It can take a while for the right chemicals (dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin) to commingle to make you feel attached to someone — or to the creepily convincing simulacral someones that are today’s naturalistic television characters. One of the reasons why realistically portraying flawed — often annoying — characters in the serial format has been so successful is because of the slow-burning nature of falling in love with people who may kind of irk you. If you’re stuck with somewhat sucky TV characters long enough, they, like a stable, if mismatched and unpleasant, partner, become an indelible part of your being — especially if the show they exist in features them bearing their souls. And butts. That is, until HBO kills that show, as they’ve done with Andrew Haigh’s Looking.
I didn’t ultimately fall hard for Looking — despite the still un-wooed, but equivocally intrigued review I wrote at the beginning of Season 2 — because it became an excellent show, though it did undeniably become a better show. Rather, I grew fond because its whole eventless formula is based on the idea that, eventually, the love chemicals would forge a bond between viewers and the assorted Lookers it presents. Despite some ridiculous criticism about the show being unpolitical, it importantly, and politically, asserts the existence (for some) of a new, mainstream gay banality — of a group of buds who make rim-job jokes and practice what they joke, and whose lives and roles in society aren’t threatened or compromised by that. Obviously, not everyone’s gay life is so mundanely enchanted, but thankfully there are some places where being gay is, now, a lot easier — and this show set a precedent by proving gay lives’ ability to be just as sweetly soporific as anyone else’s. Looking posed the interesting question of what happens to gay identity — especially onscreen gay identities — when it’s removed from dominant cultural narratives of victimization.
It didn’t initially capture viewers for just this reason: its very blandness and aversion to emotional or humorous explosions was counter to the act of “capturing.” Early on, it didn’t capture me for this reason. But two seasons provided enough immersion in the often petty lives of Patrick, Agustín, and Dom to make me, ultimately, want to keep and cherish that pettiness — and spend a little longer avoiding my own. It was the most honest form of (normative, extremely bourgeois) gay escapism anyone could ask for.
In most tragic drama — the kind that Looking deliberately eschewed — a protagonist who will die undergoes some great, impressive change first; they fall in love, they address a character flaw. That is what makes it all the more tragic when the character suddenly perishes. Towards the end, Looking happened to be solving a great deal of its own problems.
The most fundamental one was that the three main characters weren’t all that intriguing — not insomuch as they were “flawed.” They were just a little lame, and their love interests were far more enticing. Jonathan Groff’s Patrick had the problem of exaggerated protagonist narcissism. Dom had the problem of being defined by the fact that he was edging into daddy-dom, that he had a temper, that he came equipped with a fag hag, and that he had a (literal) chicken obsession. Agustín was simply a terror.
In the first season, and early in the second, the show seemed less self-aware about all of this. But later, the characters began addressing the fact that they sucked — when Dom’s paltry poultry idea became even more farcical (I mean, it’s called “Dom’s Chicken”) and almost ruined his most important relationship, when Patrick was confronted with how poorly he treated Raúl Castillo’s Richie and we glimpsed his WASPy entitlement rooted in his uncomfortably conservative upbringing, and when Agustín spent the whole season trying to be less destructive and actually succeeding.
The most beautiful change has been the show’s focus, in the latter half of the second season, on Lauren Weedman’s Doris. In my initial review of the first half of the season, I said that I wanted to see more from her; she’s perhaps the most intriguing, vivacious actor on the show, and she’d initially been relegated to the stereotype of female accessory clinging to gay lives — denied her own, seemingly by the script. Later in this season, however, she addresses this stereotype, and the fact that her close relationship with Dom has made her lose herself. When her father dies, Dom and Patrick follow her to Modesto for the funeral (which, despite being a funeral, is as emotionally subdued as the rest of the show). There, we start to understand that her codependent relationship with Dom has very deep roots. Doris finally, and so poignantly, makes sense.
The other thing I’d found curious was the show’s strange — but not entirely unpleasant — oversight when it came to the dictatorial presence of dating and sex apps in gay courtship. It was inexplicable that all of these “realistic” characters were spending their days out in the world, meeting men in the beautiful Northern Californian open, with disproportionately little mention of bedroom-bound, grid-scanning benders (a word combination that would have been utter gibberish a decade ago). I’d noted that this made the show seem more fantastical and escapist than it intended. The show began with Patrick toiling to perfect his OKCupid profile — which he quickly abandoned. But in the its final episode, after two seasons of real, bodied courtship, it was the virtual gay world that invaded — and seemingly decimated — Patrick’s burgeoning perfect life with Russell Tovey’s Kevin. It acknowledged that through the mundane but exhilaratingly real-life courtships, the virtual never stopped silently luring characters towards its game of instant gratification and isolation. It’s a cynical but perhaps fitting, and entirely smart, place for the show to (unintentionally) end. (We will, however, be getting a loose-ends-tying special in lieu of another season, so we’ll have to see whether that muddles or strengthens the thoughtful work the show has done in its last episodes).
The cliché goes that death is met with reverence, with the sudden exoneration of the dead for all their ills; at funerals, it is the positive attributes that are discussed. But Looking was addressing its own flaws just before it ended, and it fascinatingly managed to turn them into virtues. It had also been on air for just long enough for its crucial vision of gay boredom to become something to which we could become emotionally attached. Alas, there will be no more Looking “for Glory,” “for Home,” “for Sanctuary,” or for chicken — there will now be no more Looking for anything except another TV show that so candidly and centrally depicts gay stuff outside of traditionally victimized narratives.