Looking Premiere Review: HBO Discovers The Gays

First off, for anybody looking for the show marketed everywhere as the gay counterpart to Girls, look elsewhere. I’m not saying Looking doesn’t share a few things in common with Lena Dunham’s hit show, but a much closer to sister show would be Adam Goldman’s webseries The Outs, which you can read about here and watch here.

Weekend, by director Andrew Haigh, is one of my favorite films I didn’t expect to like. It’s premise—two gay men who just met spend the weekend together and explore their burgeoning feelings towards each other—sounded like boilerplate gay indie fare: a lot of contemplative shots at pools and cellphones, some moderate to heavy beards, one man teaching another about what it means to “be gay” all while he discovers that he may not actually want to keep fucking random guys forever. I am a cynic, especially when it comes to the entertainment aimed at my people, so keep that in mind when I say that Weekend is a beautiful fucking movie. It really makes you believe that the two protagonists could fall in love within two days. It’s gorgeously shot and the dialogue is realistic and unique. (And you can watch it on Netflix.)

“Looking For Now”, the first episode of HBO’s new show Looking, was directed by Haigh, and it feels like a continuation of the themes from Weekend. The show centers on three gay friends living in San Francisco. Patrick (Johnathan Groff—the only actual gay member of the main cast) is 29 and trying to find love or sex or something that he doesn’t understand yet. Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) is around the same age as Patrick and seems to feel a lot more comfortable with himself than Patrick feels. He’s about to move in with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) and has a threesome in the first episode because gay. Dom (Murray Bartlett) is 41 and just about to begin his midlife crisis because he “wanted to fuck somebody at work and [he] didn’t get to fuck him.” According to Dom, this is the first time this has ever happened to him.

The first episode of any show is about setting a tone, letting us know the types of stories we can expect, and introducing us to each of the main characters. “Looking For Now” accomplishes all of these things with varying degrees of success. The one thing that is absolutely perfect about this show is the cinematography and the way San Francisco is displayed. I’ve never been to San Francisco, nor can I really think of a show I’ve watched set in San Francisco, but Haigh instantly makes the city seem intimate and familiar. There are lots of wonderful shots of cluttered streets and foggy cityscapes that help differentiate it from the myriad of similar shows set in Brooklyn. Okay, mostly this helps differentiate from Girls, which shares the ascetics of 20-something starter apartments and bars with hastily taped up concert flyers.

The camera work is also excellent during the pilot’s two “sex scenes,” never cutting away, but exploring the limited space available and giving hints as to what’s coming next. During Patrick’s botched cruising scene, the camera stays on him even when he makes eye contact with his fellow cruiser. Our first glimpse of the man is him stepping right into frame seconds before moving to unzip Patrick’s pants, throwing us and Patrick completely off-guard, even if we all came here fully expecting a hasty hand job. The beginning of Agustin and Frank’s threesome with tall art studio assistant is similarly filmed in one shot, albeit slightly longer. The camera performs its duty as a voyeur, bringing us into the scene in the middle of a conversation that slowly transitions from art talk to revealing tattoos to lingering eye contact until everybody’s kissing and the camera can’t decide where it wants to focus. Then, we immediately jump to Patrick getting on the bus after his terrible date, a stark contrast to the ease of Agustin’s sex life.

Agustin’s storyline was probably my least favorite of the three simply because its primary goal seemed to be to provide the “sex” people expect from an HBO show. I keep putting “sex” in quotation marks, because even though the pilot fits in a forest hand job scene and a threesome, there’s no actual sex or nudity to be found. For a show about three gay men who talk about nothing but their love and sex lives for the entire episode, it’s a little surprising that the network that brought us Game of Thrones, Sex & The City, and Girls doesn’t give us a single sex scene in the pilot. For now I’ll assume this was the director’s choice, but I hope this doesn’t represent a pattern of half-heartedness on the part of the network. “Sure, we’d love a show to help us grab that gay demographic. Can you make it like Girls, minus the nudity and thrusting?”

One thing I really loved about the pilot was that it doesn’t really explain why these three particular guys are friends. “They’re all gay” isn’t nearly enough seeing as the show is set in San Francisco. We know that Patrick and Dom hooked up once and that Patrick and Agustin are (were) roommates, but besides a love of weed, they don’t seem to have much in common. The show establishes the main cast’s chemistry early on and just allows us to get comfortable with their easy friendship without piling on exposition. Similarly introduced is Dom’s ex from his straight days, Doris (the excellent Lauren Weedman). They’re scene is probably my favorite of the entire episode. Their relationship is established fairly quickly, and then the scene just allows the two of them to bounce dialogue off of each other. It feels like an old friendship, one I want to spend time getting to know.

That is ultimately Looking’s greatest asset. Yes, this is a show about gay relationships and sex, but it’s also about how friendships between gay men (and women and straight men to a lesser degree) effect what we look for in a partner. Patrick, for example, clearly admires both of his friends, wanting the loving relationship that Agustin has with Frank, and the sex life Dom has with everybody. When Patrick tells Augustin that he could hear him having sex through the door, it’s less a complaint than a hidden plea to be part of his world. When Dom complains to his younger friend (who he hooked with once) that he didn’t get laid, he’s not just looking for a shoulder on which to cry. He’s looking for validation that his youth hasn’t abandoned him yet. There are so many different dynamics between the main cast and their various supporting players that it’ll be interesting to see how the show deals with relationships. If the pilot of any show is a premise, the premise of Looking is this: Gay men can be lovers, friends, both, or neither, and it can be even more complicated than it sounds.

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