June Thomas: Bryan, we’re three-tenths into Season 2 of Looking, the HBO dramedy about three young-ish gay men looking for love and self-actualization in San Francisco, and you and I have seen the first five episodes.* Last year, you wrote an impassioned piece asking why the show was so “boring” and questioning the authenticity of its portrayal of contemporary gay life. Changes were made for the sophomore season, and I’m wondering if you like the show any better this time around?
J. Bryan Lowder: Oh, my dearest June, “like” is such a complicated word, isn’t it? You ask me do I “like” Looking better this season, given that I did not “like” it very much when it was hailed as the messiah of gay representation last year. Well, I guess one answer to that question is that I do not find it as troubling as I did in Season 1. But I’m not sure that means I “like” it better—the changes you mention have improved the show to the point that I am no longer bothered by it on political grounds, but my ire has been replaced with indifference.
As you noted, much of my critique last winter was leveled at Looking’s weird disconnect from anything that resembled an identifiably gay culture or social world, especially in a queered-out city like San Francisco. This has been fixed—rather bluntly, to my eye—but still fixed. There is a Radical Faerie who flits by in the first episode. We touch upon trans youths and serodiscordant sex. There is a (briefly visited) gay bar that has some drag queens milling about outside, and, in the most interesting storyline thus far, we are learning about Lynn’s former partner Brian, who was lost to the plague. While a lot of these recognizably gay moments tend to feel tacked on to a pre-existing script, I have to give the team credit for trying. The show about gay guys in a super gay city now actually feels gay. Good job.
That said, I am now beginning to wonder if fixing that has only revealed that Looking’s problem wasn’t just a lack of gay verité, but also regular old bad writing. Who are these people? Why are they friends? Why does Patrick make the most annoying and stagey faces during normal conversations? All of these questions are eating at me, and they are normal problems, not gay ones. But I think you maybe like the show more? Defend!
June: Bryan, you young grump! I am beginning to suspect that Looking’s version of gay normcore will never rock your radical homosexualist world. I not only “like” it more than you do, I actively enjoy its strange, otherworldly charms. Of course, it’s easier for me to take pleasure in its slightly misshapen form, because the stakes are lower for an old dyke like me—whereas, of course, every annoying tic in The L Word drove me up the wall. Where you see creatures who claim to be young gay men—just like you!—but are unrecognizable, I just see children who don’t waste time on processing every emotion that arises; young, educated adults who seem immune to the venomous bursts of outrage that many young queers are exposed to. In short, I see guys having fun.
Well, they were having fun—even if they paused to ask, “Wait, is this fun?” more than they really needed to—but I enjoyed watching them experience all the pleasures available to attractive, gainfully employed, or otherwise privileged young dudes. At the beginning of this season, though, it seemed like the fun was over, or at least self-consciously curtailed. The first minutes of Season 2 saw the core characters—Patrick, Agustín, and Dom—off in a gorgeous house on the Russian River where they were ... playing board games and sipping iced tea. It transpired that they were staging an impromptu intervention on Agustín, and Christ was maturity dull. Then Doris—one of the show’s actual adults, because even though she does irresponsible things with her homos, she’s a serious hard-cases nurse in real life—magically appeared in a cab from the city and sprinkled fairy dust (and Molly) over them. Soon they were dancing, doing drugs, and having sex in the woods. It looked like fun, but I have no idea what it all meant.
But it was at least a display of ambition or serious intent or something on the part of the show’s creators.
Bryan: I think you’ve just cut to the heart of the matter. Yes, you’re right that the timbre of the show is not for me—I admitted that much even last year. (I also did not like executive producer Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, which is even more widely praised.) But I do think it is possible to be averse to muted blues and still critique this show on its own terms. Here’s the thing: Certain forms, like a two-hour film, say, are good at the slice-of-life, every moment empty and yet loaded with meaning thing, which I do sometimes like. I do not think that a serial dramedy is one of those forms. Over the course of many episodes, evocative sparseness quickly becomes thin writing. I have now spent 13 episodes with these men, and I still don’t get who they are as people or why they interact in the world. Yes, they do things, some of which are fun, and some of which are sad, and some of which are sort of hard, but I have no idea why I should care. There just isn’t enough texture or background. They have no interests or investments, no real internal lives. They just act and react and Patrick makes weird smirky faces all the time. I think it is telling that at this point, I would be more jazzed to watch a show comprising the minor characters—Lynn, Eddie, Richie, and maybe Doris (though she is kind of a caricature)—than the one we have.
June: The thinness of the central characters and the contrasting fullness of the more minor players is a very puzzling aspect of Looking, but it is undeniable. Take Kevin, Patrick’s boss and sort of secret lover. He has more screen time this year, but he’s still secondary, yet I know him far better than I do Patrick, Agustín, or Dom. I know where he’s from, what his childhood was like, who his boyhood friends were, what card games he played, which pop group’s dance moves he copied. I don’t understand every bit of his psychology—is he just a standard adulterer who’ll never leave his official boyfriend for his bit on the side; is he sticking with John for the sake of a green card; or is he, like Patrick, Agustín, and Dom, lost and looking for direction? Still, he’s not a complete cipher, as the main protagonists are.
I suspect the explanation for this is that Patrick, Agustín, and Dom are all such kids. They’re 30 (or 40 in Dom’s case) going on 24. How else to explain the odd way that Patrick’s interaction with the nurse conducting an HIV test was so much like Hannah Horvath’s when she took an HIV test in the first season of Girls. Patrick and Hannah both said dumb things to a medical professional who was shocked and appalled to come across a person so out of touch with the reality of what it means to be a responsible grown-up—or at least a person old enough to have sex—or maybe just a person who doesn’t know to keep their most stupid and self-obsessed thoughts to themselves. When I’m watching Girls, though, I always know that Lena Dunham is aware that a) Hannah Horvath is a self-obsessed, immature idiot; but that b) she also knows that Hannah cannot display any awareness of her shortcomings. I’m not convinced that the creators of Looking understand that their main characters are such oblivious idiots.
Bryan: My queen, I’m glad you said it for me: My main issue with the show at this point—gay authenticity and narrative style aside—is that all of the main characters are like a decade older than they should be, given the SHENANIGANS they find themselves caught up in. It’s not that the #thestruggleisreal moments Patrick or Agustín or Dom face are outlandish in and of themselves, but many of them are absurd to place in the path of a 30- to 40-year-old gay man in a major queer city.
I propose that Looking would immediately become about 75 percent more plausible if they adjusted the ages to, like, 19-24 and put all the boys in a dorm at Stanford or somewhere. Are gay men sometimes unduly neurotic about HIV tests? Yes—especially when they are 20 and have not had many yet. Surely a hypochondriac like Patrick has had dozens of these tests by the time he approached 30. Similarly, it would take a young twentysomething’s mentality to look at an older man who has it as together as Lynn does and imagine that they were taking a tantrum-prone waiter seriously as a potential partner. Yet messy, whiney Dom, who is 40, does this. I just don’t understand. There are so many moments like that, where an event and response that would be acceptable with a gaybie ring completely false and annoying with a man further along in his (gay) life. I guess we are supposed to have empathy for these beautiful disasters, three of whom somehow depend on each other and don’t starve to death, but I just can’t. It’s all too contrived and obscene.
June: I really do enjoy the show, but how many times can the adults—Richie, and Lynn, and Eddie for three—roll their eyes at the daft things Patrick, Agustín, and Dom do before every viewer across America yells at their set, “Leave these lads alone until they grow up! Richie, you and Eddie should hang out together, you’ll need several dinner dates just to talk about Agustín’s cluelessness. And Lynn, you need to have dinner with Malik, Doris’ unicorn boyfriend, his contacts in the mayor’s office could be useful for your business interests.”
Bryan: That made me feel better, June, truly. I think what I’ve learned most from sitting through the first half of this second season is just that I’m not a very patient or compassionate person, not for fools anyway. I get the sense that a lot of people like Looking because they think the boys are pretty and take pity on their silliness. I just can’t. If I met Patrick in a bar, I might think he was cute—but as soon as he started trying to tell me about his “Oh, he’s so campy!” friend or about the fact that he douched for the first time, at 30, this weekend, because he is so uninformed about bottoming that he thinks you actually have to do that every time, I would be soooo done. Immaturity and privileged ignorance is not cute, and it’s not a surprising or brave thing for a show to investigate. That said, I do like Lynn’s storyline, and functionally gay Eddie is a fun new face. What was it you liked again, June?
June: Hmm, yes, my defense hasn’t exactly been full-throated, has it! It’s rare that anything makes me feel mature, and Looking does, so there’s that. I love Doris—yes, a caricature, but a loving, joyful one. And not to reignite the Kids Are All Right-era do-lesbians-really-like-gay-male-porn debate, but I find it sexy. Rewind and watch again sexy. So sue me!
Disclosure: Slate editor Julia Turner’s husband works on the show.
*Correction, Feb. 2, 2015: This post originally misstated the number of episodes that have aired—three, not four, had aired by the time this discussion was published. We also clarified how many episodes the authors have seen in advance.