TV review

‘Looking’ Finally Scores—But Is It Too Late to Save the Show?

The Daily Beast

March 22, 2015

If you were watching Looking and shouting from your sofa Sunday night, “Leave. Go now,” then you will have finally, like this viewer, been siding with Patrick, the show’s drippy, blandly irritating lead character, played by Jonathan Groff—and hoping he would follow his instinct and get out of his fast-unraveling relationship with Kevin (Russell Tovey).

But did he? We’ll only know if HBO commissions a third season of its gay-themed, San Francisco-set drama, whose second season finally introduced the element missing from its first: real drama.

The ratings have stayed low, however, and so Looking’s future is in question. If HBO keeps the show, it will be doing so out of the goodness of its heart to have a “gay show” on air, but surely someone there is going to insist on some serious surgery to get the show on viewers’ radars, talked about, and moving from its charming (to some, grating to others), lo-fi fug.

Fatally, it’s a gay-themed show that its fans are certainly passionate about, but a critical mass of viewers—gay, straight, whatever—don’t seem to care if it lives or dies.

In the will-he-won’t-he question of Patrick’s future with or without Kevin, Looking finally supplied a compelling cliffhanger, along with a sharp, brilliantly written (by executive producer Andrew Haigh and John Hoffman) delineation of what makes, and can destroy, the foundation of a new relationship.

It was refreshing because, in this era of marriage equality, smiles, and wedding bands, the complex fault lines of fidelity and commitment are often glossed over—but not on Sunday night’s episode of Looking.

The two men had moved in together, to a glamorous gay penthouse in the sky. This was the kind of place where one’s swanky new neighbors (the immediately annoying Milo and Jake) make eye-rolling jokes about not possessing the right key fob to gain entry, as Patrick found when he turned up with his final cardboard box full of possessions.

The glass cube, with its panoramic views, was far from the artfully drab, cool abode he shared with Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), but Patrick’s love affair with Kevin—originally an affair—had come with rose-colored glasses. Until this final episode, Patrick had skirted clear of its possible imperfections.

Let’s be frank: Looking is much improved from that stilted first season. It is still, compared to much other drama on TV, extremely quiet and slow. But this season its characters and plot came to some kind of watchable life, whether it was Patrick’s troubled route to a fledgling relationship with Kevin, Dom’s (Murray Bartlett) fractured friendship with best friend Doris (Lauren Weedman), and—best of all—Agustin’s relationship with HIV-positive LGBT youth worker Eddie (Daniel Franzese).

If there is one thing we could do a lot more of in Season 3—if it materializes—it is Daniel Franzese. Eddie’s sexy, stroppy assertiveness finally made Agustin examine and correct his own selfishness and vanity. Franzese was like a welcome bucket of get-real cold water to the self-satisfied blah of the other characters.

Last week it seemed so romantic and cute for Kevin to ask Patrick, “Will you move in with me and brush your teeth next to me every morning?” as the two discussed the various merits of mechanical beds. However, as Patrick’s mother had warned him when her own marriage headed for the rocks, the longer you’re with someone, the more complicated the truth of that relationship becomes.

Patrick’s first moment of disquiet came when he realized Kevin’s cardboard boxes contained the kinds of things he never knew about Kevin—distracted, as a reasonable human would be, by his tight butt, thick arms, and rough East End accent. Then he saw Kevin’s Field of Dreams poster and heard him say it was “the best film ever made.” Alarm bell ding-a-ling.

But Kevin made some great juice, Patrick said he felt “liberated” to live the way both men crafted, and then the bell rang: Milo and Jake were having a party that night, and they were invited.

The finale was less about Agustin and Eddie: They seemed happy at the launch of the mural at the teen drop-in center. Agustin had sensibly, if sadly, dissuaded one of the trans teens from emblazoning “I want a pussy, so suck my dick,” as the legend across it.

Dom and Doris met for the first time since she dismissed their longtime friendship as a “co-dependent mess, a fag and his hag.” The script cleverly rejected tying a bow on them reuniting, with both acknowledging how much they loved each other while needing to grow apart to grow up. And so it was that the lights of Dom’s chicken shop window finally went on.

At Milo and Jake’s “very white” party, as Patrick noted, he and Kevin were fresh meat. An orgy was on the cards, which Patrick didn’t mind hanging around to watch until he realized a Grindr profile the gay gaggle was pondering, “Romford,” was Kevin’s, its name taken from his native Essex town.

“Just tell me I didn’t move in with a sex addict,” said Patrick, as all his dreams of reading the Sunday papers in simpatico and buying prettily unmatched china dissolved against a flickering LED screen of anonymous pecs and penises.

Leave, Patrick, leave.

It turned out that during Kevin’s relationship to his ex John, “a few things happened a few times,” Kevin told Patrick: a “little tug at the gym,” a few “happy endings” after massages. As Patrick’s face fell, Kevin reminded him that the source of their relationship was infidelity: “I’m really fucking happy I cheated on him because if I hadn’t cheated on him, we wouldn’t be together.”

John hadn’t known about these indiscretions, Patrick discovered. Kevin asserted it was all in the past, he was with Patrick now, and what was wrong with thinking about an open relationship? It was a “gray area…if something happens it’s not the end of the world.”

Not so to Patrick, who saw what he was doing by moving in with Kevin in black-and-white terms: He was with him, and only him. This was their opportunity to be monogamous and committed, unless Kevin wanted to get back to the “KK butt orgy” upstairs.

Leave, Patrick, leave.

How many new, and maybe established gay couples, were watching this blistering, beautifully written argument with slightly frozen expressions?

The row took the couple down into the inner garage of the apartment block, with Patrick noting how much like a prison it felt.

Kevin said he wasn’t looking for a “hall pass to cheat,” but all Patrick could hear was he wanted to fuck other people.

Every time he went to the gym or get a bagel, he would wonder what Kevin was doing, he said. After all, as Kevin had proved when having an affair with Patrick behind John’s back: “You’re a good fucking liar.”

Whatever side you fell down on would have spoken to what kind of relationship you want, have, or aspire to having. There were no easy answers—Kevin’s weren’t wrong, but they uncompromisingly sought to propose a way of living together apart from two guys living in day-to-day, me-and-you sexual isolation. Kevin insisted he still loved Patrick, he wanted to be with Patrick, but sexual monogamy wasn’t key to that. For Patrick it was everything.

And depending on where you stand on that would have governed what, and who, you were shouting for on your sofa.

Kevin said it felt like a fight to break them up, or keep them together, and begged Patrick not to sabotage things before giving them a chance. He wanted to grow older together, to become “two miserable cunts sitting on a porch,” and challenged Patrick to stay or go.

Leave, Patrick, leave.

Patrick saw them, like their new fancy tech-bed, as two different systems: “Your heart works one way and mine the other.” Deep down, he had always known it, he said, but in his desire to be in love and to prove the same to his family, friends, and world around him, he had chosen to ignore it.

“You just have to trust me,” said Kevin.

And so to their fancy tech-bed, which Patrick forecast would leave him ultimately sleepless with all its settings, much like the accruing damage a malfunctioning relationship would affect him years hence.

And so to that bed, which a restless Patrick woke from in the middle of the night, and in yet another box found an old pendant, which led him the next day to Richie (Raúl Castillo), Patrick’s original, never-can-give-you-up love from Season 1 (whose proclamations of whatever were almost unintelligible to this viewer, but who has the best hair and smile on the show).

Back then, Patrick couldn’t commit, and they broke up. Now, well, who knows? Patrick wanted a seriously short haircut, to offset his “middle-aged lesbian” look, which is also proudly mine. So there.

“Are you ready?” asked Richie “I’m ready,” said Patrick.

Then we left them in the salon, Richie with electronic trimmer in hand, and Graham Nash’s “Simple Man” playing over it all, which may have had a few fans sniffling.

But what did Patrick’s “ready” mean? Ready to leave Kevin, to finally be with Richie? We don’t know, and we may never know if HBO cancels Looking. Its ratings are low, and its gay “base” is hardly steamed up enough—yet—to fight en masse to save it.

Already, the commentators’ pleas are in to save the show, and those pleas are heartfelt.

But then, read the comments under the pleas, and they are just as emphatic: The viewers who see it as dreary, and its characters as superficial, whining bores, and who couldn’t care less if it comes back or not.

For this viewer, Season 2 has rectified the majority of the series’ faults—as this excellent finale episode underlined—but it may be too much of a good thing, too late.