HBO’s Looking Is Smart, Diverse, and Real

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Jan. 16 2014 12:19 PM

Looking Good

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LOOKING
Jonathan Groff and Raul Castillo in Looking.

Photo courtesy John P. Johnson/HBO

In the first episode of Looking,—HBO’s lovely new series about a group of gay men living in San Francisco created by Michael Lannan and directed by Weekend’s Andrew Haigh—Patrick (Jonathan Groff), a video game designer, finds himself on a first date with an oncologist who never plays video games. The two are a bad match, a circumstance compounded by Patrick’s nerves. As the date goes on, Patrick flirtatiously and a little misleadingly suggests that he’s not looking for anything serious, misreading his date’s intentions. The doctor, uptight and under the unkind first impression that Patrick is not quite smart or substantial enough for him, ends the date abruptly. Then, judgment implicit, he observes that Patrick had two glasses of wine to his one and splits the check proportionately.  

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Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Here we are, simultaneously in completely familiar and unfamiliar territory: the bad first date that is, also, the bad, gay first date—and a bad, gay first date that is not the B storyline, will not be followed by scenes starring straight people, and does not feature stereotypically campy gay men. This would be enough to justify Looking’s existence on purely sociological grounds. It’s 2014 and there have been—as Emily Nussbaum observed in her glowing review for The New Yorker—a number of shows by gay men, but none as calmly, insularly gay as Looking, which contains less than five (small) speaking parts for straight people. If representation is important, Looking is doing some important representing. But what elevates Looking above being a “symbol of serious progress,” is that it is not content to be just that: thus the perfect, knifing observation about the worst person in the world, the guy counting everyone else’s drinks. Progress is admirable, but progress is dry, as pleasures go: Looking provides more. (I do feel obliged by the preceding sentence structure to inform you that Looking is not, however, wet. The first four episodes are relatively chaste by HBO’s Game of Thrones standards.)

Looking features three gay men who are, as the title suggests, searching: for partners, for careers, and, mostly, for themselves. Groff stars as 29-year-old Patrick, a man who has never had a relationship longer than six months, but not because he is big into casual sex. He seems plagued by mild sexual insecurity: the fear that he has not had enough sex, or that he somehow projects the vibe that he has not had enough sex. (“I’m not like fresh off the bus. I know how to have sex,” he tells a date, drunkenly, defensively, in the second episode.) Patrick lives with Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), his roommate and friend since college, an artist who works for other artists instead of making art. In the first episode, Agustin decides to move to Oakland with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle), a step toward domesticity that immediately has him asserting his sexual freedoms. Rounding out the trio is the mustachioed Dom (Murray Bartlett), who is about to be 40, has been working as waiter for nearly a decade, and is just now starting to be turned down by younger men—all of which are factors pushing him to start a restaurant of his own.

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I hope that I have expended a sufficient number of kind words on Looking at this point that I may safely bring up Girls without alienating anyone who hates Girls and/or hates reading about Girls. Looking and Girls are superficially similar: Both are series about a group of friends set in specific social milieus that mix comedy and drama, feature characters with a tendency toward solipsism, and focus on interpersonal relationships. (They even both have stiff, de rigueur jokes about social media in their first episodes.) But Looking, and maybe HBO more largely, appear to have learned some important lessons from Girls, the most obvious of which is: diversity. Looking tells a diverse story, and not in some cheap just-hire-a-Hispanic-person-to-play-the-friend way.

The three leads all have differing financial circumstances: The video game designer can afford to lose his roommate, while the 39-year-old waiter still has one. And Looking feels particularly and subtly attuned to the way distinctions in race and class play out: the way that Patrick, hit upon by very handsome, butch Mexican hairdresser Richie (Raul Castillo) soon after his bad date, initially assumes the guy is beneath him because he cannot pronounce “oncology”; Patrick’s shock when he discovers Richie is wearing that extremely common object, a necklace with Christ on it; Agustin’s observation that Patrick just dates “Stanford assholes”; Dom’s self-identification as a former Modesto redneck.*

And Looking is careful to keep its flawed and complicated main characters far from the unlikability cliff, even though Patrick, like Hannah Horvath, can be a self-involved jerk. In the third episode Patrick observes, “All I do lately is give people the wrong impression.” Having watched him bobble social situation after social situation, it seems clear to us, the audience, that these “wrong impressions” have also been flashes of his true self: Patrick does not always say or do the right thing, and it’s not always an accident. There is one particularly awful incident the first time he goes to bed with Richie, an instant, sickening classic in the annals of cringeworthy television. Afterward, on the phone with Agustin he says, earnestly, “I think I might be racist,” a skewering self-assessment that keeps us on his side despite his bad behavior.

Alessandra Stanley, in her co-review of Girls and Looking for the New York Times, thought the character’s knowingness was a flaw. “Wryly self-aware, [they] make one another laugh and share a fundamental decency that is both commendable and a little boring,” she wrote, contrasting Looking’s guys to Girls’ girls, who are not decent or self-aware or, implicitly, boring at all. But laughing at oneself is a much more common human characteristic than bold and unrepentant shitheadery (which is not to say I don’t like shameless egoists on my TV shows from time to time.) Patrick’s moment of light self-flagellation didn’t feel boring to me. Like the rest of his show, it felt real.

Disclosure: Slate deputy editor Julia Turner's husband works on the show.

Correction, Jan. 16, 2014: This review originally misidentified the character of Dom’s origins. He’s a Modesto redneck, not a Mendocino one. (Return.)