U looking for now?
For a show that’s not terribly exciting, Looking sure has generated a lot of scintillating conversation.
HBO’s new half-hour drama premiered last week with a lot of buzz and a decidedly mixed reception. Some found it up to snuff with HBO’s other properties, a refreshingly low-key look at a small segment of gay San Francisco. Others thought it was a snore. I was on the fence — relieved that it wasn’t just a soapy, sexed-up revamp of Queer As Folk, but also underwhelmed by the half-baked characters and their quarter-baked storylines.
The internet was jam-packed with commendations and criticism of the show, which is amusing because a series about heterosexuals dating and bantering in such a muted way would receive no attention at all. The real debate around Looking is in asking the question, “Are we ready to be bored by gays yet?”
Episode 2, “Looking For Uncut,” decides to liven things up a bit from “Looking For Now.” We get our first semi-explicit sex scene in grand, gratuitous premium cable fashion. There is discussion of ass-licking and uncut penises. Also, in an early scene, the guys go up a really big hill in their car, and then go down really fast. Exhilarating stuff here.
I’m being snarky. “Looking For Uncut” stays on the same course set by the pilot, for better or worse. Early on, there’s some light banter between the three central characters, who I still don’t entirely buy as a trio of gay buddies — for some reason, I can buy that the various pairs of them would be friends, but not all three of them together. Their dynamic feels a little too forced — for whatever reason, I’m failing to see the similarities and the bond between them. As Augustin moves out to Oakland, Patrick and Dom chatter about Agustin and Frank’s threeway and question whether or not monogamy is possible (not just in the gay community, but for all humans) before they break off into their separate storyline spheres and abandon Augustin in the quiet tedium of Oakland.
“Looking For Uncut” has one Latino man moving out of Patrick’s life just as another is moving in. I wish Looking had given some more time to actually developing some connection between Patrick and Augustin, because while Patrick is supposedly broken up at losing his roommate, Looking‘s audience hasn’t really invested in the relationship between these guys yet, even if we are engaged in the three as individuals. (And that is only true for some of us.) The scenes featuring all three of these guys are somehow the least convincing, while their interactions outside of each other are more grounded in reality. Dom’s relationship with Doris is a hell of a lot more convincing than his friendship with Patrick; Augustin and Patrick have a friendly phone chat that gets it more or less right, but it still falls short for me. (But is the threeway dynamic of the show’s leads working for everyone else?)
Instead, the main story follows Patrick as he heads out on his first real date with Richie, the scrappy Latino he met by happenstance on the train. (Who may or may not still think he’s an oncologist named Benjamin.) The date with Richie follows the exact same trajectory as last week’s date with Dr. Benjamin — Patrick drinks too much, makes a frankly sexual comment anyone should know better than to bust out on a first date, and the evening abruptly ends with Patrick being told by the gentleman in question that they’re “looking for different things.” Maybe this is to make a point about how Patrick’s bad dates are a pattern, how there’s really no difference between a stick-in-the-mud doctor and a charming hair stylist in training when Patrick’s just going to get drunk and run his mouth anyway. (Patrick, the problem is you.) But also, it kind of just feels like lazy writing.
Patrick and Richie’s date is more interesting than last week’s with Benjamin, because at least Richie is a reasonably appealing person who might be worth Patrick’s time, and Richie’s discomfort when Patrick laughs at seeing his (circumcised) penis is entirely justified. (No matter the reason, no one wants the removal of their underwear to be met with a chuckle.) The date is sufficiently real, just awkward enough for us to know it’s not going that well while the characters are still willing to see how the night plays out. Yes, this week, Looking takes us out on a mediocre date and even gets us into the bedroom, though we’re not really sure we want to be there. As often happens in life, it’s hard to tell yet if the tiny spark of chemistry between Patrick and Richie is romantically promising or fleeting and fading as they get to know each other. This aspect of the series is done reasonably well — but unless Jonathan Groff is playing Patrick as having a minor case of Asperger’s, his cluelessness and naivete are awfully hard to buy at times. Patrick’s big story this week is trying something new — not just a non-Caucasian, less educated guy from a very different background, but also an uncut penis. And even if we are to buy that Patrick has never seen (and practically never heard of) such a thing, is this ever such a big deal? It feels more like a rejected Charlotte story for Sex & The City than one fit for a gay San Franciscan pushing thirty. I’m not saying Looking needs to push the envelope too far, but the fact that this episode is titled “Looking For Uncut” signals that the writers thought they were being daring and naughty. Is it, though? Even the women of Sex & The City probably would have thought this debate was beneath them.
The underlying problem is not the lack of risque gay sex, though — it’s the inconsistency of Patrick’s character. He’s ostensibly the prude, but is he really? Just how much experience has he had? It might make sense if we established that he’d been in a long term relationship for the past eight years and thus off the market, but his longest relationship is less than six months! He’s 29! What (and who) has he been doing all this time? And why doesn’t he know that he should keep his cruising in the park and internet research on uncut Latin cocks to himself, at least until a second date? It feels like the writers have yet to get a grasp on this character (or maybe it’s Groff’s take on him). It’s interesting that Patrick is willing to take Richie for a test drive as a potential fuck buddy, but still can’t think of him as anything more of a hookup, because he’s not the type he typically goes for; but again, Looking is just grazing these issues rather than truly confronting them.
Regardless, nothing terribly dramatic or exciting happens between Patrick and Richie, so critics who find Looking boring still have plenty to complain about. The episode ends on a comedic note as Groff wolfs down a squishy bowl of homemade mac and cheese (while claiming it’s a salad… a kale salad… with chicken), which is funny in a broader way than most of the show’s sporadic, understated humor. (It might behoove Looking to continue in this direction, since the dramatic end of things has been such a non-starter.)
Meanwhile, Augustin’s big scene is a night on the couch with Frank, eating pizza and watching YouTube videos. (Yes, that’s seriously all that happens.) Frank wants to hang Augustin’s unicorn artwork in their new home; Augustin does not. (Oh, the drama!) We have now come to the point in pop culture when gays interior decorating is a legitimate C story. So… rejoice? Augustin’s storyline is clearly veering into the vicinity of being bored with a domestic, committed suburban life in Oakland, yet as with all of Looking‘s storylines thus far, it’s really only dipping a toe in and testing the water, as if to say, “Yeah, we might get around to actually exploring that in an episode or two. For now, please enjoy this absence of conflict.” At the moment, this is a mere suggestion of a future storyline, and a rather wishy-washy one. You’d think last week’s threeway would come after the subplot about Augustin and Frank moving in together, and Augustin craving more excitement. This week, it’s just redundant.
Dom is the most promising of Looking‘s trio so far, if only because he’s a shade more fucked up than Patrick or Augustin. He meets up with his formerly methed-out ex, who is now doing well for himself selling real estate in LA (and drinking Refresh tea in lieu of caffeine). He’s still a douche bag, and by the end of the episode Dom seems to have made progress in actually getting over him — which is good, because we don’t need a long, drawn-out arc between Dom and this “meth-head motherfucker.”
Dom’s telling-off of Ethan is the most “TV-ish” moment on Looking yet — something actually happened! Yelling and conflict! Drama! It’s the supposed closing-off of a loose end in a show that otherwise is reluctant to truly begin storylines, let alone finish them. In “Looking For Uncut,” Dom arranges a Grindr hookup (after an uncomfortably long stare at his intended partner’s picture, probably the longest anyone has ever looked at a single Grindr profile) with Alex, a downstairs neighbor. It’s a reasonably graphic and totally unnecessary sex scene, announcing Looking‘s arrival in HBO’s tawdry pantheon of series that show us sex because it’s premium cable and they fucking can.
Less expected is the end of the sequence, where Dom and Doris make fun of Alex while he sings Wicked show tunes in their shower. Why is he showering at Dom’s if he lives downstairs? When did Doris arrive, and why isn’t her presence more uncomfortable for all three parties? How long was this hookup, anyway? Six hours? None of this is plausible, but at least it’s an appearance by Doris, who always seems like she’s about to retreat to her bedroom to write a think piece criticizing these characters for their stupid choices and immature behavior. (Basically, she’s me.) Doris the smartest character on the show, the only one of these people who is truly self-aware. It’s strange and potentially troubling that the most dynamic figure on this series about gay men is the straight woman, but let’s just embrace it. Looking‘s prescription for success: more Doris. Have her interact with Patrick and Augustin. Have her tell them what they’re doing wrong. Or, whatever, just let me do it.
Even moreso this time around, Looking feels like an instructional video for heterosexuals whose exposure to gays thus far has been limited to salons, Virgin America flights, and Ryan Murphy series; we debate monogamy versus open relationships, chatter about penises, witness a Grindr hookup, and tag along on the dance floor for an awkward date at a gay club. That about covers it, right? (But wait, over here we have some gays eating pizza and watching YouTube, too, so they’re just like us.) In its broadest strokes, “Looking For Uncut” feels shallow and too specifically calibrated, especially in comparison to the pilot; even when individual scenes play well, as a whole it doesn’t hang together. There’s nuance and wit in little moments, but the overall concept isn’t so clever. It’s ironic that a show about looking for one’s place in the world is also still searching for its own purpose.
Compare and contrast to last night’s Girls, which has had the advantage of three seasons now to find its footing, and in a way is still yearning to find its voice with every new episode, because it so constantly shakes our expectations. Girls is not a flawless or fully satisfying series, but even in its missteps, it is challenging of TV norms and thought-provoking. Last night’s episode centered on the death of a supporting character, Hannah’s editor David, who went completely off the rails last week at her birthday party. The episode (tellingly titled “Dead Inside”) was willfully callous as Hannah had a purely selfish reaction to David’s demise, without feeling even a drop of sadness for anyone but herself. Most shows would ease up at the end and let their heroines give in to tears, but “Dead Inside” doubles-down by having Hannah fake a cry for her boyfriend, recycling a sob story his sister made up to test whether or not Hannah had a compassionate bone in her body. (She doesn’t, apparently.) It’s actually rather chilling, which is not a reaction I quite expected from Girls.
Lena Dunham revels in making Hannah nearly impossible to like, and this is her least sympathetic episode yet. Clearly Dunham knows what she’s doing — she’s been egging on critics since the beginning, many of whom missed the point early on and thought they were supposed to like Hannah Horvath. But no. “Dead Inside” goes a step further by making all of its titular girls hardened in their reactions to mortality — Shoshanna shrugs off a high school friend’s death in a car accident because it improved her social standing, while Jessa pretends to lend a sympathetic ear but has forgotten Shoshonna’s would-be woe a minute later. Adam’s sister Caroline makes up that sappy story about a disease-ridden cousin to test Hannah capability to feel for Adam, then laughs off her coolness.
Interestingly, the boys of Girls all feel much more deeply on the subject — Adam, Ray, and even Laird have “appropriate” emotional responses, while the girls are all numb. Is this where we are now? Dunham might be suggesting that the men and women of her generation have switched places from their traditional gender roles, and now it’s hipster twentysomething males who wear their hearts on their sleeves, while women have developed a thicker skin. Surely there’s at least some truth to that, and where but Girls has such an observation been made? (It’s like an extension of the gender politics of The Hunger Games, but that’s another discussion for another time.)
In this episode, at least, Girls has a distinct point of view — something explicit and unconventional to say. You could argue that Dunham (and co-writer Judd Apatow) make the point too bluntly, but it’s near-impossible not to be challenged by it. You’re forced to mull it over. Looking is, by nature, a different beast; the world may not be ready for a gay show that’s as challenging to the norm as Girls is, and that’s okay. But it would be nice if Looking had a point of view, or a premise, or at least more insight into its characters.
“Looking For Uncut” is a step down from the pilot — not a steep one, but also not headed in the right direction. Like Ethan, the writers of this show are substituting Refresh tea for coffee when what this show really needs is a jolt of caffeine. The pilot “Looking For Now” may have been slightly underwhelming to those with high expectations, but it was also more at ease with itself than “Looking For Uncut,” which may be trying too hard to please too many audiences, thus pleasing no one at all. Watching both episodes for a second time made me appreciate the pilot more, which had a lot of subtle smartness bubbling under the surface. “Looking For Uncut” circumcises away all that gentle ambiguity and amiable breeziness. No foreskin here, folks. What you see is what you get.
So last night, I had a second date with Looking, and I can’t say I didn’t leave it a little disappointed. He repeated himself on the same issues we talked about last week, and even though he made me laugh a couple times and things got a little more sexual this time and he’s even less hairier than last week, which I really appreciate, I’m really starting to wonder where this is all going. I’m not sure he’s being perfectly honest with me, and starting to question how comfortable he is with being gay — like maybe he’s afraid that if he’s truly himself, he’ll isolate straight people. Other people seem to think Looking is sweet and charming and totally appealing, though, so why isn’t it clicking? Am I being too critical? Am I doing that thing where I’m not ready to open up to him yet, in case I commit and get burned down the road? After Looking and I ended things on an awkward note, I went to hang out with some Girls, who made me think and feel so much more — what the hell does that mean?
I mean, it’s not that I don’t like him — it’s just that I was expecting something different. I wanted us to connect more. I wanted to feel like he and I were like the same person. My expectations are always so high, though, and if we have a reasonably good time together, does it even matter? Can’t I just enjoy myself without picking apart his every flaw? Or should I be wary of wasting my time? There are so many other shows out there that could be better for me… but I don’t want to just give up after two episodes! Am I over-thinking it? What’s wrong with Looking? Why isn’t he just perfect and amazing right out of the gate?
Oh god — is it me?
No. No. It’s Looking. Let’s see how he does next week.