Midseason Check-In: LOOKING

It seems strange, but only four episodes in, we are now halfway through the entire first season of Looking.

The new HBO dramedy’s pilot was a breath of fresh air with its realistic depiction of modern gay life in San Francisco.  It successfully avoided the pitfalls of many other half-hour shows, including those in HBO’s own critically acclaimed catalogue, by imbedding humor within natural dialogue and sidestepping obvious punch lines with honest character-driven reactions.  But the show has struggled to find an audience and its ratings are dismal — despite a lead-in from the ever-popular comedy, Girls.  The cable network giant only ordered eight episodes for Looking’s first season, and unless things start to pick up considerably for the show, they very well might be the last.

For four episodes the show has ever so slowly begun to develop its characters through a series of interactions with side players who are, so far, rather one-note.  Patrick (Jonathan Groff) works by day as a video game developer, and by night he tries to navigate his embarrassing love life.  As seen in the pilot, Patrick always says the wrong thing at the wrong time and has successfully destroyed every date we’ve seen him go on since, including that of his on-and-off again Latin flame, Richie.  He also has a mild flirtation at work with his new boss, which the show thankfully hasn’t tried to turn into a romance…yet.  Dom (Murray Bartlett) has developed the most interesting backstory thanks to an interaction with a former partner whom he gave money to help him recover from a meth addiction.  However, his new business venture of opening up a Portuguese chicken restaurant seems desperate and undercooked, despite the plot line introducing us to the warm presence of TV veteran Scott Bakula.  It should be noted that Dom’s roommate Doris (Lauren Weedman) continues to pop up randomly and deliver dry wit in her hag role, but that’s about all the show seems to be interested in letting her do.  After teasing us with a relationship-changing sexual three-way in the pilot, Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) have since barely spent any screen time together, but Augustin has managed to lose his artist’s assistant job and develop a crush on a male escort.

The problem with the show is not that these plot lines are uninteresting, but that the narrative has no room to breathe.  Every time the audience is introduced to a new character, they only get to spend a few precious minutes with them before suddenly moving on to the next moment.  It seems that as soon as an episode gets interesting the credits begin to roll.  Looking does not fit into the typical sitcom formula at all, and with Andrew Haigh dictating the show’s visual tone, which is stripped down and observational, it would behoove the showrunners and the HBO bigwigs to consider moving into the direction of an hour-long drama.  With more room to build relationships and dramatic situations over a longer episode running time, the stakes would certainly be much higher. This, of course, is entirely dependent on the show getting green-lit for a second season.  As it stands now, it feels like in every episode we are dropping into fragments of scenes that are clipped to their bare essentials.  Admittedly, the show does work better when the episodes are watched back to back, but unless viewers wait until the end of the season when all episodes are available on HBO GO, that doesn’t seem like a logical viewing schedule.

The acting remains charming and genial, even when the characters say or do some cringe-worthy things.  The show’s most uncomfortable and eye-roll-inducing moment comes in the second episode, when concerns about Richie being “uncut” lead Patrick (who continues to be a little too lost in the woods for a 28-year-old) into embarrassing himself at his apartment by bringing it up; Richie is of course offended (as was probably over half the audience) and flees Patrick’s apartment.  The episode redeems itself due to Haigh’s sharp writing and directing, by having Patrick admit to Augustin on the phone that he “might be a racist.”  It’s a hysterical line and makes up for all the stereotyping happening earlier.  And that is exactly when Looking works best: when Haigh and company turn expectations in on themselves, and offer universal truths about the human condition.

Looking remains a warm curiosity for HBO that hasn’t quite found its footing yet.  The show’s affable nature and its commitment to a measured, realistic approach is what keeps it watchable, but that isn’t going to be enough for the long haul.  If Looking wants to remain on the air, it’s going to have to up the stakes considerably within the next few episodes.  The preview for this Sunday’s 5th episode looks to be a little mini-story with Patrick and Richie reconnecting and getting to know each other on a more romantic date.  While great character development might happen here, what the show really needs is some heightened drama – a throughline to carry the plot into the very last episode and, hopefully, next season.

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