Looking Decides Gay Guys Aren't Just Like Everyone Else, After All
Season 2 gets more unflinching in its depiction of a subculture, but keeps the fully realized characters intact.
A year ago when HBO premiered Looking, a half-hour dramedy centered around a group of gay men in San Francisco, a lot of critics used the same word to describe the show: “boring.” The supposed problem wasn’t merely that its mumblecore aesthetic and walk-and-eat-and-talk storytelling style didn’t pack much drama, but that its characters felt dull. Which is to say—sorry, heteros—straight. In a scathing review that typified the criticism, Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder said the show seemed obsessed with demonstrating that “most gay people are ‘normal,’ ‘real,’ ‘the same,’ or whatever other version of just as-lame-as-most-straight-people you prefer.”
That analysis had some merit. Looking’s guys did cruise Grindr and turn "Ross" and "Rachel" into euphemisms for "bottom" and "top," but the show’s main conflicts centered around more universal dating and career issues. Some of those issues were actually pretty novel to see on screen—little else on TV plumbs the romantic implications of race and class divides as eagerly as Looking does. But mostly the characters faced the same situations that pop culture's actual Rosses and Rachels face all the time: having a meet-cute on public transit; debating whether to bring a sig-o to a wedding; flirting with the boss.
For some viewers, this all made for a refreshing change in TV, which often acts as though gay people must be defined, above all else, by their sexuality. While the characters weren't particularly extraordinary, they were extraordinarily specific: Patrick, the funny but inexplicably naive video-game designer; Dom, a waiter whose cockiness is eroding as he enters middle age; Augustin, an artist whose professional struggles lend him a vindictive streak; plus a diverse and similarly well-developed array of friends and lovers. Others viewers, though, thought the low stakes amounted to pandering—Lowder called Looking “a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straights.”
The creators says that they heard the criticism and addressed some of it in Season 2, which begins Sunday. Indeed they have. Where the first premiere began with an aborted cruising attempt in the woods—an old closet-culture ritual, portrayed as ridiculous in 2014 San Francisco—this one has the show’s three principals arriving at a cabin in the apparently still vibrant gay-vacation mecca Russian River. Patrick wants it to be a weekend of chaste, sober bonding, but soon he and his friends end up at an ecstasy-laden rave that leads to skinny dipping and forest sex. Lest anyone mistake this for a straight scenario—Burning Man, perhaps?—there's plenty of body-type taxonomizing ("bring the clone and the seal pup!"), a fairy-costumed man cries “beautiful faggots!” before directing patrons to the party, and our heroes befriend an HIV-positive guy who works at a shelter for queer teens. Later in the season, one character takes an ostentatiously communal shower with his dodge-ball team and another drinks from a mug that says “I ♥ Anal.”
Get the message yet? Yes, this is a new, gayer Looking. But things haven’t changed fundamentally. Looking keeps following universal relationship-drama plotlines from the first season; it just spends more time calling attention to the ways that being gay is about more than sexual preference—friendships can get physical, family visits can be uniquely fraught, AIDS has led to the invention of a whole language and code of conduct, etc. The show was always attuned to those things, but it's gotten, forgive the phrase, louder and prouder about them.
That's a nice change, because part of the show's appeal has been in offering something relatable to people who haven't had a lot to relate to on TV. But as entertainment goes, Season 2 feels more mixed in quality than the first did. Sometimes, in the five episodes I’ve seen, Looking feels like it’s straining to tick through a checklist of gay signifiers to make a point, which clashes with its naturalistic, low-key tone. The writers too often use on-the-nose dialogue to explains what’s already been beautifully suggested, and Patrick’s sunny self-absorption has only gotten more grating. But the acting remains strong, the vibe remains cozy, and filthy-mouthed friend Doris remains hilarious (the premiere doesn't really come alive till she shows up). Best of all, whether or not you recognize yourself or folks you know in these characters, after a while they just feel like real people—and that's not boring at all.