/bent contributors Matthew Hammett Knott and Peter Knegt go back and forth on why there should be a future for HBO’s “Looking,” which has yet to be picked up for a third season. If you’re not watching, they certainly hope their back-and-forth will change that (and don’t worry, there’s no spoilers).
Matthew Hammett Knott: OK firstly, I’m loathe to call anything underrated, let alone ‘the most underrated show on television’. At the same time, the last couple of episodes of ‘Looking’ have really made me want to advocate on its behalf — and if it takes an over-dramatic headline to do that, so be it. Let’s face it, the viewing figures are not good — most episodes this season have hovered below 200,000 viewers, which means that nobody could really be surprised if HBO chose not to renew it for a third season. However, I’m starting to think that would be a really tragic decision.
This point of view surprises even me. Andrew Haigh has to be one of the most subtle show runners out there, and sometimes his style is so low key it takes a while to notice how brilliant and affecting it is. I certainly wasn’t blown away by the first few episodes of this season. But I felt the same last season, and slowly I found myself increasingly wrapped up in the characters and their dilemmas. Exactly the same thing has happened this time around, in fact, doubly so. Culminating in the fact that I’d go so far as to say that the Halloween episode two weeks ago was arguably the most perfectly realised and powerful television episode of the year so far. Am I alone?
Peter Knegt: Not alone. I basically agree with every sentiment. I was chugging along with these season mildly underwhelmed until that Halloween episode blew me away. Both seasons of this show have been clever slow burns that pay off in the second half. But now I’m worried — especially after the amazing episode that followed this past Sunday — that not enough people have realized this and HBO is going to cancel “Looking.”
MHK: Do you have any sense of how low is too low for HBO? Unlike most channels, low ratings have never been a guarantee of a show getting cancelled. Then again, a small but passionate fan base has not been enough to save shows like ‘Enlightened’. The question is, how important is ‘Looking’ to the HBO stable? ‘Girls’ has never had remotely decent ratings, but it’s clear why HBO keep renewing it. The attention and kudos that attends Lena Dunham / Judd Apatow is considerable, and certainly far outpaces anything that ‘Looking’ can claim. However, Andrew Haigh’s reputation as a cinematic auteur is growing by the day, and to Lena Dunham’s two Golden Globes he can now claim two Silver Bears from the Berlinale. Is it too much to hope that he’s a talent that HBO are keen to keep on their roster, regardless of ratings?
PK: I feel like third chances are tough with HBO. They seem to almost always give a second season, but that’s when it gets tricky. I mean… if the reviews, fan base and talent of Mike White and Laura Dern weren’t enough to save “Enlightened,” I sincerely fear for the future of “Looking.” But I really hope I’m wrong. Because “Looking” is a really important show, even if a lot of people aren’t realizing it yet. There’s been tons of articles about how “LGBT television” is a trend right now, but what makes “Looking” stand out in the crowd is that its focus isn’t on life in prison or law school or within a dysfunctional family. “Looking” is about contemporary life for gay men, and it’s really the only American show currently on air that does that. And its lens is sharp and focused in a way that the only other American example I can think of in this regard — “Queer as Folk” — wasn’t. Without spoiling anything (because I know too many people haven’t watched it), that Halloween episode (and the Doris-centered one that followed) said so much about the complexity of humanity and friendships… and the desperation that can result from simply existing as gay man (or, really, as a single person of any orientation) in today’s world. It expresses their shame and loneliness in really nuanced ways. And it was also incredibly entertaining, which isn’t an easy mix to pull off. But I guess as a viewer, the hardest part of watching the show for me is that it’s a bit too much of a mirror to my own emotional instability… and maybe that’s why so many folks are resisting watching it.
MHK: Yes, I don’t think people realize how relatable it is on a general level. Certainly, there are added layers if you’re a gay man, but I know straight men and women who watch it and are absolutely wrapped up in it. It’s a cliche to insist that a gay story is in fact “universal”. But the fact is that the characters are incredibly easy to relate to. Nobody thinks that a show set in a prisoner is going to be primarily viewed by prisoners, or that a show about gangsters will only be watched by gangsters. But there is this general assumption that a show about gay men is only really going to appeal to gay man, and that is destroying “Looking”’s ratings prospects.
PK: I’m realizing now I was kind of pigeonholing it myself there a bit, and I don’t want to be part of that problem. Because you’re entirely right: What makes “Looking” so good is obviously not the fact that it’s about gay men (and my beloved Doris — give Lauren Weedman an Emmy for episode six, seriously). It’s how smart the writing and character development is (even if it takes half a season to see that clearly), and I suspect while a huge audience could potentially get into it, they aren’t because of the big gay label that’s been placed on it since the get go. This season is also better than the latest season of “Girls” by a large measure — though that’s not saying much, I suppose. But seriously: if you’re over “Girls” just turn it off and try “Looking” instead. Just make sure you watch it all the way to at least episode six.