Goodbye ‘Looking’: How HBO's LGBT Drama Was Lost, and Finally Found
The HBO gay drama series faced its share of critics at the outset—including the author. But a beautifully written and directed film formed the perfect farewell to its characters.
Warning: Spoilers Below
It's probably no accident that the movie of 'Looking'—which premieres on HBO Saturday night—features as its sole agitant Brady (Chris Perfetti), a journalist and mean drunk (who knows any of those? I mean, really…), whose purpose, as well as being a generally negative presence, is to be finally shot down in verbal flames by winsome hero Patrick (Jonathan Groff).
Journalists (confession, like me) have been 'Looking's' bête noire, and so in Brady perhaps is the creator's revenge: we are the sneering, arch baddie on screen, spoiling all the charming, self-indulgent conversations of Patrick and his buddies.
The mini-confrontation between Patrick and Brady occurs towards of the end of the movie because of a foggy mix of jealousy—Brady is with Richie (Raúl Castillo), Patrick's ex—and because Brady, says Patrick, acts as if he is a member of the "gay thought police," and he is fed up of being told by Brady that he is a bad gay of some kind.
Patrick's fightback mirrors presumably the irritation 'Looking's' own producers feel for criticism of their show, and the representation of a group of gay men living in San Francisco—which centered on the men's tediously meandering conversations (frequently inaudible in season one) about themselves, which tended to lead nowhere, and a listless, dreamy lack of action that became the show's hallmark.
The group seemed politically unengaged, wholly self-obsessed, and just dreary. After a tiresome early stretch of season one, 'Looking' livened up, and season two was genuinely involving and watchable. But by then it was a too late. The show was canceled, and the movie was its farewell.
And a lovely, fitting farewell it is too—written by series creator Michael Lannan, and directed by the masterly Andrew Haigh, most famous for the movie 'Weekend', which followed the tender and tense trajectory of a couple's temporally compressed love affair.
In the Looking movie, Patrick is returning to San Francisco, after nine months away in Denver where he lives now. The occasion for his return is Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Eddie's (Daniel Franzese) wedding. Dom's (Murray Bartlett) fried chicken stand is thriving—he even has a 'parklet' patch of green outside—although he has sworn off sex.
Doris (Lauren Weedman) is now happily settled into coupled life with Malik (Bashir Salahuddin)—much to her own disgust. This new world of wine tours, The Container Store, and book clubs is far away from her old life of bar-hopping and bitching with Dom and the boys.
You'd think Patrick had been away for years, given the gauzy gazing he does from the cab window, and the reaction of his buddies, but such is 'Looking's' unapologetic navel-gazing—and it soon settles into its dreamy groove, the twinkling lights and city-scape of San Francisco blurred and bleached of color behind the men, as they begin to talk. And talk. And talk.
As Patrick's thirties dawn, he toasts celebrating adulthood—although this seems more aspiration than ambition met. Dom has a beard and is muted; the restless, slutty Agustín is settling down for marriage (and, like Doris, drily asks himself and the group why), and Patrick himself is still struggling to get beyond what happened with both Richie and Kevin (Russell Tovey—he of the big ears and perfect ass), a relationship with the latter formed and fled from in season two.
The changes and non-changes within them are marked by the friends in mostly joshing, sarcastic exchanges over drinks and on the dance floor. Looking always feels as if we are eavesdropping on snatches of conversation, rather than actual drama. Nothing big happens, but life pushes on—in increments, rather than grand explosions and proclamations.
Agustín's ex, Frank (O.T. Fagbenle)'s advice—borne of bitter experience—is for his one-time boyfriend to stay away from rent boys. Richie tells Patrick that sometimes you have to leave things behind to move forward.
Some of the sweetest moments during the movie happen on the dance floor, and once or twice away from it, with Patrick swaying to music. This mini musical odyssey begins with Britney's 'Piece of Me,' which leads to him going home with a 22-year-old. Jim (Michael Rosen) also works in tech, and after they have fucked, the men talk and Patrick feels a stab of envy that Jim came out so young, at 16.
"He's not so butch when he has his legs in the air," Patrick says of his ex Kevin, whom Jim has a crush on.
On a walk the next day, Agustín frets to Patrick that he has sold out, and become "Neil Patrick Harris, although I can't tap dance." His dreams of being an artist have been traded in for a shop job. He has more life left to live, says Patrick, but later he too muses about time passing to Dom.
In a great scene, Patrick wonders—as many friends do—why shouldn't they, Patrick and Dom, get together. They know each other, they understand each other, and so, a little high, they kiss—and laugh, and realize it would never work.
The next day, Patrick goes to see Kevin, ostensibly to clear up some business about the video game they co-own. It begins gently, but—in some brilliantly written scenes—Kevin's upset about Patrick bailing on their relationship surfaces, and angrily. Patrick, runs from things, Kevin says; Patrick says he wasn't sure Kevin would remain monogamous. Kevin says Patrick didn't even give the relationship a chance.
It's a beautifully written, testy, moving exchange. But the two men part on good terms (indeed their final embrace and kiss, initiated by Kevin, was very moving).
They part survivors leaving the battlefield, and Kevin—back with his ex, and soon to leave for London—bestows upon Patrick a professional opportunity to allow him to return to San Francisco.
At City Hall, Patrick's quest to find the meaning of partnership and love continues at Agustín and Eddie's ceremony, which is presided over an officiant played by Tyne Daly. An ability to adapt, rather than change, marks a good participant in coupledom, she suggests to Patrick—although she isn't married herself.
What about the ring she wears, asks Patrick.
Well, she says, you wouldn't choose a fat fitness trainer.
Later Doris, opining that babies are harder to flush down toilets than wedding rings, reveals she is thinking about having a child, though hadn't told Dom because she always thought they would do that together.
When Brady and Patrick set-to, she possibly has the best line of the movie, drily noting how great it is when gays argue with other gays about what being gay means—wittily nailing the media tempest 'Looking' itself found itself at the center of, and ultimately conquered, however successfully is up to you the viewer.
After Brady accuses Patrick of trying to steal Richie away from him Richie breaks up with him (bloody annoying journalists!), and in the final scenes of Looking, Richie and Patrick interrogate whether they could be together and what that would mean, and whose desires would be met and what compromises would need to be made.
The conversation, as any resident or visitor to gay San Francisco will know, takes place on the historic Castro itself, and then finally—when a resolution of sorts is reached—the pair join the others in Orphan Andy's, the 24-hour diner on the corner of Market and Castro.
The last shot of 'Looking' pans away from the group, eating and chatting into the late night, on to the majestic lit-up sign of the Castro Cinema itself—an emphatic final visual message where 'Looking's' very gay heart belongs.
In accordance with the rest of the series, there were no grand conclusions reached on love, or relationships. Politics again went completely unmentioned. The mood of 'Looking: The Movie' was the same as the show—natural, free-flowing conversations about love, commitment, personal growth, and friendship.
This is fine, but with such little LGBT drama on television, a show where we are the heart still, to this viewer, feels like it should have more to say (and maybe we will find that larger, more ambitious focus in Dustin Lance Black's forthcoming, LGBT history-centered drama, When We Rise).
'Looking: The Movie' left our motley group as we had found them—in blurry, unmoored process, and still yapping away. But now they are a little, older, wiser and hopefully kinder to themselves. And finally, yes, this journalist—once a dissenter—will miss them.