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

by Matt Brennan
March 10, 2014 2:03 PM
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"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.


  • lepontboeuf | March 14, 2014 2:54 PMReply

    The slow pace may pay off in the long run as more and more people binge-watch and will be able to easily do so once popularity grows. Waiting for half hour episodes once a week with such a slow narrative is painful, but two or more at a time is nice. Binging on Downton or Game of Thrones can be exhausting.

    That finale was exquisite.

    I was interested to learn that nearly all of my straight friends (men and women) with HBO watch the show, several of whom said they just can't stand Girls anymore. (Caring about Marni and being subject[ed] to Hannah is not something I want to spend time doing, either.)

  • Ron H | March 12, 2014 8:37 PMReply

    Brilliant? Really? I guess the 435,000 viewers who tuned into the finale thought so but anyone with half a brain tuned out long before. It was (and remained) a turgid, tepid and soulless story of three incredibly boring guys who deserved pretty much everything bad that happened to them. Recently HBO has become fascinated with self-indulgent vanity projects like this and the wretched GIRLS. Good luck to them. It makes it much easier for folks to cut $15 from their cable and satellite bills.

  • Jer | March 11, 2014 1:00 PMReply

    Umm no it did not. It has gone from boring to cliche to more boring. I can't believe they renewed this show for another season. The characters are annoying, almost nothing happens, and there is no character development. I yawned through half the season and then just turned it off. And clearly I'm not alone. 500K viewers is nothing. This is a pet project basically for HBO at this point since it has so little viewership.

  • ENWW | March 10, 2014 11:34 PMReply

    Miring any conversation about LOOKING in the swamp of inherited narrative expectations is, while perhaps justifiable, unproductive, directing our attention downward away from the light of the show's polestar. What this compelling and soundly-argued essay fails to consider--not to its demerit--is the way in which LOOKING illuminates the often obfuscated class lines along which gay relationships (sexual, platonic or otherwise) form and fracture.

    In the finale, Frank argues Agustin's self-unawareness and generally reprehensible behavior is anchored by privilege ostensibly unshared. In an early episode, Patrick reprimands Agustin in a conversation about Richie's questionable status as a "cholo" with a line like, "Shut up, you're from Coral Gables, what do you know about being a cholo?" Patrick's retort nicely collapses two anxieties that undergird and propel the series' narrative: with how much force should privilege be counterbalanced, and does this counterbalancing act prove some differences are--for better or worse--nonnegotiable? Richie's mention of "his own stuff" re: where he's from, and the requisite hang-ups Patrick obviously has about this as well, precede the admission of proximal but unrealized amorosity.

    Bottom line: we gays need to do lots of things, and maybe Watch This Show should be higher on the list. Not as some bonding exercise organized around shared practices and shames (Grindr-ing, having family troubles, casually popping some ecstasy before our friend's Big Night at which our attendance has been mandated, etc), but to push against the alleged unity our rainbow flag symbolizes. Consciousness- and unity-building LGBT social movements are doing God's work, sure, but simultaneously reveal that while we might share the bright, interior light of queerness, that's not always singularly efficient for interrogating, or overcoming, the dark outsides we don't and--as LOOKING proves perfectly--sometimes can't share.

  • Justin | March 10, 2014 11:30 PMReply

    Agree that the series picked up as the season went on and the characters actually started to take on a life. Big problem is that they still haven't convinced us that Dom, Agustin and Patrick are actually friends. Lena Dunham solved that on "Girls" by having Hannah, Marnie and Jemma be college friends and Shosh be Jemma's cousin. And yes, college friends who have nothing in common still hang out two years after graduation. But not 5 years -- by the time they are 30, none of the girls from "Girls" will be friends. We get that. So why are Patrick and Agustin still buddies? What's the connection between Dom and the other two?

    "Queer As Folk" played the soap opera angle and so the sex scenes with Brian and Justin served a purpose-- to reaffirm the audience's belief that they really were right for each other, even if they didn't realize it themselves. Not sure what narrative device they serve on Looking other than titillation, though if the Richie-Patrick-Kevin triangle becomes a thing, then I withdraw that comment.

    And speaking of QAF - didn't that portray the world you are speaking of Matteww?

  • mattheww | March 10, 2014 10:22 PMReply

    You are seeing subtlety and the rhythms of life where I see formula. That Kevin would hook up with Patrick and then be standoffish afterwards, and that Richie would be waiting for Patrick when he got home all seemed preordained; watching it slowly unfurl exactly as expected was for me dispiriting. This is the easiest way to hook viewers -- get them invested in whether your lovelorn characters will hook up or not. It's been the engine of TV for years, so it works. It's not particularly ambitious though.

    And this is a gay show. Where long-term monogamous relationships happen in urban gay life but are hardly the norm. We say we want romance, but few of us have it because we don't *really* want it. We go out in groups and then hook up off Grindr or sidewalk sales or texts with people we met off Craigslist or at that thing that time, and even if we fell for any one of them, none of them are available because they're too busy happily hooking up with strangers too, which they aren't about to give up. I don't mean to imply I have never met a gay couple that is making it work, I have. In fact, two friends of mine recently got married. And had a three-way on their honeymoon. Gay men nearly tricked themselves off the face of the Earth, that's how much they can't stop tricking with total goddamn strangers by the dozen. I don't know if it's pretty or wise or sustainable or a good message to put "out there" but I do know it is the truth on the ground now as ever, and not a lick of it made its way into "Looking," which fraudulently and cynically transposed heterosexual dating customs and prudishness and morality onto gay men in order to make the result more palatable to straight people, who can have it, not that they want it. And the great honest show about gay life now remains unmade.

  • lepontneuf | March 14, 2014 2:42 PM

    I see no aspired heteronormativity or transposed prudishness and morality in this show. I see an honest show. Including Grindr and homophobic/HIVphobic portrayals of promiscuousness was a choice the writer chose not to make.

  • Jeff | March 11, 2014 1:03 PM

    Wow you really nailed it... Hetero-normative values to create a straight-friendly gay show... Its true. In reality these guys would be on grindr 24/7... Especially the "happily partnered" one...

  • DeanD | March 10, 2014 5:39 PMReply

    Looking has indeed come a long way and the finale was a watershed moment of realizing its potential. I still don't think effective storytelling should be so leisurely but the payoff ultimately made it worth it. Between the raw emotion, genuine passion and honest interactions, I am definitely looking forward to season 2.

  • FP | March 10, 2014 3:10 PMReply

    The show has a long way to go and very little time to get there to solve its character problems by end of season 2. It was a distant third among its lead-in shows, in ratings and quality, and barely registers in the same way more accomplished filmmakers presented other 1/2 hour shows in the past year, like FAMILY TREE or J'AIMEE, faulty as those shows were. LOOKING is the designer oxygen bar of HBO - nice to have but there's fresher air to breathe elsewhere.

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