Looking at ‘Looking’ Again: A New Look

We’re now halfway through the first season of eight episodes of the new HBO series Looking and I thought it was time to cast another critical eye in its direction.

The show has opened to mixed reviews, including a few that were downright hostile. And today, unlike a few years back, much of the audience has its own platforms on which to weigh in, as well. (Hi, howya doing?!) A lot of those unsolicited reviews and comments have bandied around this dreaded word: boring.

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Murray Bartlett, Jonathan Groff and Frankie J. Alvarez in Looking on HBO. |image: John P. Johnson

In my initial take, I did not use that word (you’re welcome), but I wasn’t overly positive, either. That was after one episode.

After the second episode I was not sure whether I was coming back for a third time. I did, though, and I was glad of it. I felt that Looking was beginning to find its footing in the third episode. It made me eager to come back for number four.

That episode, Looking for $220/Hour, did not disappoint. In addition to continued realistic and nuanced performances from all of the principals, Groff’s palpable tension with guest star Russell Tovey (someone whom American audiences have seen far too little of), a nuanced little turn from Scott Bakula and another utterly captivating taste of Lauren Weedman’s Doris, we saw a storyline pull together that had been set up in the previous episodes, but the strings were just revealed here.

A lesser series, I am sure, would have had Groff’s Patrick falling in bed — or into those office chairs that could have so easily doubled as sex swings — with Tovey’s Kevin instead of letting us feel Patrick’s rocky emotional footing during the “fried chicken” scene leading to a reunion with Richie (Raúl Castillo) that was both beautifully executed and sexy as hell without being overt.

Actually, I think the problem was in how the series was originally packaged. Often, I think Americans expect “more, more, more” and expect that more to be better. Of course, that’s not always the case. (Generally, it’s not, in fact.) I do think that a half-hour is the right length for these episodes, but I do think that packaging the first two together would have given the series a stronger basis to build upon. (And I would have re-written them a bit, too, but maybe that’s just me!)

Groff told Michelangelo Signorile that he believed in Looking more than anything else he’s been a part of. Good for him. I think he should. For whatever faults it has, this is an intelligent series. Smartly written and directed and chock-a-block with canny performers.

So, boring? No. Well done? Yes. Worth another look? Absolutely.

Looking: Pay TV Goes Where The Web’s Been Before

HBO’s much ballyhooed Looking premiered last night and a lot of gay folks were hanging an awful lot of expectation on this half-hour. Trying to be everything to everybody would be a surefire way to set yourself up for disaster, so I wasn’t looking — as it were — for that. I didn’t have any expectations; I just wanted it to be good.

And it was, but I can’t help but feel a bit like Brad Bell, the co-creator/writer/star of Husbands, the hilarious marriage equality sitcom, who tweeted this:

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I’m going to come back to that in a second, but I also noticed that Rob Owen’s review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Looking the “latest descendant of Queer as Folk.” Well, I don’t buy that at all. It’s closer to a modern day Tales of the City.

Of course, the San Francisco parallels are obvious and Armistead Maupin’s classic stories are classic for a reason and they are more layered because there are simply more layers on the canvas, but Looking’s Dom (Murray Bartlett), the mustachioed waiter nearing 40 who is always on the pull, is a gay clone of Tales‘ Brian Hawkins, not QAF’s Stuart Allen Jones (or Brian Kinney, in the American version). And that’s not taking anything away from Bartlett — he’s lovely — but it bothered me throughout the episode.

I also have to admit being bothered by the opening scenes featuring Jonathan Groff’s Patrick going for a quick handjob in the park because that is exactly what would have happened in Tales of the City in the 70s and 80s; except that it wouldn’t have been interrupted by a cellphone call. If director Andrew Haigh (I am such an enormous fan of his work) and writer Michael Lannan were trying to be ironic, it didn’t read. It came off as another depiction of gay men being completely and utterly driven by sex alone. And, quite frankly, in 2014, we desperately need to get beyond that because, well, straight people.

Then again, see above re: being all things to all people. (And for the record, back in the day when I could have possibly pulled a trick I was too bloody terrified to contemplate it and now that I’m too old and married, I’m awfully too old and married!)


Frankie J. Alvarez, Murray Bartlett and Jonathan Groff in HBO’s Looking, which follows the lives of three gay men in San Francisco. |Image: HBO

Look, Jonathan Groff is a wonderful, subtle, earnest performer and he’s so enjoyable to watch. Bartlett and Frankie J. Alvarez are equally competent hands on the tiller and you are interested in what will happen to them all enough to tune back in for the next episode. Also, it was nice to see people like Ann Magnuson,  Matt Wilkas (from the delicious indie comedy Gayby) and Tanner Cohen (Were the World Mine, the Shakespeare-inspired gay fantasy) who sports one of the most hilarious tattoos I’ve ever seen on screen.

Back to the Web
But, like Bell intimates, haven’t we seen some of this before? Is Patrick going through the same “slutty phase” as Jack in The Outs? Or are his attempts to find someone who is “not boring” akin to Thom in EastSiders? I have sense that we’ve been down this road already.

What set EastSiders and The Outs apart were the disintegration of a relationship (EastSiders) and the rebuilding of a different kind of relationship after a breakup (The Outs) and while Looking is not the same, it struck me as being a network version of a mashup of these two independent series. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t feel that Looking lived up to its hype. Not that it’s not good — because it is — but that there was too much lead in.

Then again, we’re so damn starved for entertainment in the gay community; so desperate that someone will turn that mirror back on us, that when there is something out there in the mainstream that may validate us, we want it to be as good as it possibly can be. And we’re always disappointed when it doesn’t meet all of our expectations.

It is unfair for me to compare The Outs and EastSiders to Looking, because they are each different animals, but I would urge you to look at their world views, too, if you haven’t already. The Outs is available here and EastSiders is available as individual episodes and cut as a full-length feature at logotv.com.

As for Looking, I’ll be looking in on it again next week because, since I just told a bunch of folks to give a recast on Days of our Lives a chance to settle into the role, it would be disingenuous of me not to allow this show to do the same.

P.S. — Don’t take my word for it. HBO has just released the first episode on YouTube for non-subscribers to see.

Russell Tovey: The Unlikely Lad

Russell Tovey: the unlikely lad | Television & radio | The Guardian.


The lovely Russell Tovey, a terrific actor who’s never been compelled to be “in.” He’s playing his first ever gay role this year. |Image: The Telegraph.

“I had loads of spots, but I went in and said, look, I want to play this part. Dakin [in The History Boys] was meant to be the lead, lothario, sex object, and nobody was going to lust after me, this spotty, pasty, big-eared thing. But Alan Bennett really liked me and he thought, well, he obviously wants a bigger part, so he wrote up the part of Rudge for me.” Tovey’s skin problem almost led to him quitting the production. “My skin was so bad, I thought, I just want to leave. It was really affecting me psychologically. You go into makeup and they’d paint each spot. It was self-esteem-crushing. Horrible.”

Great article in The Guardian.

I’ve loved Tovey since he was in the movie version of The History Boys. He’s done loads of movies and TV shows in the U.K. primarily since then. He’s signed on for HBO’s gay-themed dramedy Looking opposite another out actor, Jonathan Groff. The series, Tovey’s first major U.S. role, is set to begin shooting in the San Francisco area shortly.