Mar 10, 2014

Looking: Season One

By Josh Oakley

There’s a paradox within the core of Looking: the three central characters spend too much of their time peering inwards, stuck inside of their own heads. Yet they struggle to identify themselves. As Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) tells Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) in the first season finale, “You don’t know what you’ve been, because you don’t know who the fuck you are.” It is nearly impossible to connect with someone else on a profound level when you’re unsure of your basic identity. Intimacy, a word tossed around a number of times throughout these eight episodes, involves one opening themselves up, allowing somebody else to burrow within them. Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Agustin and Dom (Murray Bartlett) certainly have intimacy with one another. But there’s something comforting about your best friend, passed out in the middle of an episode of The Golden Girls, being as stranded as you are. Sometimes, understanding forms bonds. Other times, connections are made by a mutual shrugging of the shoulders, and an agreement to use those same shoulders to dry the tears that figuring out who you are inevitably implies.

Patrick seems like the most lost of the friends when the show begins. There’s an obvious naivety to his behavior. When he says that he may look for a “fuck buddy”, Dom and Agustin laugh. In the same episode, he googles “uncut Latin cock”. Groff gives Patrick a childish smile, one that makes it difficult to hide his true thoughts. This hinders his relationship with Richie (Raul Castillo). Patrick questions Richie’s penis, and a couple of episodes later seems embarrassed by his new boyfriend. Patrick wears his emotions outwardly, which is alternatively adorable (it’s likely what interests Richie in the first place) and rudely off-putting (it’s also why they break things off). Part of the reason that Patrick struggles to conceal his immediate response to a situation stems from his self-professed wonder at every new experience. But there’s also the fact that he’s so busy thinking about how he is in the context of an event, that he rarely ventures out of his mind in order to question how it’s affecting those around him. The penultimate episode, “Looking for a Plus-One” features this most prominently, as he is somehow unaware that his yelling at Richie about an event that the latter didn’t even want to attend may come across badly. The stress of the situation plays against the calmness of “Looking for the Future”, the show’s best episode, where Patrick can tell Richie stories and relax. But who we are in our best times is not a complete picture.

“Looking for a Plus-One” also sees the low point for Dom and Agustin, as they manage to push away people that cared for and about them. Dom seems to lose the friendship of Lynn (Scott Bakula) after exploding at him over control of a pop-up restaurant. Dom turned 40 in “Looking in the Mirror”, and began to recontextualize his life in the wake of his birthday. He not only goes out on a potentially risky business endeavor, but also begins to fall for a man his own age rather than the young, hot Grindr hook-ups he chased before. He pivots, but attempting to define yourself after years of not knowing can be a dangerous thing. Here, he sets actual goals and facing them is more difficult than gliding along. Agustin screwed up before the events of that "Plus-One", but this is when they come to light, as Frank learns that he’s slept with a hooker for art that Agustin can barely afford. It’s a betrayal of trust, and it understandably sets Frank over the edge. To go back to the idea of intimacy, the danger of the concept is that once you let somebody in, they have the ability to deeply and profoundly wound you. When Frank tells Agustin that he’ll never be an artist, it’s a deeper sting than even the break-up itself. Intimacy can be a comforting blanket, but it can also function as a sharpened blade, penetrating the areas where one is most vulnerable.

Looking is an astute show about romantic and sexual relationships (and how complicated those two threads can be both apart and together), but it also has some of the best representations of friendship on television. A key scene in the finale: Patrick is called into work, and bids Dom and Agustin goodbye. Instead of immediately cutting to the office, the camera lingers as the two remaining friends hug, and Agustin says how proud he is of Dom. It’s a gorgeous little moment, representative of how much this show cares about these men, and how much they care about each other. That hug adds absolutely nothing to the plot, it isn’t funny, and it barely counts as delivering new information. Instead, it enhances the emotional bond, and this is a show fascinated by those heartfelt connections. Looking is great precisely because of its affection for how small moments define us and our relationships. See Patrick slapping Agustin’s hand away from playing with a wine glass, without looking up from his phone. Again, a minute detail, but a vital one, one that gives shape to these people and how they interact with each other. “Future”, a gorgeous and thoughtful play on Before Sunrise, is filled to the brim with these touches, namely in the details that Patrick and Richie tell one another, or their Ross & Rachel/top & bottom conversation. There is such nuance to this show that is nearly impossible to find elsewhere.

In the post-Sopranos world, quality TV has become synonymous with “unlikeable or evil lead characters”. Many of these dark shows are brilliant, but there is something so refreshing about Looking. These characters are not saints, but they’re good people, trying (and often failing) to connect to somebody else. They stumble in recognizable ways, but actually seem to learn from their mistakes. The show is naturalistic without being sloppy, directed impeccably and written the way people think they talk. That dialect is rare, a touch more written that Friday Night Lights-esque overlapping voices, but far from overtly stylistic. The writing and directing both serve the kindness of the show, which is gentle without being dumbed-down or ineffective. The final scene between Richie and Patrick is brutal in its honesty, but it isn’t unfair or cruel. To my mind, the most important moment of the season happens early on. In the second episode, “Looking for Uncut”, Agustin moves out of the apartment he has shared with Patrick for eight years. They both go through confusing and messy days. And then a phone call unites them, across the short distance from San Francisco to Oakland. Patrick drunkenly slurps on mac & cheese, and Agustin faces what he fears may turn into a permanent future. Their talk is calm, the kind of talk rarely seen on television. It is a moment driven not by melodrama or high stakes, but constructed from simple emotional momentum. The characters may still be searching for intimacy, but the show itself already has an open, unabashed heart.

Grade: A-

  • The main hook of the show that I didn’t touch on at all is that it is largely about the gay community. Not being a part of that community, and having plenty else to say about the show, I thought I would leave that up to others better suited for the matter. Specifically, check out Brandon Nowalk’s episodic reviews of the show, especially his excellent take on the excellent “Lookingfor the Future”.
  • I did have a number of small problems with the show that I didn’t really touch on, but I’m trusting that they’re mostly first season jitters. Whenever the show became too concerned with narrative mechanics the authenticity suffered a bit. Not enough to deeply harm the show, but enough to knock it down that half grade. Though a rewatch may see everything hold together beautifully.
  • As soon as the credits rolled in the finale (with one of the best music cues I’ve ever heard), I became immensely relieved when I remembered that the show was picked up for a second season. I deeply love these characters and this world and can’t wait until next year to return.
  • Speaking of next season, three of the recurring actors have been promoted to lead. Most exciting among them is Lauren Weedman, who plays Dom’s roommate Doris. She’s been funny all season, but beyond the scene between her and Bakula in the finale, she hasn’t been given all that much to do. Hopefully a bigger role means a richer story.
  • The other two promoted actors are Russell Tovey (Kevin) and Castillo. Castillo was so good in his final scene (and the rest of the season) that I’m glad we’ll have him back, though I hope nothing too contrived leads to his reappearance.
Image via The Wrap

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