12 months after its initial screening, and on the eve of season two, how does the first season of Looking (HBO) stand up to scrutiny on repeat viewing?
The answer is, surprisingly well. Looking was always going to be judged according to an incredibly high standard – not necessarily by TV critics, but definitely by members of the gay male community, looking for an accurate representation of ‘our’ lives, right now, on the small screen.
By and large, on this front, it was successful. The major characters were plausible (albeit with one exception, see below), and the storylines were similarly realistic (again with one exception).
It dealt with issues which ‘we’ are dealing with (including relationships in the era of marriage equality, and the societal mores and pressures that it brings, job and financial insecurity, and the ever-present, if just off-screen, HIV) and, even if on some of these it used language that was less than desirable (for example, Patrick’s conflation of HIV and AIDS, or some of the descriptions of CJ’s sex-work), it is nevertheless language that is used by (some of) us in the real world.
It didn’t hurt that the cast were attractive, either – let’s be honest, a television show about the gay community in San Francisco was always going to focus on the ‘good looking’. But even in this respect I didn’t find them impossibly or unrelatably so.
In short, the main strength of Looking is that it is a show that is both about us, and explicitly for us. Although by ‘us’ in this context I mean gay men in their 20s, 30s and 40s: it is (thankfully) not another production solely focused on young people ‘coming out’; despite the character of Lynn nor is it largely about older members of the community; and as has been pointed out by several (vocal) lesbian friends, it is very definitely not about, or for, them either.
Unlike some other programs about gay male life that have come before, it also doesn’t appear as though it is attempting to ‘explain’ us to outsiders, or that it is trying to use ‘shock value’ to gain a mainstream audience.
Instead, Looking is comfortable enough to be made, and made well, for the gay male community. Given the number of ‘out’ actors and others associated with the production, it even feels a little bit like a show by ‘us’ (which is another point of difference with some of the other shows gone by).
Of course, whether a television program like this, which so neatly fits into this ‘niche’ is sustainable, even as a small cog in the larger machine that is HBO, is questionable – and the ratings for season two will likely be make or break. For as long as it lasts, however, I intend to enjoy the ride.
Turning to some of the particular strengths of season one, it is hard to go past the impressive writing. Through eight very short episodes (of roughly 25 minutes or less), we were given several fully-formed characters, with dialogue that usually rang true. The humour (especially via Doris), and the pop cultural references, were spot on (and yes, that includes the multiple tributes to the Golden Girls).
But it was more than that – there was also subtly, and obvious care. One of my favourite conversations was where Dom met Lynn in the bathhouse, and particularly when they discuss the 1970s and early 1980s heyday of that scene:
Dom: It must have been cool back then.
Lynn: Back then? Suddenly I feel like I’m one hundred and three.
Dom: Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t…
Lynn: But it was, it really was… and then it wasn’t.
It takes a skilful degree of restraint to keep this description of the impact of HIV/AIDS on San Francisco so simple, and enormous – and well-placed, as it turns out – confidence in the ability of the actors (and particularly Scott Bakula) to convey its poignancy.
One other example of the writing conveys what I was discussing earlier – that Looking is a show about us, for us – and that is one conversation among many in ‘Looking for the Future’ (episode five), with Patrick and Richie walking through Golden Gate Park as part of their day-long ‘date’:
Patrick: But I feel like I don’t want to know about my parents’ sex life, so why do they need to know about mine.
Richie: You know your parents meeting your boyfriend has nothing to do with your sex life.
Patrick: Yeah, I know, I know…
Richie: It’s more about them meeting the person that you love, and care about, and share everything with.
Patrick: Yes, no, I get it. No I get it. (long pause) I don’t know, I feel like for parents though it is almost about the sex. Even if they are meeting a boyfriend, they’re just imagining that dick up your ass.
Richie: Your parents are obsessed with sex I think.
Patrick: Maybe. I think everyone’s is. Your like “I’m gay” and they’re like “Oh, so you’re butt-fucking now.”
Even the best writing though can be let down without the acting talent to match – and the casting directors for Looking did their job superbly. The leads do everything they are supposed to (especially Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett), but being honest once more, it is the supporting cast that steals the show.
Scott Bakula is perfect as the business partner/love interest Lynn to Bartlett’s Dom, while OT Fagbenle does a commendable job of bringing Agustin’s ‘wronged’ boyfriend to life. Russell Tovey suits the role of Patrick’s charming, yet slightly sleazy, boss (although perhaps Kevin was used too much as plot device and not enough as a stand-alone character, something which will hopefully be remedied in season two), while Raul Castillo inhabits the sweet, yet somewhat temperamental, Richie.
But it was of course Lauren Weedman, as Doris, who emerges as the true star of the first season, with too many brilliantly sarcastic one-liners to mention here. And, with “Dom’s worth it… He’s just, he’s worth it”, who doesn’t want a best friend like Doris?
Other strengths of Looking season one include the production values – it is clear that this is a (well-funded) HBO production, from the film-quality cinematography, to the attention to detail in costume and set design. The city of San Francisco, and surrounds, is almost an actor in its own right (if the producers didn’t secure funding from the Tourism Board of San Francisco, well, they weren’t doing their job properly). And the music is uniformly amazing (making it almost criminal that, as yet, there doesn’t appear to be an official soundtrack).
One final strength that I feel compelled to mention is the Patrick/Richie ‘date’ (in Looking for the Future, as touched on above), where for 25 minutes they are almost the only two people on screen. It is a beautiful paean to the early days of love – and one that makes much more sense when the involvement of Andrew Haigh (who wrote and directed the British film Weekend) is taken into account.
Of course, not everything about Looking season one worked. The biggest, and most obvious, problem was Agustin. It is understandable (and for dramatic purposes, almost obligatory) that one of the lead characters is a self-professed ‘fuck-up’, but he was so unlikeable, with so few redeeming features, that it made it difficult to believe Patrick and Dom would still be friends with him.
Indeed, Agustin was so ‘unappealing’ in personality that, as well as feeling sorry for Frankie J Alvarez for portraying him (lest anyone in real life mistook him for the character), I am left to hope they spend the necessary time to ‘rehabilitate’ his character in season two (it will be especially interesting to see how the addition of the officially “too gay to function” Damian aids in this recovery effort).
Other ‘flaws’ include the sub-plot in episode two – Looking for Uncut – which, as the title suggests, essentially revolved around Patrick’s supposed lack of knowledge of, and then almost instantaneous fetish-isation of, Richie’s presumed lack of circumcision. While overall Patrick is written as naïve, he’s still a 29 year old, sexually-active gay man – and this complete lack of sophistication is not just implausible, it’s borderline silly.
I found the pace of the final episode (Looking Glass) somewhat off-putting – after a season which developed slowly, taking time to explore characters and situations at a ‘natural’ pace, the eighth episode felt far too rushed by comparison (to the extent that I suspect that the original script may have been written for a season of nine or even 10 episodes).
Finally, I am also aware of a range of criticism – which appears to be warranted – that, despite the inclusion of multiple Hispanic characters, Looking season one was nevertheless an overly ‘white’ show. Here’s hoping that season two delivers greater ethnic diversity (including more than just Owen in terms of Asian-American characters).
Overall though, and despite these weaknesses, Looking season one was generally good, with moments of greatness. About and for the gay male community, it was successful in reflecting our lives back to ‘us’, portraying characters with which ‘we’ could identify (my fiancé and I can see ourselves in Richie and Patrick respectively, to the extent that we even instinctively adopt each character’s side in their arguments).
The first season of Looking deserves to be mentioned among the best gay male television shows of all time – and I for one am looking forward to seeing where the characters, and storylines, head in season two.