‘Looking’ Season 2 Gets Gay Romance Right — But Is That Enough?

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While perusing a certain gay “dating” app about a month ago, I stumbled upon a person who wrote on his profile, in response to the loaded question “What are you looking for?”: “Someone to get me off of this thing.” It made me remember how, once, when I broke it off with a person I’d met on one such app, he’d referred to it as a place, saying, “I don’t want to go back there.”

So, at the eerily still hour of 2 AM, or whatever incriminating time it was when I saw this profile, that phrase — “get me off this thing” — made the whole endeavor seem particularly purgatorial. In the iPhone-lit dead of night, all of the tiny squares of shirtless men seemed like trapped souls (for this time of night also opens up the mind to all forms of over-dramatization), and it was surprising that they didn’t start desperately trying to pummel their way out of my screen with whichever bulging bicep wasn’t occupied with taking a selfie, or laser themselves out with their steely sex stares. Of course, if you have the energy, you can always conjure one such soul into existence, but, like most apparitions, they’re almost guaranteed to sink back into their liminal state within a matter of hours. Looking would not be a particularly special show if it weren’t for this contemporary factor of gay life, and for Looking‘s oddly old-fashioned, general avoidance of it.

I came into watching the second season of Looking with a bad attitude — the attitude of a someone who, throughout the first season, felt he’d been condescended to by the show’s paltry offerings, by the self-congratulatory laziness that dictated it win praise simply for being the “gay” show. This, here, was HBO’s attempt to cater to people who, in response to any show’s offering of a gay supporting character, had always been expected to act like puppies who’d just been given a biscuit. Now, here were five-or-more central gay characters, all on the same show! That’s a lot of biscuits. And to ask for more than mere biscuits would, of course, be pushing it.

At the time it seemed abundantly clear that Looking had little more to offer. It lacked humor, lacked drama, and was just, generally, lackadaisical. So I was surprised when I woke up from a San-Francisco-foggy daze one morning and — poof! — realized I had watched the whole first season. I’d like to think it wasn’t entirely a matter of masturbatory foreplay.

In the past, and in the hetero present, romance, when it lacks an intense dramatic tone or high dramatic stakes, has mostly been coupled with humor. See You’re the Worst, Sex and the City, or just about anything else for examples of this: for most people, romance needs to be paired with wit (or, on the flip side, tragedy) to be worth watching. If a show is going to explore relationships without anyone dying, it better make us chuckle up a storm. Because relationships happen to (almost) everyone. They’re wonderful, but banal. Laughs are the extra icing a show can provide to make this wonderful banality inviting to outsiders. With Looking, you won’t laugh, and thus far, nobody has died. The portrayal of intense, meaningful, and caring relationships themselves are not given this icing. But perhaps because of the Grindr factor I mentioned, icing-less relationships are enough to have made an enthusiastic viewer out of me.

Season 2 kicks off with a destabilizing episode: the show seems to want to shake its San Franciscan identity a bit, and takes us on a detour. The fab three are staying at Dom’s (Murray Bartlett) new boyfriend Lynn’s cabin (you’ll recall: Lynn was his silver-fox chicken benefactor in the first season) somewhere near a massive queer bacchanalia in the woods. The three discuss the recent developments in their love lives — Patrick (Jonathan Groff), our milquetoast leading man, is having an affair with his “taken” British boss (Kevin, played by Russell Tovey, who you’ll recall from Season 1 as the show’s wittiest character and he who possesses the show’s best ears). Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) is on something of a drug/booze/depression binge after his breakup/”artistic” mental break. And of course Doris tags along, uttering her weirdly stereotypical “fag-haggy” lines about having last had sex in 1994, and saying, “I think I get it now — gay rugby is all about the showers afterwards!” (Despite my griping about the writing of her character, Lauren Weedman is one of the best actors on the show.)

In this episode, Augustín meets Eddie (Mean Girls‘ Daniel Franzese), an HIV-positive LGBT activist who will obviously become a love interest. Jonathan Groff gets fucked against a tree. End Episode 1.

This episode is underwhelming because these characters’ chemistry as friends has always been trumped by the chemistry they share with their significant others. While creator Andrew Haigh proves an expert at writing fiery romantic/sexual pairings, his portrayal of friendship never seems quite as nuanced (as Saeed Jones pointed out, it’s Doris and Dom’s friendship that’s the most electric). The friendships aren’t illogical like those of the Girls characters; they’re just not that thrilling. In isolating them without their respective love interests/drama-inducers, the episode eschews what Looking does best.

But by Episode 2, we see that as far as its depiction of relationships goes, Looking still excels — and as I previously mentioned, its main, and only, ambition is to present honest, not even particularly eventful, gay relationships. Patrick is becoming more and more intoxicated by his affair with his boss, and wants him to break up with his boyfriend. There’s also the looming specter of Richie (Raúl Castillo), who Patrick treated poorly, in part due to a perceived socioeconomic/racial disconnect; thankfully, Richie isn’t a specter for long. His reappearance reignites the potential for the same tense almost-love triangle we saw last season. As Dom’s relationship with Lynn seems to fizzle out, Agustín courts Eddie. Even Doris gets a little tail this time around (finally, the show has decided to grant her a sex life of her own, though she’s still stuck saying things like, “Rimming isn’t just for gay guys anymore.”)

The show has always been commendably forthright in its approach to trans-generational, interracial, and economically imbalanced relationships: its pairing of characters with notable differences brings an occasional profundity to the show, and through the insularity of relationships, taps into subtle explorations of race, class, and age. Season 2 deepens this tendency. It also heightens its candor — both in the wild sexiness and occasional perfunctory, and occasionally scatalogical, unsexiness — of gay sex. The power of “being represented” has rarely spoken to me so much as in a scene, a couple of episodes in, where Patrick bashfully purchases two disposable enema kits at a pharmacy. The power of “being represented” also spoke to me when, after using said enema, Patrick graphically fucks and cuddles with the guy he’s in love with. Thanks HBO! This gratitude sounds tongue-in-cheek. It is, to some extent. But part of it is wrenchingly real.

During the early episodes of Season 1, the purgatory of online dating was a definite presence. There was an anonymous Grindr hookup. There was great deliberation over the text on Patrick’s OkCupid profile. Quickly afterward, once love came to our protagonist — once most everyone on the show was involved in a longer-term relationship — the technological imprisonment of gay sex and love broke away. Even now, in the second season, when certain relationships have ended and others are budding, mechanized courtship has ceased to exist in the world of the show; it’s as though Patrick began as a square on the Grindr grid, as part of a disembodied chorus chiming, “Get me out of here,” and suddenly, some larger force magicked all the characters back to another era of gay courtship, from which they never returned. Dom met Lynn in a sauna. Augustín met Eddie at a party in the woods. Patrick met Kevin at work. It almost makes the show seem dated. And I like that.

Looking — named, in part, after the word used on Grindr accounts to suggest that someone is currently DTF — halts the “looking.” It provides an alternative to the grid of fuckable ephemera: some not-too-interesting characters fall in love, and that love develops or weakens. Doesn’t sound like that enthralling of a premise, but hell, I’ll watch it. After now experiencing one-and-a-half seasons of at times somniferous, at times heart-swelling immersion in these relationships, I’m starting to get why “relationships” are enough to make a good, escapist “gay” TV show.