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How HBO's 'Looking' Went from Boring to Brilliant

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! March 10, 2014 at 2:03PM

"Looking" began like most blind dates: awkwardly. It made introductions and exchanged pleasantries, but it was unsure of itself, and of us. With time, though, it eased up and leaned in close, becoming one of the best new series of the year. [SPOILERS below if you're not up to date.]
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'Looking'
'Looking'

"Looking" began like most blind dates: awkwardly. It made introductions and exchanged pleasantries, but it was unsure of itself, and of us. With time, though, it eased up and leaned in close, becoming one of the best new series of the year. (SPOILERS below if you're not up-to-date.)

Episodic television, like any relationship, has a funny way of sneaking up on you, and HBO's dramedy, which ended its first season Sunday night, is no different. The "profound boredom" and "muffled" "mediocrity" its detractors saw at the outset was overstated, but in the early going, creator Michael Lannan and stalwart writer-director Andrew Haigh ("Weekend") struggled to devise a structure with space for both dense character development and the series' off-the-cuff vibe. The resulting episodes are disjointed, though littered with note-perfect moments: watching Patrick (Jonathan Groff) divvy up the tab with a doctor after a horrible date, or Dom (Murray Bartlett) wind down from vaguely desolate Grindr sex with a squeaky-voiced neighbor, I couldn't help a knowing wince.

With the lovely fifth episode, though, the series finds its stride. In "Looking for the Future," Patrick ditches work to spend the day with Richie (Raul Castillo), his new love interest. As they amble through Golden Gate Park and clasp hands along the beach, "Looking" assumes the delicate sexiness of a flirtation, thrilling because the spell is so easily broken. It's as though allowing Patrick to come to the fore absolved the series of its obligation to squeeze three complete narratives into the half-hour format, and subsequent episodes feature Dom and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) echoing the same themes in other keys. "Looking," once halting, is now harmonious.

In retrospect, I wonder if the series' critics misread the script from the start. After all, this is what Patrick's been doing, too. The opening scene of the pilot shows him cruising in the woods, planting an unwarranted kiss on the bearded stranger who's trying to give him a handjob. Desperate to slough off the image of the naif "fresh off the bus," Patrick wrongly equates a specific brand of sexual adventure with his sexual orientation, and it's his bumbling attempts to adhere to this notion that bear the series' sharpest edges. "I don't know if either of us are very good at being who we think we are," Patrick tells Agustin. 

By design, "Looking" juxtaposes Patrick's perception of the gay experience with his individual experience of being (among other things) gay, and in doing so exposes a tension that serves as the first season's primary engine. Patrick's blandness is a feature, not a bug, anchoring the series' unassuming brilliance all along.

This article is related to: TV, Reviews, HBO, VOD, Genres, Drama, comedy, Critics, Looking, Television


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.