Looking: Season One
Dir: Andrew Haigh
Cert: 15 • US: 8 x 30 min • HBO • January 19, 2014
Kevin Shaw reviews
The scene fades up on a public park in San Francisco. The foliage parts to reveal Jonathan Groff’s youthful face and earnest blue-eyed gaze-curious, yet hesitant. He clumsily attempts an anonymous hookup in the woods; anonymous, that is, until he interrupts a hand job to introduce himself, and finally calls the whole thing off when he answers his phone: it’s Mom calling.
This is how HBO’s Looking introduces Groff as Patrick, a twenty-nine year-old Midwesterner in San Francisco. Although the eight-episode series, created by Michael Lannan, avoids the common coming-out narrative, Patrick starts out as a gay Adam of sorts. His story even starts in a garden. He’s naïve, and tempted by all the San Franciscan tricks and treats, although sadly not that intrepid. Patrick is flanked by his friends Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a would-be artist pushing against the bounds of a longer-term relationship, and Dom (Murray Bartlett), who is questioning his erotic mortality as he turns forty in a youth obsessed hook-up culture. At one point, Dom jokes that Grindr will send a death certificate on his birthday.
It may seem like we’ve been here before (think the UK and US versions of Queer as Folk), yet Looking makes some interesting departures, particularly in its use of San Francisco as a destination for sexual liberation. Nearly fifty years after the Summer of Love however, the city is decidedly gentrified. Many of the early reviews debated whether or not Looking was HBO’s boys-only version of Girls (short answer: it’s not), but it has far more in common with an earlier San Francisco-set lodestar of gay TV: the mini-series adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
Set largely in the halcyon days of 1970s San Francisco, Tales of the City explored the city’s diversity and the possibility that it offered. Like Looking, Tales of the City was guided by a newcomer from the Midwest, the naïve Mary Ann Singleton. The early ‘90s production of Tales of the City offered a certain sunny nostalgia, yet Looking’s washed-out blue leans toward a post-AIDS, post-identity politics melancholia. While on a date recounting his aborted adventure in the woods, Patrick says he had wondered if people still went cruising anymore. As he learns in the opening scene, they certainly do but now however, they cruise in the conflicted age of gay marriage and Grindr. If, as Agustin’s boyfriend says, “we can be whatever we want to be”—now, is the implication—why are we, as Looking suggests, so sad? Perhaps, if all the mirrors on the show are any indication, we aren’t only looking for sex, but for ourselves – past, present, and future.
Looking’s subtle historical self-awareness benefits from director Andrew Haigh’s realist and almost documentary aesthetic, which resonated with audiences in his popular film Weekend. In this San Francisco, the bathhouses and bars are still there but now the music and conversation have left the tubs – as Linn, Dom’s older friend, laments – and the bars are grungy and badly lit, nothing like the glitzy late ‘90s Babylon at the centre of the US Queer as Folk. Looking does, in part, bring a more realistic depiction of gay life to television. The characters actually use public transport, and they worry about paying the rent. But what does “gay life” even mean, anyway?
The show attempts a representation of Asian, Black, and Hispanic men at the intersection of class and desire without resorting to stereotypes or by glossing over conflicts of difference. Yet they are often in supporting roles. At its core, Looking remains yet another show about an upwardly mobile white guy, this time in the high-tech video game industry. But, perhaps that’s the point.
Dom, who works as a waiter, criticizes the way the city has been overtaken by “I.T. assholes”. When Mary Ann Singleton lands in Tales of the City she has to struggle to make her way in the city, whereas Looking finds Patrick early in a career, mid-stride, if still hungry for success, in the precarious post-economic downturn. While Looking makes a refreshing gesture to the street (in its setting in public parks, buses, and festivals), there remains a tinge of mourning and boredom – a been-there and done-that futility in the glare of the camera’s lingering gaze.
In one episode, Patrick and friends walk through the Folsom Street Fair, San Francisco’s leather and BDSM festival, and though they don leather, they are less willing participants but rather more occasionally shocked and bemused observers. The show’s diverse characters each take from the city’s queer mythos what he needs, and discards the rest. And so while Looking is about gay men in San Francisco, the struggle to make a whole life in and out of the Castro binds the characters as much as – indeed if not more than- sex. The show actively works to reveal the fractures and scars in the “gay community” rather than to suture a false sense of pansexual healing.
The dialectic of sex and love is explored with the great subtlety that Haigh achieves in Weekend. A rim job, tactfully shot but discussed at length, is allowed to become another episode’s central metaphor of intimacy. Finally, queer filmmakers seem comfortable balancing explicit representations of sex with (or against) the fuzzier feelings, without sacrificing emotional complexity or social commentary.
Despite solid performances from the main trio and a stand-out supporting cast – particularly Lauren Weedman as Dom’s best friend Doris (in a show that is almost devoid of female characters), Scott Bakula as the former’s older friend Lynn, and TJ Linnard as a sex worker befriended by Agustin – the show sometimes feels a bit cinéma-vérité lite, lacking narrative propulsion in the middle episodes, trading character development for slice-of-life glum. If these characters don’t seem overly interested in their own lives, why should its audience? Yet by the later episodes – and the introduction of Patrick’s boss, played by Russell Tovey – tensions between friends, lovers, and coworkers escalate toward a realistic and satisfying conclusion, with enough dropped threads to pick up in the second season.
If Looking has anything in common with Girls, it’s in the comedy of awkwardness that both share, but use to different ends. In Looking, the uncomfortable humour points to the cracks in the otherwise smooth mirror that the mainstream gay media holds up to its audience. For example, when Patrick gleefully Googles “uncut Latino cock” before going on his first date with Richie – and later brings it up in bed (he is wont to make embarrassing confessions right before sex), does the awkwardness reveal the curiosity of the sexually inexperienced, or just a racist exoticizing of Richie? Or both?
The late-season image of a nude Patrick guiltily staring at his own reflection epitomizes Looking’s contribution to current gay culture: while the show may be accused of participating in the all-pervasive hipster narcissism, it does so with a keen critical sense. Neither Looking, nor the people it represents, are perfect. These are sometimes-unlikeable characters but the writers (if not the characters themselves) are refreshingly self-aware of their prejudices and limitations. Patrick and company spend a great deal of screen time simply talking about themselves; hopefully, the second season will reveal that they’re actually listening. What the first season reveals, is that Looking has the potential, at least, to change the conversation.