After a good six months of increasingly intense anticipation (at least within certain circles), Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh’s San Francisco-set HBO series “Looking” finally made its official debut last night. With it came some pretty remarkable expectations that are really no surprise when a show is representing an oft-ignored demographic that’s been, uh, looking for the next “Queer as Folk” for nearly a decade. And surely as a result there were many a living room last night where conversations echoed many of the premature criticisms the show has received in its reviews (though certainly not in all of them — check out our own very positive one here): There’s not enough sex. They talk about sex too much. Why are they all so masculine and good-looking? It’s not body positive enough. Why are they all hipsters? It’s not as good as “Weekend.” It’s too much like a gay “Girls”!
Let’s all just calm down a bit. It’s only the pilot episode, and let’s all remember that pilot episodes are not easy to pull off, particularly when expectations are this high. Lannan, Haigh and company were clearly handed a huge opportunity here which a certain demographic of folks are probably just as excited to tear down as they are to watch it. “Looking” is never going to pull off an all-encompassing representation of the queer men of today in its entire run, let alone in its first 30 minutes — and that’s okay. The primary thing I for one expect from “Looking” — at least for now — is that it’s a good show. A good show with strong writing and strong acting and interesting ideas. I’ve been waiting for this with just as much anticipation as the next gay, and I’m happy to say I think things are off to a good start.
Basically, what “Looking” was trying to pull off in its first episode — titled “Looking For Now” — is to offer up an introduction to its trio of protagonists, Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett). Where do they live, what to do they do and — at least right now — what (and who) are they looking for?
Patrick (or Paddy, as his friends call him — though frankly I’m not so into that nickname so I’ll mostly refrain) is our primary character — the Carrie Bradshaw or Hannah Horvath of this world, if I must. He’s 29, works as a video game developer, and has been roommates with Agustín since they moved to San Francisco after college.
Agustín is presumably around Patrick’s age (though they never say), and works as an artist’s assistant (and clearly aspires to remove the word “assistant” from that equation). He’s in a long-term relationship with Frank (O. T. Fagbenle), and by mid-episode the two of them have decided to move into together, leaving Paddy all by his lonesome. Oh, and I suppose notably given the aforementioned representational concerns, Agustín is Cuban-American and Frank is black (which off the bat gives “Looking” a diversity one up on the primary quartets of “Girls” and “Sex and the City”).
And there’s Dom — who as far as I’m concerned is the most interesting (not to mention most physically attractive) character of the pilot. Pushing 40, Dom works as a waiter at a high-end restaurant (which he has since at least 1999), sports an epic moustache, and lives with his ex-girlfriend (from what we can assume was a very long time ago) and current BFF Doris (Lauren Weedman, who is hilarious in this first installment). We don’t know how Dom met the others, though its suggested his first encounter with Paddy resulted in sex (which is a flashback episode I’d be very happy to see).
So what are they all looking for? Well, we’re introduced to Patrick — and the series altogether — in the bushes of a park, about to get a handjob from a bear with cold hands who is annoyed at Patrick’s request to both kiss him and exchange names. But its quickly apparent this kind of throwback cruising isn’t everyday Paddy. When his iPhone rings and interrupts the bear’s handjob (oh, park cruising in 2014), he uses it as an excuse to rush off and find Agustín and Dom. The three of them had all gone to park seemingly for reasons of nostalgic novelty, and its clear Patrick wasn’t entirely comfortable with it to begin with (he says he half-expected the phone call to be his mom stopping him from “being one of those gays who hooks up in a park”).
But while he may not be so into finding sex in the park, Patrick sure is looking for it via more contemporary venues. He spends a good chunk of the episode’s first half on OkCupid, eventually finding himself a date with a douchey oncologist named Benjamin. They meet at an overpriced bar, and Benjamin immediately starts condescendingly grilling Patrick, first asking whether “he’s drug and disease free” (a valid question, sure, but not during the first five minutes of a date) and then — after Patrick offers him the story of his trip to the park — whether Patrick’s just “looking to hook up.” Here’s where we learn that Patrick sorta kinda considers himself “a relationship person,” even though his longest relationship lasted only six months (which we learn later on from Dom is a slight overstatement). This information is somehow a dealbreaker for Dr. Douchebag, who shuts things down immediately and doesn’t even pick up the tab.
On the bus ride back from his disaster of a date, Patrick gets hit on by a cute — but perhaps a little dumb — aspiring cosmetologist named Richie, who is on his way to work the door at his friend’s bar. Richie invites him to join (and somehow sincerely pulls off the pickup line “we have a special tonight for pretty blue eyes”), but Patrick — who doesn’t seem to be taking Richie too seriously even if he clearly finds him attractive — declines because he’s late meeting Dom to go to a bachelor party (for his ex-boyfriend’s engagement, no less).
By the time he meets Patrick at said party (which judging from a quick interaction in the bathroom, makes clear Patrick’s engaged ex is as much of a prick as the oncologist), it’s obvious Dom hasn’t exactly been having the most fun first half hour of the series either. We’re introduced to his living situation with Doris when Dom asks her whether he should contact his ex-boyfriend, who he has learned via Facebook is making a killing selling condos in LA — and he wants in. It’s the first hint of Dom’s developing mid-life crisis, and Doris is quick to call him out on it. “We’ve come a long way for a couple of Modesto rednecks, all right,” she spits at him, confirming her as my favorite character of this episode. “You don’t need to be taking career advice from a psychotic narcissist.”
Dom eventually agrees with his level headed (so far) BFF, and decides his actual problem is just needs to get to laid. Which he attempts at work with a young new fellow waiter, resulting in an exchange between him and the restaurant’s bartender that’s a definite episode highlight:
Dom: “What’s his name again?”
Bartender: “‘No.’ His name’s No. It gets weird, they quit…”
Dom tries anyway, and things indeed get weird — but not in the way Dom hopes. The young waiter resists Dom’s come on, resulting in another great line when Dom complains about it to Paddy later that night at the party: “Something awful happened to me at work today: I didn’t get to fuck someone I wanted to fuck. It’s the first time that’s ever happened to me.”
The only people that end up fucking in the first episode of “Looking” are Agustín and Frank — and not just with each other. Shortly after deciding that Agustín will move into Frank’s apartment in Oakland (which Agustín unromantically initiates in bed with the line “I really can’t afford the city anymore”), the two have their very first (it seems) threesome. Working late to finish an installation for his boss, Agustín gets his own assistant in the very adorable Scotty. When Frank shows up later to help out too, their mutual flirtation evolves into sex after Scotty instigates it via the episode’s other come-on that shouldn’t work as well as it does: “While we’re on the subject of fine art, do you guys want to see my new
tattoo? I designed it myself. It’s Dolly Parton’s signature.”
Agustín and Frank end the episode in at their soon-to-be-shared apartment in Oakland, with Frank clearly a little more concerned with the events of the evening than Agustín. “So, are we one of those couples now?” he asks.
“We can be whatever we want to be,” is Agustín’s perhaps over-confident answer, at which Frank reasonably wonders what happens if they don’t agree on what that is. But even with this questionable development, Agustín is — for now — definitely the most stable “Looking” protagonist. He’s looking to move forward in his relationship with Frank — both in terms of shared apartments and threeways — in a seemingly open and honest way.
Dom, meanwhile, ends the episode by doing something not so stable (and something Doris is not going to like): Calling his condo-selling ex and leaving a message. Dom has definitely not figured out what he’s looking for, but he’s apparently up for trying a few potentially self-destructive short cuts to help him get there.
Which leaves us with Patrick, who seems to come to a momentary acceptance that he doesn’t need to know what he’s looking for. After Dom leaves him at the party to go “find some blonde slut to help me regain my self-respect” (which we sadly don’t end up seeing, if it indeed happened), Paddy decides to take a little chance and go look for the cute cosmetologist from the bus. Who, he decides, is good enough for now. Which is also a reasonable summation of the episode itself. It sets things up nicely — and rather uneventfully — without trying too hard to be everything everybody wanted it to be when HBO first announced the series. Which might feel like a disappointment, but thankfully works quite well as the series goes on — I’m happy to admit I’ve seen the first four episodes and each is better then the one before it. So just hang in there and see how “Looking” develops. You waited this long, and you can surely wait a few more weeks to fully decide whether or not “Looking” fulfills the extreme expectations you probably placed upon it long before you even saw last night’s episode.