Monday, January 20, 2014

"Looking" Episode 1: Where the boys are

Posted By on Mon, Jan 20, 2014 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge looking.jpg

Sunday night HBO debuted its new drama/comedy "Looking," often referred to as "gay 'Girls'" or "guy 'Sex and the City'" or, as I call it, "a younger version of 'Golden Girls,' except set in San Francisco, and everyone has penises, not just Dorothy." (I kid. Lamely.)

Although the tone of the series is different from what I was expecting -- parts of it almost felt like a documentary -- I quite enjoyed the pilot. The show felt very authentic; these characters seemed like very real people who were doing and saying very real things. In an economical 30 minutes the episode established the three main characters, set the series firmly in San Francisco, kicked off the major character arcs, and even included a truncated handjob in the park. What more do you want?

Our protagonists are:

Patrick (played by Jonathan Groff), a 29-year-old video-game developer. Patrick is in many ways the ideal late-20something gay guy. He's cute. He's intelligent. He's perky. He is also kind of a mess. His longest relationship lasted six months (less than that, if you ask his friend), and it becomes clear pretty quickly that Patrick has no idea what he actually wants when it comes to his love life. In the course of one episode he goes cruising for sex in the park (ostensibly for "fun," but methinks the lady doth protest too much), obsessively checks his OKCupid account, goes on a borderline comically bad date, and passively flirts with a guy on the bus, who he dismisses because he's an aspiring hairdresser. At one point Patricks asks, "Why do I go on so many bad dates?" And a nation of perennially single gay men simultaneously said, "Yep," and then realized, "Oh, shit. That's why."

Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), Patrick's roommate, an assistant to an artist who makes terrible modern sculpture. Augustin got the short shrift in the premiere; he is the least defined of the main characters. We know that he is in a long-term relationship with Frank, and early in the episode they agree to move in together (note that Augustin never really gives Frank a reason why he's moving in now, after saying no to Frank twice before). Agustin seems to be the most "San Francisco" of the group, and apparently the most adventurous -- he engages in a spontaneous threeway with his partner and a colleague, despite an apparent lack of consensus about "guest stars" with Frank.

Dom (Murray Bartlett) is a 39-year-old certified hot piece who is finding that his stud services are not as in demand as they once were. (That twink was a fool, Dom; anyone who rejects the pick-up line, "Let me put my positive energy into your universe" is not worth your time.) Dom is a waiter and clearly expected more out of life. He is currently somewhat obsessed with an ex who is now very successful in the real-estate game, but who is also apparently a psycho.

The two major criticisms I've seen of the show thus far is that it is a) slow and b) overly obsessed with sex. I disagree with both. There was certainly a bit of a lull in the middle of the first episode. But when you consider how much character establishing went on in a relatively short amount of time, I hardly think you could argue it was "slow." "Quiet," is more like it, and that seems to be the aesthetic.

That is a change of pace from other gay-centric shows, most notably "Queer as Folk," to which "Looking" will obviously be compared. But "QAF" was often cartoonish in both its plots and its execution. "Looking" seems very, very real. Sometimes painfully so. The three main characters, especially Patrick, are unvarnished. While Patrick is likable and we immediately root for him, all of the nasty characteristics of gay culture were right there from the beginning. Superficial and shallow? Check. Status obsessed? Yep. Reflexively bitchy?Mmhmm.

But as hard as it was to see those characteristics on display, especially in the character who is unquestionably our chief protagonist, I found it refreshing to see such an honest portrayal on television. That painfully awkward date between Patrick and the doctor? How many of us have sat through a date just like that 10 times over? (Raises hand.) And seeing it played out in front of you on television, you realized that both parties involved were kind of awful.

The creators have wisely conceived main characters that should speak, in one way or another, to virtually any gay man in his 20s or 30s (and probably older). And I was impressed with how many real modern gay issues were tackled in that first episode. That bit about Patrick's ex getting engaged to a guy he met four months ago? That is totally a thing that is happening right now. Gay couples wrestling with the concept of monogamy? That's virtually every gay couple I know. (In Augustin's defense, the colleague had a tattoo of Dolly Parton's signature on his stomach. If that's not a green light from God, I don't know what is.) Dom dealing with the realities of aging in an image- and youth-obsessed culture? They've barely scratched the surface on that one.

As for the show's alleged obsession with sex, I say: bunk. In the first episode you had the interrupted park cruising, a couple wrapping up a session of wake-up sex, and the beginnings of a threeway. That's it. None of it was graphic. There was no nudity. The park sex and threeway could be accused of being sensational, except those things really do happen. And both scenes spoke to essential faults in the characters involved.

Yes, the characters talk about sex a lot. But these are gay men in their 20s/30s. Two out of three of them are single. It's going to come up. But consider what Dom and Patrick were expressing for most of the episode. These are men who are, as the series title explicitly states, looking for something more. Something deeper. And it isn't easy to find, regardless of your sexual orientation. When you are lonely and frustrated, as Dom and Patrick clearly are, you're logically going to turn to a quick fix for human intimacy. To me, the sex talk was less about actual sex, and a lot more about these guys searching for a connection, any connection.

My major concern, frankly, is that the most entertaining scenes by far involved minor characters. Dom's interaction with his female roommate (I think; she is also apparently his former girlfriend) had me literally laughing out loud. Ditto Patrick's discussion on online dating with his coworker, and Frank and Augustin's flirty drinks with their eventual conquest. I suppose it's natural that the three main characters, who have apparently been friends for a while, would be less "on" when they're around each other. But all of them were at their best when interacting with people we probably won't see all that often on the show.

What did you all think?

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