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Looking at “Looking”: four gay writers discuss HBO’s new show

Chad Kaydo: On Sunday night HBO debuted “Looking,” its new series about three gay men in San Francisco on the hunt for love, sex, or some combination of the two. 

The first episode, “Looking for Now,” opens with Jonathan Groff, as 29-year-old video game designer Patrick, in an awkward tryst in a park. Later his friend Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) decides to move in with his boyfriend, and then the couple has a threesome. And Dom (Murray Bartlett), a 39-year-old waiter, unsuccessfully makes a pass at a co-worker, prompting him to consider that he might not be able to sleep with whomever he chooses anymore.

Strip away the references to Facebook and OKCupid, and most of this could have happened 10 or 20 years ago—except for a bachelor party for Patrick’s ex-boyfriend, with a go-go boy dancing for both future grooms. The prospect of marriage appears to be central to what the show’s producers intend to explore: In a time when these guys have more and more choices, what will they pick?

Andrew Haigh is one of the show’s executive producers and the director of the pilot. He also wrote and directed the 2011 film “Weekend,” about a couple of guys who hook up on a Friday night and then actually get to know each other in the two days that follow. It was intimate and talky and one of my favorite films of the past few years, so I’ve been looking forward to “Looking” since the show was first announced. Add to that the hype that comes with any new HBO show, a wide range of opinions from critics, competing comparisons characterizing “Looking” as “the gay ‘Girls’” or an update of the slick, often absurd American version of “Queer as Folk"—and do you know how cute Jonathan Groff is? Which is all to say I started watching the pilot with a mix of curiosity, hope, and fear that it wouldn't be what I hoped it would be. And that's probably a little silly. 

Now, having actually watched it, I feel...much the same. Pilots always feel a little awkward, as they strive to establish the characters and create a world and a tone that make you want to come back for more. For now, as a single gay man in the age range of these characters (OK, at the upper threshold of the age range), I recognize enough of this world and I'm curious to see how these guys will develop. 

So, gentlemen, what did you think?

Jesse Oxfeld: I think, actually, Chad, the quote is "Work is love made visible," right?

Jonathan Groff's Patrick is generally adorable throughout this pilot episode, but I found him most adorable when he paused to correct that pretentious doctor's pretentious quote on their terrible first date. (Groff is always adorable, but, man, make a guy neurotic and dress him in plaid and glasses, and you've got me hooked.) It put the oncologist in his place, just a bit, and it also hinted at a nice bit of self-confidence hidden under all Patrick's self-deprecation. But it also got at what I think I find most problematic about this show (with your very important and correct caveat that it's essentially impossible to fairly evaluate a series after only its pilot, which necessarily involves so much scene-setting and exposition): I'm not sure how we're supposed to believe that handsome, funny, charming Jonny G. can't ever find a decent date.

I enjoyed the show most on the dialogue level, and if the writing holds up "Looking" will be a fun series to watch, regardless of its success in nailing its sociocultural points. From the first moments: Patrick's fumbled introduction with his trick in the park ("Hi, I'm Patrick." Tries to kiss the guy, who pushes off as he unbuckles Patrick's pants. "What's your name? I didn't catch your name.") to his mumbled, polite "Thank you" as he ran off mid-handjob; older waiter friend Dom and his ex-girlfriend/roommate's wry, sarcastic, and ultimately self-mocking jokes about the six-month-old with a heart defect ("She's only doing it for the attention." "She's so manipulative. She's always like, 'Oh, my heart.'"); Dom's perfect summation of the San Francisco in the latest tech bubble: "It's like 1999 again—and I hated it the first time around."

But about those sociocultural points. Is it possible that "Looking," its open-air handies and dual bachelor parties and artist-loft threesomes notwithstanding, is actually going to be a pretty conventional series? It seems like it'll be about a decent and sweet guy's hunt for love in the big city, never to be quite found, with a series of quirky friends watching (and engaging in their own, more successful highjinks) from the sidelines. It's "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," more or less, with Patrick as Mary. (Which makes, I guess, Augustin into Rhoda, Dom into Ted Baxter, maybe, and, obviously, the Asian coworker into Murray Slaughter.)

Back to Kahlil Gibran: Do guys not appreciate your correcting their pretentious quotes on first dates? This might explain a lot for me.

Matthew Phillp: I feel like TV shows and movies such as “Looking” always have an extra amount of pressure placed on them by gay audiences to really nail its “sociocultural points,” as Jesse put it. It’s as though they feel this is their rare chance to take up space and be known and accepted in a way they aren’t capable of as individuals. It was certainly the case with “Queer as Folk” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” People were both enraged by and endeared to them, and the shows became prompts for political activism and public dialogue to some extent. I wonder if gay audiences will loosen up a bit for “Looking” and let it just be a TV show first.

I tend to agree with Jesse re: the prospect of the show being fairly conventional in the long run as well. The fact that Jonathan Groff’s character could have such a hard time dating was predictably tiresome but then, that’s sort of just how TV is. People on TV are generally beautiful and it’s probably not the right medium if you’re looking for brutally honest rawness. Jonathan Groff plays Patrick’s subtle neurosis so well though that I didn’t mind the fairly unrealistic pick-up on the train scene and his bumbling insecurity.   

I’ve got to say–I really loved Lauren Weedman as Dom’s roommate. She was the perfect blend of sassy and self-contained and doesn’t come across as the ridiculous, one-dimensional fag hag character that get trotted out so readily in shows that portray the lives of gay men.  

It's really exciting that this is a chance to see more of Andrew Haigh’s work too–I agree with Chad, I think “Weekend” is probably one of my favorite gay movies ever. I find Haigh’s ability to make his characters human and not just representations of a collective human to be a pleasure to watch.

Sam Wineman: While I agree that we have to discuss its merits as good television first, it can be a dangerous thing, glossing over the less-savory pieces because we, as a gay audience, need to “loosen up.” But I want to also acknowledge the limits of a 30-minute pilot episode of a television show. I’m not giving it a free pass just yet, but I want to see where this is going.

The show’s strongest moments were in the dexterity of dialogue. Laughs over lines like “He’s portly” and the Instagram filters scene got me good. While I agree that Jonathan Groff is cute (“cute” doesn’t even begin to describe it, actually), I don’t find Patrick’s inability to get a good date unbelievable. Despite his charm, he may have some kind of baggage that keeps him from connecting. My main problem with the pilot is that it doesn’t really hint at any of that. To me, it keeps the stakes relatively low, which seems to be the case in most of the stories we’ve been introduced to.

I was surprised to see a cruising in the park scene but not a single Grindr reference. Beyond just references, though, I want to see how personal technology complicates modern dating. Dom’s Facebook drama alludes to that possibility. I’m definitely excited to see more, but I hope that future episodes feel a little fresher. Am I asking too much? It’s just a pilot and maybe I need to accept that it’s mostly setup.

Chad: Sam, I agree that the pilot starts off kind of slowly (as do the guys over at The Wire), but I think it does plant the seeds of big questions for the three main characters: Will Patrick find love (and figure out why he hasn't yet)? How will Agustin and his boyfriend navigate cohabitation and non-monogamy? Will Dom question the patterns of his life, and change them? Those are personal issues, but they're dramatic struggles, with pretty big stakes for the characters. (See also: Emily Nussbaum's review, which defends the show against the criticism of being "slight"—"that code word which is often applied to stories about love and dating," echoing her excellent defense of "Sex and the City" as a sharp, groudbreaking show.)

It seems we're all responding to the pressure put on a show that concentrates on gay characters, and the tendency for audiences to judge it both as entertainment and as a political document. As Matthew says, I think people have a need to be seen—to see themselves represented in the culture. That's validating. Separately, sometimes it's fun to watch characters going through similar experiences. (While I occasionally identify with Lady Mary, there is no country estate at risk in my romantic life, no dead husband or Turkish diplomat.)

The problem is, when a character shares your age, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, socioeconomic status, etc., the differences of personality—the stuff of who we really are?—can become even more striking. I'm that person, but I'm not THAT PERSON. (Maybe it's actually easier to identify with Lady Mary?) 

There wasn't much in this first episode that I didn't recognize or relate to, nor was there any great moment of illumination. But, again: This was the first 30 minutes. 

There was, however, that great bad date with the doctor. What I liked here was that it was so, so awkward, but it was fairly run-of-the-mill bad—not nearly as horrible as some dates I bet we've all been on, the ones you leave thinking, "Well, at least I have a story for my friends." That probably would have played funnier, but less realistic, which doesn't seem like the tone the producers have in mind, which is what has me interested to see what's next.

(Is now the time to mention I've been on a date with one of the actors in this episode? It wasn't horrible, but we're not contemplating threeways or dual bachelor parties today.) 

Did you guys recognize these characters and their situations? Did anything here ring especially true—or false? Will you be riding buses this week instead of shopping on OKCupid?

Jesse: We keep giving the it's-just-a-pilot caveat, but I think that's actually pretty key here. It's the reality of the current media-industrial complex, which HBO manipulates better than just about anyone other than Harvey Weinstein to get attention for its attention-getting projects, that there's just so much writing/analysis/anxious blog-posting about an Important New Show before it reaches air that when it does it will almost inevitably feel underwhelming. What 30 minutes could live up to all this hype? These discussions will be easier to have when we have more to discuss, when there've been several episodes and plots and character development and Patrick has accidentally screwed a handsome Turkish diplomat to death.

Meantime, a guy on Grindr—a Jewish doctor, even!—just corrected my pretentious John Donne joke. (He's a Metaphysical poet, not a Romantic one.) I'm not kidding.

Sam: Ha! Jesse, that's perfect timing. 

As far as what rings true, being rejected on a first date for what I’m “looking” for hit home for me. There tends to be this dance between hooking up and LTRs–and the admission of one or the other that will scare off a potential something. Patrick laughs about his hookup and isn’t opposed to them, but also is open to something more long-term. The belief that the two aren’t mutually exclusive is the death of that conversation. When his date calls it off, I’m asking right alongside Patrick if the oncologist is serious.

Matthew: Totally, what rang true for me was the way they both approached the date—both perspectives were remarkably well represented and it was set up beautifully. Patrick's nervous over-sharing about cruising was pretty amazing to watch and I found myself psychically willing him to stop talking. It's so bizarre to me when someone just starts nervously talking about prior hookups or how many other guys they're going on dates with while on a first date. Having said that, the way the oncologist shut the date down with such condescending, machine-like clarity was baffling and I immediately sided with Patrick too, despite how much he'd played it so badly from the get go.  

Chad: I suspect you've cut to the central questions of the show—what are these men looking for, and can they be honest about it to themselves and to the people around them? (Jesse, ask your doctor friend, are these questions metaphysical or existential?) 

Also, it appears we agree on a few things: 1. This is just the pilot. 2. With (slight) (there’s that word again) reservations, we’re interested (and hopeful) to see what’s next. 3. Jonathan Groff is too, too cute. On to next week…

Chad Kaydo is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. He edits the "Back 9" section of FourTwoNine magazine, tweets at @ChadKaydo, and will tell you which actor he dated (once) if you buy him a drink.

Jesse Oxfeld is the publisher of Tabletmag.com and the theater reviewer for The New York Observer, in which capacity he has twice seen Jonathan Groff's bare tush. He lives in Greenwich Village and tweets at @joxfeld.

Matthew Phillp is a writer and journalist who lives in Brooklyn. He is minutes away from completing the final draft of his first novel and has banned himself from all all forms of social media until it's done.  

Sam Wineman is an Orange County-based writer and dating veteran. Watch his web series "Date Trip" at thedatetrip.com.

Written By:
Chad Kaydo
Chad Kaydo
Mon, Jan 20, 2014
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