"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.