What did HBO’s “Looking: The Movie” accomplish?
The two-hour series finale of “Looking” began with a panorama of an American metropolis after HBO’s trademark static. We saw Patrick, the protagonist played by Jonathan Groff, who’s flown into San Francisco after nine months in Colorado. Catching a ride to his first stop (a Chinese diner, naturally; a character in Season Two noted that Patrick’s “always hungry”), he’s asked by the driver whether he’s visited before (yes), then why he’s back. Patrick tells him it’s for a wedding, and the driver asks whether that’s a good reason. Patrick answers honestly: ask him again on his way out.
This ambivalence is a fair nod to the series’ fans, plenty of whom wondered whether the two-hour special needed to happen at all. “Looking,” conceived by Michael Lannan on the heels of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, ran for two seasons, from 2014 to the middle of 2015. Most of the series’ best episodes felt a lot like Haigh’s film — a documentary-esque burner about two dudes who hook up and learn more about each other in two days than everyone else does in decades — but viewers unfamiliar with it immediately dubbed “Looking” a gay “Girls.” Or a gay “Sex and the City.” On the word of its staff and subject matter alone, and before it received its first reviews, the show was deemed a gay, consistently-well-shot-but-probably-contrived-narrative-of-thirty-somethings-in-a-major-American-city.
For better or worse, that preemptive assessment wasn’t too far off: the series followed Patrick and his friends, Dom and Agustin, as they negotiated a highly concentrated layer of gay life in the Bay area. They fell in and out of relationships. They danced at bars. They took drugs. They fell into relationships they had no business falling into, and found fresh and unique ways to destroy others that had everything going for them. Patrick’s biggest issue throughout the series was less with his sexuality than coming into his own as a person in the world, as someone who could take risks and invest in others.
Dom, acting as one half of Patrick’s conscience, shifted between a commitment to his profession and the demands of his relationships; while Agustin, serving as the other half, rose from addiction and spontaneity to become one of the show’s most grounded characters (his wedding is the one that Patrick’s flying back to town for). There’s Kevin, who wanted an open relationship, and Doris, Dom’s oldest-straight-friend, and Richie — arguably the series’ biggest missed opportunity as far as character development was concerned, as the character most amenable to investigating gayness’ relationship with race and class — who served as the love interest Patrick orbited for eighteen episodes.
Sometimes, “Looking” was just fine. Other times, it was brilliant. But mostly the series felt like a high-wire act between its actors and producers. The question wasn’t whether or not they could pull it off (they could), but whether it was sustainable, and then whether audiences were willing to deal with the inconsistency. A frequent critique of the series was that its characters were boring. No one did anything. The gays weren’t prancing and screaming and YAS-ing. The arcs that did exist were fluid, and characters disappeared for episodes at a time, and its protagonist was whiny and privileged and increasingly hard to empathize with — when Patrick himself in a fucked up situation, his audience seldom had reason to root for him. All too often, it was just too easy to side against him.
But at its best, the series was less of an explanation for gay life than an illustration of how banal it could sometimes be. “Looking”’s gayness wasn’t leading to any illumination in particular. It had no goal, no pent-up resolution. Dom and Agustin weren’t being gay, they just were (and, as Wesley Morris observed at Grantland, “Haigh and “Looking”’s creator, Michael Lannan, are both gay. The show they’ve made doesn’t pander to any audience. It is simply, though not solely, the product of an unprecedented social moment for gays and lesbians.”).
There are plenty of arguments about what makes art truly gay, or whether the show’s studied aloofness, with its insistence upon shrugging off any particular agenda, detracts from a queer aesthetic, or whether anyone was being let down, but the issue with “Looking” felt more like what the novelist Alan Hollinghurst said in the Paris Review about The Swimming Pool Library, a novel whose detractors had similar gripes — that Hollinghurst’s narrative didn’t have any particular message, that its characters were did little more than exist:
It was never designed to give a comprehensive or even particularly responsible picture of gay life. It was a book about the lives of some fairly peculiar people, which is what I’ve always been interested in examining. Nonetheless, part of its effect was that it revealed a world to a wider audience.
The shift in public opinion for the LGBTQ community over the last year paralleled the topics covered in the arc of the show. The Obergefell v. Hodges decision came down nearly four months after “Looking” was canceled, and by then, according to the Pew Research Center, only 39% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage (which included a rising favorability rising across all political spectrums, races, and religions). It’s one thing to watch Augustin gripe about gay complacency before marriage equality, and a whole subtle other to view those conversations afterwards. In the aftermath of the shootings at Pulse in Orlando, the series’ club scenes feel fleeting and foreboding.
So what did the show in? “Modern Family” and “Empire” and “The Real O’Neals” and any number of screening room-tested plot points have demonstrated that homosexuality, as an aggregate, isn’t the kill-switch it used to be (“The New Normal,” “One Big Happy,” “Smash,” and “Partners,” contrived as they may have been, weren’t cancelled because of their queerness, but because they were hot trash . What got “Looking,” in the end, was a certain type of gayness — the type that can carry your interest for thirty minutes, but doesn’t draw too-too much attention to itself. The type of gayness that is neither explicitly farcical, nor explicitly sexual, nor explicitly simple.
In 2012, Edmund White wrote in the New York Review of Books about the paradox of queer cultural transmission:
Since gay men rarely have gay parents, cultural transmission must come from friends or strangers (a problem since the generations so seldom mix in gay life). Another oddity is that the more one knows about gay culture (Broadway musicals, home decorating, the lingo), the less attractive one is to most gay men, who are generally looking for a bona fide macho man. Gay culture must be the only one that esteems precisely those who aren’t initiated. Imagine a devout Jew who rejected someone who knew the Torah.
Even if there aren’t enough, there are more ways to be openly gay in the United States than ever before. In the New York Times Magazine, Jenna Wortham wrote,“the speed with which modern society has adapted to accommodate the world’s vast spectrum of gender and sexual identities may be the most important cultural metamorphosis of our time.” “Looking” and Weekend and narratives that dare to simply be will have been crucial in getting us there.
It is one thing to watch “Looking” in the company of friends, or on the sofa with a lover, but re-watching the friendships develop on your own feels a lot like watching the crew behind cameras develop too. They’re getting just as comfortable with the actors’ silences, and learning to read the faces in front of the cameras. Mistakes made in the first season were amended in the second, and plot holes in its characters’ backgrounds were filled in. What sometimes felt like a lack of holistic diversity in the first season (they really couldn’t find one black gay in San Francisco?) was at least nodded to in the second (and particularly due to, I think, the script-work of Tanya Saracho; her episodes felt immediately, deeply, rounder, and lifting its characters from gentrified San Francisco gave the show some of its most honest moments).
By the second season’s penultimate episode, the banter was reliably in place. It was okay to introduce new characters, because the friend-group had been solidified. There was no need to set jokes up, because we knew the people telling them. The tragedy in “Looking”’s cancellation, maybe more so than what it could’ve been, is that the series evaporated right in the midst of its becoming.
The two-hour series finale premiered in June, on the closing night of San Francisco’s Frameline festival, but it aired on cable last Saturday. Nearly 284,000 people tuned in. Time called it a “moodily made made argument to check out a series that deserves a long afterlife.” But given a fan-base that was always small and often divided, some wondered whether the series even needed a wrap-up: its narrative arcs had reached their natural lulls. The second season’s final scene implicated that Patrick was ready to get his shit together — he told Richie he was ready to give their relationship a go. There was little reason to doubt him; it was a note as good as any to leave its viewer on forever.
But the real ending is the camera panning out immediately afterwards — this is one couple, in one city, at one point in time. It may or may not work out for Patrick and Richie. If the evidence is any indicator, it probably won’t. But it also very well may; and either way, life will go on; and this is as valid a parting message for the series as any they’ve delivered before.
Bryan Washington divides his time between Houston and New Orleans. He is working on a collection of short stories.