TV review

How ‘Looking’ Suddenly Got Its Act Together

The Daily Beast

March 10, 2014

I’m not sure there’s an analogy that goes with my relationship to Looking on HBO, but let’s try this. You have a terrible date, no, a sequence of terrible dates with the same person. Why would you do this? There’s something about them: not their looks which are broadly handsome and appealing, but they intrigue you. You feel there might be something there, or there ought to be. But they talk in a mumble, they don’t seem to do anything. You get home after every date enraged with them, with yourself. You go back for more, hope for more.

Then, on the fifth date, long after your friends have recommended you give up for your own sanity, for there is no fun to be had here, your bad date becomes a hot date. They stir from their lethargy. They are witty, they twinkle. You look forward to your next date. Three weeks of relative bliss follows. Then they tell you they’re going away for almost a year, but will be back—and will you wait for them?

And so it is, with me and Looking and maybe you and Looking, the endlessly chewed-over drama about a group of men with inventive facial hair, who hey-man-just-happen-to-be-gay in San Francisco. The show, which started so lamentably, suddenly ugly-duckling’d its way to swan-dom. How? Why?

Well, they stopped mumbling for a start, and then their stories rattled into life. The cast, in interviews, seemed to be under the misapprehension that those of us who found it boring initially really meant we felt we weren’t being “represented” properly on screen. Guys, it really wasn’t that. It was the show—and forget about the sexuality of its characters and its gay viewership—just listed and lurched, like a creaking boat.

But then, in the last three weeks Looking has hummed along, ever since the episode where the men celebrated Dom’s birthday in the park and Patrick and Agustin’s friendship went awry over Patrick’s relationship with proto-boyfriend Richie. Jonathan Groff’s Patrick went from irritating to (well, let’s not overdo it) less-irritating, especially after we met his brilliant mother, as played by Julia Duffy, who flintily pronounced on what men are “good enough” for her son.

It was a wafer-thin part for her to play, but in a matter of moments she conveyed a whole palimpsest of hurt: about Patrick being gay, after coming to terms-ish with it, about him not having the kind of partner she wants for him, and then what he doesn’t know about her: that she’s taken to eating pot cookies because she finds them more beneficial than her anti-anxiety medication.

This was well-observed: traditionally the gamut of parents-of-gays in TV shows runs to the polarities of extremely comfortable to extremely homophobic. But here was a mother who “knew,” but had residual misgivings, and problems and frailties of her own. But what really stirred Looking from its early collapse was the usual grist of any good soap opera: relationships in trouble, lips locking, and love triangles. Patrick, who spends much of his time looking lost and vacant like Paddington Bear, was forced to deal with not loving the bearded, then suddenly not bearded Richie enough to begin a relationship with him, while in time-honored, inexplicable soap opera fashion, his British boss suddenly went from devoted to his hot sports masseuse boyfriend to drunken, gropey lech. Even sober, he was hopelessly lustful for Patrick.

That’s the thing with Paddington Bear: his marmalade sandwiches bring all the boys to the yard. Russell Tovey’s presence—and his screen-friendly bum—provided much-needed dramatic resuscitation—especially as soon as he zipped up his pants, it was back to the boyfriend and business as usual, and he and his pert, milky-white ass will be back for season two.

But as soon as poor Paddington Bear made it home, there was Richie on his doorstep for a bittersweet farewell. Oh, boys.

There was also a great, tender scene when Agustin’s boyfriend Frank discovered Agustin had paid someone to have sex with him. Overlooking the sea, Frank told Agustin their relationship was over. The problem was we viewers hadn’t spent enough time with them both to care.

Strangely, topsy-turvy Looking’s best, most intriguing storyline was not Patrick’s, as the writers intended, but Dom, who in the show’s terms, is considered old as he is 40. Dom then falls for a yet-older man played by Scott Bakula (amazing, hot), who is friendly to Dom but doesn’t reciprocate, and then the men’s relationship becomes even more complicated and emotional when they go into business together. The show cleverly did not just rest on the laurels of the counter-intuitive “younger man pursues older” storyline, but built in other personal mysteries, as yet unknown, as to why the relationship is not easy to start.

The men’s fairy godmother ultimately was Dom’s friend Doris. Lauren Weedman, who played her, became—with the scantest of material—one of the show’s most intriguing characters. Rather like Patrick’s mother, she is not the easy version of the character she could be—the wisecracking female best friend—but instead is a defined character—wise, wisecracking, truth-telling, withering when Dom needs it—with a life and sensibility of her own. In Looking the minor characters—and Doris is set to promotion to the main cast next season—are being drawn just as finely as the leads.

The gloopy mush of Looking’s early episodes—and this cannot be excused as “establishing” character, episodes meandered with depressing inertia—suddenly solidified. Aimlessness became purpose. Plot superseded mumbling. You cared about them all, though not so much Agustin who accorded to the artist stereotype of being utterly self-absorbed and insensitive to anyone else’s feelings, willing to sacrifice his relationship for a piece of video art. What a dolt.

The first season finale episode did what all good final episodes should do: that sense of a vise being tightened around the storylines, the viewer checking their watch to see how long the storylines have got until they are wound up and the curtain falls, with some teasing cliffhangers set. So, finally, after an opening batch of episodes featuring no tension and a bizarre gormlessness, Looking discovered its inner Scandal—slightly, not too much, not enough, but hey—and got tense, dramatic, and sexy.

Even if it operates in a world where gay politics is not whispered, even if its sheen of “real-life” didn’t always make for scintillating drama, Looking hinted at some uncomfortable closer-to-home truths, about intimacy and self-worth, relationships and commitment. It also quite rightly revealed that after a bad day, and this crosses generations, sexualities, entire continents, and is a universal truth, nothing ameliorates the bruised, battered heart better than an episode of The Golden Girls.

So, farewell Looking, and—I never thought I’d be writing this and I do so cautiously so as not to tempt disaster—come back soon.