Shamelessly Looking for Something Else: Real Talk About Pay TV Gays

HBO announced today that it was pulling the plug on its sophomore drama, Looking. The network says it will button the series with a movie.

1

Frankie J. Alvarez, Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett were the original trio at the center of HBO’s “Looking,” which was cancelled at the end of its second season. |Image: HBO

I’ve had a rocky relationship with Looking ever since it debuted. I wrote some critical things about it when it originally aired and I wrote it a love note later on in its first season. I was excited about the second series but, with a few exceptions, the season left me cold.

It’s puzzling. I love Jonathan Groff as a performer. He’s a very easy, very natural actor. Russell Tovey was always that Brit that no one else knew and who left me gobsmacked every time I saw him. Raul Castillo I didn’t know pre-Looking, but I found him to be a lovely performer; smart, nuanced. And in spite of all of it’s positive elements, I just didn’t care enough about the main characters. And that was Looking’s Achilles Heel, I suppose,

10382981_10152657650913731_8289643141212962828_n1

Daniel Franzese and Frankie J. Alvarez assayed a lovely, memorable plot about love and redemption told with humor and honesty — and a little something in the eye. It was the highlight of Season 2 of “Looking.” |Image: HBO

I found Groff’s character, Patrick Murray, as written, a self-absorbed, self-critical, immature stereotype. There was nothing there to like. Nothing there to root for. I mean, were we supposed to urge him to leave his lovely, smart new boyfriend (Castillo) to become the boy-toy of his boss, Kevin (Tovey), whose relationship he broke up? Were we supposed to feel for him when Kevin announced he’d like to try an open relationship on the day that they moved in together? No. You weren’t man enough to date the nice barber who you were really into because of some misplaced post-suburban narcissism since you felt deep down that he wasn’t good enough for your pampered lily-white ass. No. And no, thanks.

I was far and away more interested in the season’s B-plot: the redemption of Patrick’s roommate Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and his blossoming romance with HIV+ bear Eddie, played to a fair-the-well by the extraordinary Daniel Franzese. If the whole series had been half as interesting as this storyline, I would be mobilizing the mob protesting its cancellation.

But, I just don’t care enough. Besides, I’m too busy obsessing over Shameless, Showtime’s powerhouse  what? — comedy — drama? — dramedy? — tragicomedy? — television theatre of the absurd? Whatever the hell it is, this defiantly unclassifiable show is like nothing else on television.

And there’s such a level of authenticity in the heartbreak and the love and the yearning of these characters — even in the most twisted of situations — that it makes you care for them on a visceral level. Never got that from Looking.

ian-mickey-510

Fans refer to them as #Gallavich. Cameron Monaghan is Ian Gallagher and Noel Fisher is Mickey Milkovich, perhaps the most improbable couple in the improbable world of Showtime’s “Shameless.” | Image: Showtime

When Shameless put Ian Gallagher and Mickey Milkovich together in the first season, there was no indication that they would become one of great television romances of all time. There’s been a lot of talk over the years of the stellar talents of young Cameron Monaghan as Ian, the instigator of this relationship and his nuanced development of the character over five seasons — and trust me, this takes nothing away from his electric talent — but the real unsung hero of this show is Noel Fisher, who brings a depth and beauty to Mickey that almost takes your breath away. There is a pathos there that can physically make you ache. Also, he’s funny as shit.

Here’s the thing: in lesser hands — with lesser writers, with lesser directors and with lesser actors, Shameless had the potential to become an absolute pile, but it didn’t. Instead, it became one of America’s most memorable series ever. (Thanks, Great Britain!) Warts, fistfights, evil newfound daughters, absent mothers, drugs, ‘hand whores,’ Sheila Jackson’s collection of dildos, and all.

To me, Patrick and Kevin’s story has been told a million times and I just don’t care anymore. Ian and Mickey’s story you’ve never seen and that’s what keeps me glued to the pay cable. It’s fresh and alive and a little dangerous.

See, I don’t want to have a cocktail with Patrick Murray in a trendy San Francisco bar, but I’d have an Old Style with Mickey Milkovich any day of the week.

It’s not the safe, politically correct thing to do. And that’s why I like it better.

Second Look(ing) – HBO Drama Gets Second Season Pickup

Glad to report that HBO’s drama, Looking, focusing on three gay friends in San Francisco has been picked up for a second series. The seventh of the original eight half-hour episodes airs this weekend.

ustv-looking-russell-tovey-as-kevin

One of my favorite British imports, Russell Tovey, who plays Kevin in HBO’s Looking. He’s been upgraded to a series regular for the second series. The final two episodes in the first season begin airing March 2 in the US.|Image: HBO

I’ve become a real fan of this series after it had a pretty rocky start for me. I’m still of the opinion that the creators and HBO really screwed the opening. When they needed a home run — or at the very least a triple — they walked a guy. (Look at me with the baseball metaphors!)

That’s why it got the “boring” wrap. It wasn’t. It isn’t. It was just packaged incorrectly. The first two episodes needed to be one hour-long episode to hook people. There were no hooks in episode one. Some of us came back because we needed more gay content than just Will and Sonny — not that we don’t LOVE Will and Sonny, but you’d never get the equivalent of Looking Episode 5 on daytime!

Anyhow, even better, main character Patrick’s hottie Latino love interest, Raúl Castillo, his hunky English boss, Russell Tovey, and Dom’s hilarious roomie, Lauren Weedman, have all been upgraded to regulars for the new season.

Here’s a great piece, including an interview with series creator Michael Lannan, by Jim Halterman. I’m pretty much in agreement with Halterman’s assessments of the show.

Previous Looking Post … And the one before that.

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.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 9.38.37 PM

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:

Screen shot 2014-01-20 at 2.04.06 PM

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!)

hbo-premiere-dates-set-for-true-detective-looking1

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.