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‘Looking’ In The Mirror: Mourning The Loss of Television’s Great Gay Catharsis

'Looking' In The Mirror: Mourning The Loss of Television's Great Gay Catharsis

There was a moment in this past Sunday’s season finale of “Looking” — which we now know will be its final standard episode — when I just couldn’t take it anymore. The series’ protagonist Patrick is having an epic argument with his boyfriend Kevin on the roof of the apartment building they have just moved into together, and utters a few lines of dialogue that zeroed in on why “Looking” had personally been such a powerful and challenging viewing experience all along. 

“I feel like my heart works one way and yours works the other,” Patrick says to Kevin. “What makes me really fucking sad and frustrated is that deep down I’ve always known that and just ignored it. I just wanted this so much. I wanted to be in love and be in a relationship and prove to myself and my friends and my family — fuck, to prove to the entire world — that I was actually capable of being in one.”

I abruptly hit the pause button at a pivotal moment in the scene, much to the annoyance of the friend I was watching it with.

“What the fuck are you doing,” he shrieked before turning to see the tears streaming down my face. 

“I just need to take a breather,” I said. “It’s just… too fucking real.”

I’ve always suspected one of the primary reasons not enough people watched “Looking” was just that: It’s too fucking real. Like “My So-Called Life,” “The Comeback” and “Enlightened” before it, sufficient-for-renewal audiences potentially failed to connect with “Looking” because they didn’t want to connect with what it said about themselves. But most of the people I know who stuck through it anyway had a very similar reaction to my own: That “Looking” was one of the most therapeutic experiences television has ever offered them — for better or worse. 

During the first season of the show — which just so happened to coincide with one of the most brutal Montreal winters I’ve ever survived — I had to write recaps for “Looking” every Sunday evening. The routine was essentially this: In my now ex-boyfriend’s bed, we’d get smoke a joint and cuddle up around his laptop to watch each given week’s episode. He always had to get up extremely early on Monday mornings, so after we’d finish watching it, he’d go to sleep and I’d head to his living room to watch the episode one or two more times while actually writing the recap. 

At first, this ritual didn’t seem so different from any other writing assignment I had. But as the isolation of the winter wore on, my relationship to the world “Looking” presented grew more melancholic, and so did my relationship with my boyfriend.  I started to see myself in Patrick in ways I really didn’t want to. His shame. His selfishness. His internalized homophobia. His desire to project himself as a good person rather than actually finding the self-growth to become one. And worst of all, his desperation to be in a relationship largely because he wanted to prove to himself/his friends/his society that he was simply capable of being in one — at the expense of the much more sincere and well-adjusted other person in that relationship. I’d never seen myself or my existence so rawly depicted on any screen, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to.

It might have all been a lot less overwhelming had writing the recaps not forced me to take such an analytical and extensive approach to watching “Looking.” But as the eight episode first season progressed, so did the discomfort of being reminded of my own emotional shortcomings. Writing the actual recaps started to feel like psychotherapy, and the televisual mirror that my boyfriend and I would spend every Sunday peering into grew more and more clear (though in retrospect, the smoking pot part probably didn’t help that).

When the second season of “Looking” premiered two months ago, I didn’t feel capable of taking on the weekly recaps. I know this sounds incredibly overdramatic, but a lot had changed over the series’ hiatus. I had moved back to Toronto — my own private “Looking”‘s essential place of origin — after a series of personal disasters. And for the first time in my adult life I was aggressively not looking. For romance. For sex. For adventure. For anything that could get in the way of actual self-growth. Which made the experience of watching the second season of “Looking” a wholly different one than the first. It was downright cathartic. I was still finding it brutally relatable, but instead of allowing that to simply reinforce a self-awareness of my emotional immaturity — it was providing a release from it. And I didn’t fully understand why until I read this truly remarkable article in The New Yorker yesterday that will surely always remain the ultimate reflection on “Looking.” 

Entitled “‘Looking,’ Marriage and the New Gay Sadness,” the article — written by Daniel Wegner — pinpointed exactly what the series was portraying, and why it struck such a chord with the people that related to it:

The effect of “Looking” is not, as the National Gay Task Force might have had it, to show straight audiences that gay people deserve to be citizens. It is to show that being a citizen only gets you so far when you have never thought of yourself as one. Plenty of people, straight and gay, are sexually immature and romantically inept; but Patrick seems as little ready to connect to another man, in any fashion and for any length of time, as when he was a closeted fifteen-year-old with no sense of being entitled to any rights, hiding what he had transformed into criminal urges under a blanket in the back of a bus.

I don’t think one piece of literature — paired with those 18 episodes of “Looking,” at least — has had a greater impact on understanding my own identity (or lack thereof). Wegner nails not only “Looking,” but an entire generation of urban, privileged gay men who have no fucking clue what they’re looking for.  He goes onto to theorize that for Patrick and the many non-fictional people like him, “it’s the ordinary that is outrageous”:

Born in the mid-eighties, [Patrick] is from the earliest wave of the post-Stonewall, post-plague, post-activist generation—too old to have brought a boy to the prom and too young to have nursed a fantasy of running away to an urban gay utopia. I am also from that group. When I was in high school, “sodomy” was illegal in twenty-five states; when I was in college, marriage became the first publicly sanctioned model for gay relationships. Being gay finally had clear meaning: the toggle of a setting on a dating profile and the wait for a husband. In the meantime, two-thirds of those on Grindr, the smartphone app for gay hookups, wanted only to chat, according to the company’s own surveys. The legal fight wore on for “a right that someone like Patrick isn’t sure he even wants,” as Wesley Morris described marriage equality last year, in his account of “Looking” on Grantland.

In the 24 hours or so since I read that article, the phrase “the new gay sadness” kept profoundly popping back into my head. Despite its simplicity, it is the most honest description of contemporary gay men that I’ve ever heard, and to me it represents the heart of what “Looking” was so realistically communicating: The group of us who were born into complicated and traumatic closets but now live extraordinarily advantaged lives with seemingly endless options. But with fulfilled dreams comes emotional responsibility, and none of us seem to be owning up to our own damage.  While I certainly wish HBO had decided to give the staggeringly talented Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan a chance to show us what “Looking” could do with a full third season, I hope that its legacy is a viewership that stops looking for validation from Grindr or potential husbands (or increasingly — both at the same time), and starts utilizing their privilege to take a long, hard look at themselves.

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