show—and maybe that Dom has ever met. He relays the bad news that the potential investors aren’t interested but that he wants to help Dom set up a pop shop to create some buzz. In a moment of sincerity, Dom goes in for a kiss, but Lynn smartly rebuffs the advance. I think that Dom is developing some genuine feelings for Lynn, and this relationship is the most interesting of the three at the moment.

The episode closes with each of the characters’ relationships in a tenuous spot. Richie is visibly hurt that Patrick didn’t tell Agustín off himself and that he wasn’t always introduced as his boyfriend even though Patrick offered the idea. Patrick tries to reassure him of his commitment by inviting him to his sister’s wedding to meet his family, but after Agustín has sown the seeds of Patrick’s doubt it’s hard to not wonder if what he says about Patrick might have some sad truth to it. After hitting it off, Frank and CJ become part of Agustín’s “art project” as Agustín films the two having sex(is Agustín paying $220 for this, too?). In the background he watches an unexpectedly intense sexual connection, further adding on to his insecurities, now in an even more personal way.

Indie stalwart Joe Swanberg directed the episode, and his intimate signature is stamped all over it. I get the feeling that Richie might need to be training ground for Patrick, who just isn’t ready to let himself love and be loved. The same thing might be happening for Agustín as well, even though he feels mostly like an asshole, that there is so much affected assholery coming from him really just lets you know that he’s drowning in doubt. Dom may be finally availing himself to love, but Lynn doesn’t seem like the rushing type, and in Lynn we trust.

The gritty nature of friendship has become one of the show’s truest representations. Sometimes the people who’ve known you the longest are the ones most resistant to your personal growth. Is Agustín bad for Patrick? Is Dom just the father figure through whom Patrick is searching for approval? Time will tell.

Close Watch: ‘Looking’ Episode 5

Share Button

As expected, the first part of the second half of Looking’s premiere season was all about Patrick and his bright young romance with Richie. So far we’ve gotten to know Patrick only nominally even though he’s the show’s protagonist; awkward reveals and embarrassing innuendo only get you so far. The obfuscation of Patrick’s character is purposeful: At times it’s felt as though he’s been underdeveloped, but Patrick’s boyish charm and amiability hides his inability to know who he really is. Instead, he becomes who everyone else wants him to be.

This fifth episode functions as a close reading, with writer/director Andrew Haigh showcasing the intimacy qualities of his film Weekend by choosing to focus exclusively on the quiet moments in Patrick and Richie’s burgeoning relationship. Things are going well so far. They wake up together for some kissing and oral sex (no there was no penis shown), and Patrick comments that he’s “been late to work 6 times” already and that he really needs to get going. So it’s probably been a few weeks since we last saw them on the dance floor and it looks as though Patrick has yet to fuck things up. This is a good thing. Of course he blows off work, and the two spend a romantic day wondering around San Francisco, with Richie leading the way to some of his favorite destinations.

Over breakfast the big A finally gets discussed after Richie mentions that he doesn’t often swallow cum; an admission of trust if I’ve ever heard one. Until now, AIDS has been conspicuously absent from the dialogue of three sexually active gay men in San Francisco. Patrick can barely stifle his amazement when Richie casually mentions that a former boyfriend of his was poz and that it didn’t matter to him because they were in love. Patrick gives a too-quick “of course, sure” sort of response, which leads you to believe that he’s probably not the kind of person who would be comfortable doing the same (those people are usually ignorant assholes). Twice more in the episode Patrick awkwardly and offhandedly references AIDS when it’s not part of the general conversation, and it’s these kinds of subtleties that finally start to reveal a person’s true character. He’s nervous and somewhat of a control freak.

To that point, Patrick admits that he’s not comfortable bottoming after Richie teases him that he has “bottom shame.” This discursive injection is the sort of thing I live for. After comparing their dynamic to Ross/Rachel on Friends, Patrick begrudgingly acknowledges that he’d be uncomfortable if his parents knew that he liked to get fucked in the ass because this is a position of weakness and one often misunderstood as being passive and effeminate (we all know bottoms really have all the power). Here again Haigh digs a bit deeper into what it is that makes Patrick tick, with his inability to relax being symptomatic of a general inability to fully embrace his sexuality, something to which Agustin alluded in last week’s episode.

Patrick continues to be ever so slightly overbearing and nagging, at one point with Richie even acknowledging that Patrick is ruining the romantic mood as the two look out over the ocean at sunset. He bemoans a cultural tradition of Richie’s wherein a fortune-teller answers questions Richie may have by reading the yolks of eggs (BYO eggs, btw). Yeah it sounds a bit nutty to me too, but hey we’ve all got our thing. And that’s exactly how Richie responds when Patrick keeps needling him about it. Richie takes him to see that woman but they decide that, since Patrick doesn’t speak Spanish, it’s best to put this bit of sharing on hold for the time being.

The episode ends with the two back in bed. Patrick opens up a little more by telling Richie that he does want Richie to fuck him, just not quite yet. It’s a sweet little moment in its own way (yes, buttsex can be sweet too) because it shows that Patrick is finally willing to open up and let someone in (insert your own joke). Richie has done a lot of sharing, too, but he’s clearly the more emotionally available of the two. Tonight’s episode was all about understanding Patrick and his myriad flaws, and getting to know him as he gets to know himself.

Close Watch: ‘Looking’ Episode 4

Share Button

 

Ahhh, the episode in which Looking finally seems to be finding its groove. Haigh and company introduce some gravitas at the halfway mark of the season, and it’s about time; even I, a fan of the show, was starting to get bored with the protracted setup in the opening trio of episodes.

Patrick and dreamy Dumbo-eared boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) work alone in the office on a Sunday to try and hammer out the kinks in a new video game; meanwhile some actual kink is taking place outside in the form of the Folsom Street Fair. This sexual/professional juxtaposition clearly defines the show at this point. The chemistry between them is magnified about a zillion percent this episode in a desperately overdue effort to introduce some real drama into Patrick’s life. Their coy flirting is a welcome change of pace as Patrick finally seems more at ease with himself—perhaps acting a fool loosens his inhibitions with people. They talk about Kevin’s long-distance relationship and the barely codified need for someone “who understands their work.”

Meanwhile, Agustin drags Patrick down to the escapades below, which are sadly devoid of the nudity or graphic displays of sexuality characteristic of the Folsom Street Fair (is this HBO’s attempts at censoring an otherwise famously uninhibited queer environment?). They have lunch with CJ, the escort whom Agustin serendipitously met in last week’s episode, and they discuss, barely, the “art project” that Agustin wishes to pursue with him. At first it feels like a bullshit excuse to fuck this arrogantly sexy sex worker (it’s still $220 an hour whether they fuck or not, btw), but we find out later that the project is legit and that Agustin’s boyfriend is aware and supportive of it. The confidence exuded by CJ has awakened Agustin’s sense of self, at least artistically.

Dom, too, seems to be doing a better job of managing his mojo after his own serendipitous introduction to Lynn (Scott Bakula) in the sauna, and now he’s ready to take his career by the reins. Their easy rapport indicates that more than a friendly business relationship might be in store, but for the moment it’s Lynn’s connections and entrepreneurial prowess in which Dom is interested as he starts the arduous task of putting into motion a new business. He takes his new friend to lunch and then later offers to come to his home to cook the famed Portuguese chicken on which he aims to market his new culinary endeavor, and yes there is a very corny “I want you to taste my chicken” pun along the way. Lynn is understandably confused about Dom’s intentions and says so twice, but as he noted when they first met, Dom’s reputation as a player is one he knows well, and for the moment he seems to be willing to ride out the beginning of this exciting new relationship prospect.

Patrick’s glib comments on Agustin’s interest in CJ come right back at him when Agustin bitchily asks “what do you know about intimacy?” Patrick chalks his perpetual singledom up to not having “found the right one” and a refusal to compromise, but Agustin rightly notes that Patrick lives in a constant state of compromise, case in point the “phantom relationship” he’s having with his boss who will go back home to his boyfriend after whatever hijinks in the office might ensue. Thankfully the harsh words get through to Patrick and he backs away from Kevin later in the episode by withdrawing from the office, commenting on the work they’re doing “it isn’t going anywhere.” Good for him.

The gang meets back up at Stud, an appropriate venue at which to wind down after Folsom, and Patrick runs into Richie, aka the one that got away, aka the circumcised hairdresser. In maybe his first true display of honesty, Patrick opens up to Richie by apologizing for his idiotic behavior on their date and asks rather desperately if he should just leave him alone. Richie doesn’t say anything, waits for a second, then gives a small grin. The episode ends with Patrick and Richie slow dancing; no voiceover, no dialogue added. For the first time, too, Looking seems to be off and running. I got goosebumps when the handsome couple snuggled up to each other on the dance floor, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a Carrie/Big vibe from the whole thing. Though I guess if we’re being honest in this case it’s more a Charlotte/Harry dynamic, since Patrick’s willful self-sabotaging is the biggest obstacle thus far, as was Charlotte’s. Uber gay comparisons notwithstanding, the tumult promised by Richie and Patrick’s relationship is an exciting prospect for viewers.

Part of the reason this episode resonates more than the others is that it feels specific to a place and time rather than being a general overview of gay life. San Francisco becomes an environment around which events transpire, and this bit of localizing infuses some much needed texture to a show that sells itself on realism.

Next week’s episode looks to be solely about Richie and Patrick, so expect that storyline to dominate as we ease into the home stretch of season 1.

Close Watch: ‘Looking’ Episode 3

Share Button

With only an eight episode arch, the first season of Looking is already, in its third episode, staring down the barrel of establishing stakes and moving along characters after barely introducing them. This forced expedience isn’t the show’s fault, particularly, as HBO ordered a short first season as a test run—but the third episode is easily the weakest thus far, and perhaps unavoidably so.  Patrick, Dom, and Agustin have all been, to varying degrees of success, adequately drawn, and we know more or less what each of the characters is searching for even though we don’t really know why they’re looking for it.

The headlining trio in “Looking at Your Browser History’” mostly operates solo, which is perhaps itself a reference back to the episode’s title. Patrick’s journey is specifically focused on the professional, even though he succumbs to his self-sabotaging ways almost immediately by needlessly personalizing them. At a work function he crassly hits on, and is rejected by, the hot new guy who turns out to be his new hot gay boss. Like each of his other interactions with people who aren’t his friends, this one is jeopardized immediately by a seemingly indefensible awkwardness that’s beginning by now to feel a bit inauthentic. Patrick is smart, cute, and with a good job; what he’s insecure about will perhaps be the shows biggest conundrum moving forward. His lack of self-awareness seems to stretch the show’s plausibility more than anything else at the moment.

Agustin gets the most airtime of the three, and it’s overdue. Until this point his character feels the most amorphous—even though he’s moved in with his boyfriend and introduced polyamory into the relationship, his facile hippie persona feels to be the most put on by the bunch. At the beginning of the episode his boyfriend nudges him towards showing his work in an accessible art gallery, but the idea is quickly shot down by the quite plain fact that he has no art to show. His projection onto others about his own artistic insecurities manifests when he snaps at his artist boss (“it’s not your best work”), for whom he works as an assistant, and is summarily fired. A chance meeting with a confident sex worker sparks an interest, either because he envies the guy’s pride in his work (he’s got a business card), however unorthodox, or because he realizes his own talents are being wasted on a dream that may never come true.

The episode’s title comes courtesy of Patrick’s boss who, with some ingenious reverse psychology, tricks Patrick into a more pronounced work ethic at the sacrifice of web surfing OKCupid and Manhunt (do people still use that site?). As metaphors go, though, it’s clever: take a deep look into your past to see how you got to where you are. What have you been browsing, and at what expense? It’s the driving force behind each of the characters’ gradual transitions this episode, with Haigh establishing moral quandaries that will likely be addressed moving forward. Patrick needs to find out who he is before he’ll know what he wants; some introspection would greatly benefit Agustin with regards to his newly nascent relationship and artistic pursuits.

The cache on Dom’s browsing history was temporarily reset in last week’s episode when he confronted past demons in an effort to move forward. Here, he deals with the aftermath of that reality, which means that he needs to get his shit together and quickly. Plans to start his own restaurant may finally be coming together, with or without the $8k he’s not getting back from his ex. He goes back to the comfort of an old friend, casual sex, and in the process meets a man in the sauna of a gym (Scott Bakula) who refers to Dom as “something of an institution,” a sly nod to Dom’s sexual prowess. They part ways when Dom goes after a guy who’s cruising him from the other room, but before they part Dom suggests they meet up at another point. It’s unclear if it’s for friendship or a date, but either way the guy seems stable and nice and just like what Dom needs at this point.

So what would we find on each of their browsing history? For Patrick, who the hell knows? For the most part his past is completely undefined, other than that we know that his longest relationship has been for five months. His flightiness has started to go from endearing to grating, but, as the show’s lead, he’s obviously going to experience some growing pains in the near future. We’d probably see a lot of casual acquaintances, forced laughter, and time spent alone eating macaroni and cheese. Same goes for Agustin, even though he’s a few years older than Patrick. He’s affected the brooding artist vibe, but maybe he doesn’t even buy that anymore. He’s probably had ten too many pretentious conversations about his art and what it means to be an artist as a defense mechanism against his own insecurity. Dom is the easiest to read, a guy who engages in anonymous/casual sex to buffer the pain that goes along with loneliness. The relationship with his ex really did a number, and the mid-life crisis he’s now experiencing is maybe the last chance he’ll get to turn his life around.

Towards the end of the episode Patrick says to Agustin, “I don’t know if either of us is very good at being who we think we are.” Here’s hoping they get some clarity on that in the coming episodes.

Close Watch: ‘Looking’ Episode Two

Share Button

Of the much and varied discourse surrounding Looking’s first 30 minutes, the most common criticism I read (except for that vile Esquire bullshit) was that the show is boring. Sure, maybe the characters are relatable, and not caricatures, but they’re not particularly engaging either. I heard this from a number of my gay friends, including my boyfriend, who after he watched the debut compared it to the show’s scheduled predecessor by saying, “At least with Girls there’s some spark to the writing, there’s nothing exciting about this show.” Fair enough.

The writing on Looking definitely isn’t as punchy or witty as Dunham’s. It’s an interesting argument to hear from gay people that the gay characters on a gay television show are too normal. Does that mean we’re post this sort of “let’s show real gay people doing real gay things” type of representation? If so, what would that look like, exactly? I have no idea, but it’s a fascinating discussion to be had, and I’m glad that, at the very least, there’s finally a show that’s inspired it.

The second episode provides some historical context into what the guys are currently seeking—and why. Dom and Patrick help Agustin move from the big city over to Oakland, teasing him on the ride about his impending domestication. “Would you consider a three-way to be domestic?” he snaps back. This internalized back/forth conflict continues throughout the episode for Agustin, as he tries to reconcile a life that he seemingly wants, settled with Frank in a house (a suburban surrogate), with the polyamory to which he’s become accustomed as a single city dweller. It feels a bit like he’s pushing this sexual openness onto his boyfriend, even though they pursued that twink with some shared vigor in the previous episode. This push/pull towards domesticity is evidenced later when Agustin wants to go out and do something, with Frank replying quite normally that it’s “OK to stay home sometimes.” Agustin’s journey is manifested quite literally as a transition from one place to another.

Dom, on the other hand, likes to fuck the pain away, and he does just that by finding a guy from his building on Grindr and pounding that bottom out (hello, Daddy). The momentary satiation of this unsustainable practice is not lost on him, as he soon meets up with “the one,” that formative relationship from his past that was referenced in the opening episode. That guy fucked him over, physically and emotionally, leaving him, it seems, incapable of commitment due to a lack of resolution over how things ended. Their meeting doesn’t give Dom what he’s looking for because the guy, still an asshole, makes it all about his own amends rather than attempting to help Dom come to terms with the lingering effects he brought on. He’s disingenuous at that, with his glossy L.A. language and pretentious food orders. You get a sense just how important this guy was when Dom re-confronts the guy later by asking for his $8,000 back, money that Dom willingly gave to help get him through a meth-induced rehab stint. The guy has a lot of money now from real-estate success but refuses to pay it back because it was willingly given to him, not lent. He throws it in Dom’s face that he needs to let go of the past and blah blah blah. Dom is left without either his money or his resolution, because now he’s forced to face the sobering fact that maybe the guy has a point.

Then there’s Patrick, who says that he’s looking for a relationship but really just wants to fuck Richie, the cute Latino hairstylist he met on the Muni, as a show to his friends that he’s not “fresh off the boat” and can handle the prospect of having fuck buddies. Their date is awkward, mostly because Patrick seems to be fighting his own instincts by being overly sexually aggressive with this very nice guy. Dom and Agustin tease him that he should be ready to be with an uncut dick, and hence the episode’s title “Looking for Uncut.” Patrick’s awkwardness outweighs his charms, as he creepily fetishizes Richie at every turn, being disappointed when, SHOCK, he’s not actually uncut. Richie bolts, telling Patrick that “they’re looking for different things.” In reality they probably aren’t, but Patrick is so in-his-head and unsure of who he is as a person that he doesn’t know who or what he’s looking for. Hence the title of the show, duh.

Haigh wrote and directed the episode, and its frank dialogue and depictions of sex are still a welcome change of pace for me. The uncut referenced in the title might just as well be about foreskin as it is the unfiltered truth for which the guys all search (a clever pun, really). It’ll be interesting to see if Looking addresses the very unavoidable reality of AIDS, something that sexually active, datable urban gays have to deal with on a daily basis. If it’s not addressed, it’ll very much be the representational elephant in the room that cultural diversity is on Girls (or will be on Looking, but that’s another story.).

Eyeing the Future With HBO’s ‘Looking’ and ‘Girls’

Share Button

HBO’s new series Looking, about three male friends in San Francisco, looks like as an early nineties independent film, and is as different from the other HBO show Girls, to which it’s being endlessly and inevitably compared.  It feels preposterous to write about authenticity on television, much less to look for it, but it’s here, inside this essential new show. Between the hovering, nearly incidental long shots of early morning San Francisco where the series is filmed, and the exceptionally strong and naturalistic performances, Looking, is textured in something that feels a lot like reality.

The series stars Jonathan Groff as Patrick, a winsome 29-year-old video game designer, prone to mortifying interpersonal fumbles. Newly single and struggling to find the right guy, his blithe attempts to connect continuously misfire, leading each of his dates to cut the night short. His friend Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), an artist who helps other artists make their art at the expense of making his own, has just moved in with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) who doesn’t seem to share his views on monogamy. At 39, Dom (Murray Bartlett) is the oldest of the three, but eight years on, he’s still waiting tables at Zuni, having done nothing about starting his own restaurant. A fading lothario, Dom is beginning to feel his age; the younger men he was once able to seduce now rebuff him. That these three men all happen to be gay is what’s novel about this series; it’s the first of its kind to normalize homosexuality.

Stripped of the self conscious sexual referencing that reinforces stereotypes, Looking, doesn’t dress gayness up like an exaggerated character actor.  Here, it’s incidental, just like the hovering early morning long shots of San Francisco, and this allows viewers the room to connect. As remarkable as what this series does, is what it doesn’t do; it doesn’t skewer the culture it represents nor does it protect itself from its own self-consciousness with one-liners and overly constructed banter. The characters are able to laugh at themselves in ways that are funny and relatable, but one of its many successes is its ability to explore universal topics (relationships, monogamy, love) as it applies to gay men in a rapidly shifting culture. In other words, Looking is not about gayness, it’s not gay-centric and it’s not the “gay Girls” and it’s precisely what it’s not that makes this show tremendously good, and dare I say…significant.

Its significance is not simply that it’s on television, but that it’s saying something about what it means to be human in a world that is increasingly unforgiving of people’s successes, failures, choices and flaws (for more on this read the entire internet). At one point, after talking about their career failures, Patrick turns to Agustin and says, “I don’t know if either of us are very good at being who we think we are” and that’s why this show feels important, because it’s not focused solely on the sexuality of its characters as though that was all there was to them. It’s a show about being human, about conscious people trying to find the dividing line between who they think they are, and who they say they are, and in that way, it’s about authenticity, and it succeeds on almost every level.

Based as they are on personal desires, expectations are dangerous, and they were high for this show’s premiere, as they were for Girls.  With high expectations comes backlash (which is often just hostile envy dressed in a different name), but just as no one person can meet another’s every need, no one television show is going to represent everyone who feels they might identify, and demanding more of something only to complain it’s the wrong something once we get it, is creating a have-it-both-ways culture, and much (though not all) of the backlash creates a distraction, turning everyone’s attention away from whatever minor progress is in process, redirecting the attention back to those who didn’t see themselves reflected on television.

The conversation is an important one to have, but it should not come at the expense of acknowledging the small advancements. After all, change doesn’t happen all at once, that’s why it’s called change. Women didn’t get the right to vote on a Saturday and wake up to the premiere of Girls on Sunday. It took decades to advance to this not very advanced place; of course it’s incomplete, but doesn’t that just give you hope? Isn’t the bright side here that because this is a process, our future chances are being built right now, for every last one of us?

_________________________________________________________________________

Amanda Stern is the author of twelve novels; eleven for children and one for adults. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times MagazineNew York Post, Post Road, Salon.com, Five Chapters, The Believer, Salt Hill and St. Ann’s Review, among others. Several of her personal essays have been anthologized and her interview with Laurie Anderson is forthcoming in Confidence, or the appearance of Confidence: The Best of the Believer Music Interviews, out in February 2014. She’s the founder of the Happy Ending Music and Reading Series in NYC. She’s working on her next two books. 

Close Watch: The Premiere of HBO’s ‘Looking’

Share Button

For all the rights and acceptance the queer community has gained in recent times, the cultural feel-goodery hasn’t exactly spilled over into lots of gay themed television shows (the prospects are only marginally better in film). ABC Family—of all places—has been leading the charge (for less than a year, mind you) for scripted shows (no reality shows and the entire Bravo network does not count) with their lesbian parenting drama The Fosters, but there’s been nothing prominent since Showtime’s cheesily of-its-time Queer as Folk to deal directly and exclusively with gay male protagonists and the day to day routine of what’s it’s like to be living as a gay man.

Expectations for HBO’s Looking are high for the handful of us who saw executive producer Andrew Haigh’s nearly-perfect film Weekend, one of the few films in history that has so poignantly and plainly captured the gamut of gay life. The most common comment found in the film’s universally hailed reviews is that it presents real characters, not caricatures, of gay men. The guys in Weekend weren’t your gay best friend who works as a designer; they were just guys who were doing their thing.  Haigh’s serialized follow-up arrives as an oasis in an exceedingly parched desert. There have been lots of shows featuring well-drawn gay characters (no, not Modern Family), but if we’re talking about shows primarily about gay men and their lives, the landscape is mostly barren (though FX did just premiere its animated gay rapper comedy Chozen).

The opening episode follows Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Agustin (Frankie Alvarez), and Dom (Murray Bartlett), a trio of friends living in modern day San Francisco. They’re all “looking” for something, but thankfully that thing does not seem to be a way out of the closet. Each man, ranging from 29 to early 40s, respectively, is perfectly comfortable with their identity. The creators eschew this understandable but now rote narrative arch in a refreshing change of pace that immediately sets the show apart from most well-meaning depictions of gay characters that have seemed to want to solve the riddle of self-acceptance.

Here, these guys, too, are just living their lives. Patrick, the youngest of the bunch, is a preppy blue-eyed tech guy who designs video games for a living and whose ex (the breakup was complicated) is getting married. We’re introduced to him during a failed and hilariously awkward hookup in a public park, followed shortly thereafter by an awful and painfully unfunny OK Cupid date. Given the range of these events (anonymous public sex in the afternoon to pre-arranged date with a doctor in the evening), it’s clear that what Patrick is looking for most is some direction. These initial strained attempts at making a connection portend that his journey is going to be through the murky waters of becoming a 30something and dealing with attendant identity crises. The same goes for Dom, a waiter at an upscale restaurant who wants to fuck away his loneliness, and Agustin, whose decision to finally take the plunge and move in with his boyfriend might be compromised by the consequences of a steamy threesome.

Yes, they all have sex, because gay men have sex and that’s a part of their (our) reality. But the first episode of Looking already hits much deeper than some approved urban gay checklist; again, these feel like people we might know rather than stock characters. Patrick (known to his friends as Patty) gets hit on by a guy on Muni (yes this happens often), SFO’s public transportation, but shyly brushes off his invitation to a party, likely as a result of the day’s preceding events. He proceeds to his ex’s bachelor party, splits with Dom for the night, then, feeling somewhat deflated, ends up at the party that the guy on the train invited him to in the first place. He likely didn’t intend to go, but he’s taking chances and finding his way, and we’re along for the ride.

Another immediately refreshing  part of the show is that there’s no sense of exoticism or trepidation among the various actions the guys go through on a daily basis. They’re not entitled wasps: we see them work and struggle. It’s nice (and again refreshing) that the characters are not all chiseled muscle bunnies or identifiable gay hook-up types, though foreseeable backlash from the gay community might ensue as a result (are there enough bears? What about otters?). Dom likely rested on his looks in his youth, but now that he’s in his 40s, he’s looking for something a bit more sustainable to fall back on. Agustin is a pot-smoking, bearded and tattooed laid back California type. Patrick is by far the most clean-cut of the bunch, but you get the feeling that there’s more than meets the eye there too.

The episode ends with the possibility of one more connection for Patrick, even if it’s a failed one, and after just thirty minutes with this bunch they already feel like a group of old friends.  Comparisons to Girls and Sex and the City will be irrepressible (and apt) from both critics and champions, but even if Looking only wants to queer those famed adult coming-of-age narratives, we’re in for a treat. Of course, part of and probably the primary reason for the paucity of gay-themed TV and film is that when they do exist (like Haigh’s Weekend, for example) they haven’t drawn enough viewer or profit for networks and distributors to want to take a chance. Kudos to HBO for leading the charge. Now go watch the show and tell your friends to watch too, so we can continue to have nice things.