Review: LOOKING, Season 1

It took a while, but HBO’s Looking has finally found its audience (the ratings have climbed steadily these past few weeks) and its dramatic arc.

For much of its first season, Looking was a fly-on-the-wall, half-hour dramedy about the lives of three gay friends living in San Francisco that was perpetually stuck in neutral.  The show had a lot going for it – a polished documentary-flavored visual aesthetic (thanks to filmmaker Andrew Haigh), a charming lead performance by Jonathan Groff as Patrick, a frank yet tasteful depiction of gay intimacy, and smart character-driven offhanded humor – but it lacked any real sense of drama.  That all changed within the season’s last three episodes, with this past Sunday’s finale being the most emotionally challenging and purposefully open-ended.  It’s a good thing HBO has decided to renew the series for a second season, because the show has finally earned its stripes and its fans will likely be eager to see how a newly-formed love triangle will play itself out.

After a beautifully self-contained fifth episode where Patrick and Richie look towards the future, at last the show adds some heat in its sixth episode, beginning with Augustin’s hurtful criticisms of Richie upon meeting him during Dom’s 40th birthday celebrations.  Augustin claims that Patrick is settling for a man with no real life goals other than living day-to-day, which naturally Richie overhears.  Add this to an earlier awkward encounter with Patrick’s boss Kevin, where Patrick unfoundedly claims that Richie has dreams to open his own barber shop someday, and you can see the beginnings of relationship doom.  In fact, sexual tensions between Kevin and Patrick reach a boiling point in episode 7, when they coincidentally are attending the same wedding together (a wedding Richie was also supposed to attend before a nerve-induced fight spoiled the fun) and share a steamy drunken kiss.  Outside of Patrick’s problems (and they are numerous), Dom is trying to start a pop-up chicken restaurant while disastrously flirting with love from his older financial backer, Lynn.  But the most tense and uncomfortable storyline late in Season 1 is reserved for the increasingly repulsive Augustin, who pays a male escort to sleep with his clueless boyfriend, Frank, while videotaping it for an art installation.  Some of this drama feels forcibly written, but it is all winningly acted by the talented cast and never comes off less than sincere.

Looking is at its best when it deals directly with genuine human emotions, and though its characters continue to make stupid decisions, it comes from an honest place.  Take for instance Patrick’s seemingly never-ending ability to self-sabotage anything good in his life, especially his relationships.  He blames his mother for his commitment issues due to her not being as open with him about his life as he would like, and for her unrealistic expectations in those he might wish to date.  In one of the show’s best scenes, this notion is turned on its head when the mother reverses everything back to Patrick when she reveals she now uses pot to treat her depression after getting off of Lexapro.  Patrick is shocked by the discovery until his mom quips “if you asked me how I was doing every now and then, you’d know.” In one fleeting moment the show manages to depict the realities of baseless expectations, while also giving voice to the complicated struggle of understanding between gay children and their parents.  In the season’s final episode, after finding himself on rickety footing with Richie, Patrick gives in to his mounting attraction to his boss (who also happens to be in a relationship) and sleeps with him in their office. When Patrick asks Kevin “what now?” and he simply replies “I don’t know”, it feels refreshing that the show is willing to linger in such a gray area with its characters.  Looking never judges its characters no matter how questionable their actions; instead it searches for the unfailing truth in every situation which keeps the show fresh, even when they are exploring more conventional drama mechanics.

The show’s one big failing is its development of Augustin.  The character is a mess with almost no redeeming qualities — and when, in the season’s final episode, Frank finally throws him out for his lying and blatantly destructive patterns, it’s hard to care about his fate (though it is nice to see Frank be given something to play other than doting boyfriend).  It just feels like a long time coming.  Augustin has been a negative instigator from episode 1 and while other characters in the show do despicable things, at least they are well-rounded enough to overcome them.  When Augustin is found back in Patrick’s apartment asleep to The Golden Girls, the sentiment seems to be that your friends will always be there and your lovers will come and go, but who needs or would want to hold onto a friend like Augustin?  He is so destructive to himself and others that it becomes parody, and every time he’s on screen the life is sucked out of the show, despite a committed turn by Frankie J. Alvarez.

Season 1 of Looking ends with many threads left dangling and many moral questions lingering in the air.  Though the idea of a love-triangle between Patrick, Richie, and Kevin may seem conventional, the possibilities hidden within are intriguing.  Looking has a way of defying expectations and its final scene between Patrick and Richie is brutal in its execution of things said and others left unsaid.  And that is where the show shines – in its subtext.  Looking has finally found its drive and now that so much of the exposition is out of the way, next season should be able to build on the foundation laid here.  The show would still work better as an hour-long drama as it would give the narrative an opportunity to breathe and to further character development, but beggars can’t be choosers.  With a show this deceptively special, you should be grateful for what’s there.

Season Grade: B

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