INTO THE WOODS
‘Looking’ Has Finally Found Its Big Gay Mojo
After its wildly inconsistent, audience-dividing first season, HBO's gay drama returns, and with a druggy, sexy season premiere, with a plot and characters you want to follow.
And so it returns, not on a tidal wave of love or passionate dislike, but quite a bit of anticipation. What direction would Looking follow in its second season, after a first that veered—for this viewer—between sheer inanity and pointlessness in the opening episodes to something approaching a working drama by the end?
It’s become clear in interviews that the producers and actors labored under the misapprehension those who dissented from Looking-love were doing so out of an objection to the drama somehow failing to represent all facets of gay life. That wasn’t it. Most of us just thought it was painfully slow, lacking character development, nothing but a rambling plot, and sometimes completely inaudible talking by its characters, who also seemed mostly insufferable. In other words, Looking’s problem in Season One was that it was aimless, and not in the way its creators wanted—it just grated.
In the interim, somebody has been sharpening the scriptwriter’s pencil, and defogged the director’s lens, because Season Two began with a tightly packed powder keg of plot and character development that makes me want to tune in next week to see what happens—really, the only thing a serial drama needs to achieve for engagement and success. This is a new feeling for this Looking viewer.
Season Two opened with the three main characters, Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Agustín (Frankie J. Álvarez), and Dom (Murray Bartlett), heading—how timely, Sondheim fans (there’s a crossover market)—”into the woods,” specifically the redwoods outside San Francisco.
Just as in the Sondheim musical, and now big-screen movie, the woods are variously a place of transformation and magic, where no-one is behaving exactly as they would in the “real world” outside. The idea of the trip was to get out of the city, to be away from booze and drugs and sex, and just connect and play board games, and think about stuff.
We have the briefest of catch-ups: Dom is still seeing Lynn (Scott Bakula), the very cool, older florist; Agustín is single; Patrick has broken up with Richie, but has been having illicit sex with his boss Kevin (Russell Tovey), who is in a relationship.
Agustín thought Patrick’s determination for a weekend of sober self-examination was futile, and so it was proven. Hedonism found them on a canoeing trip that took them past “Bear Beach, that’s a lot of man.”
Soon Patrick’s hope that they would sit and drink mint tea, to avoid all clothing-optional pools, was shattered into a thousand welcome smithereens by a shouted invite to a party in the woods later. This is helped by the appearance of Doris (Lauren Weedman), Dom’s straight friend, a periphery player last season and now rightly promoted—and given the best lines. “I’m like catnip for the dykes,” she notes.
Into the woods they head, having taken “molly,” and guided by a gentleman dressed in fairy drag, whose nipple Doris tweaks. They alight upon a lit and pulsing disco, the “Promised Land,” where the drugs work their magic as a gorgeous extended remix of Lost In Music throbs. “It’s like 1994,” Doris noted, while complaining affectionately, “Hanging out with you guys isn’t good for my vagina.”
Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed this opening episode, also executive-produces the show (and directed the wonderful movie, Weekend), and the pace of the clubbing and Patrick’s meeting with a handsome man as he danced—slightly druggy, very sexy—was beautifully realized. But the real surprise was driving through the woods: it was hot Kevin, ready to supply a grade-A, fan-yourselves-ladies, Tovey-gasm, as Patrick clutched at a tree, which was funny as in the daylight hours before he was saying the men should observe the beauty of the trees, not just imagine being fucked against them. “Maybe it’s the molly but I can feel it in my toes,” he said as Kevin kissed him. That’s a lovely, romantic line.
Agustín swam with a large bear (translation if needed, gay man with beard and un-six-packed belly), who was HIV-positive and who worked with homeless LGBT teens. Dom also went home with someone, and when asked if his boyfriend minded that he was doing so, sounded a little sad when he replied, “no.”
This first episode nimbly moved the three men’s lives on, and emphatically placed Doris center stage too (in an upcoming episode she’s shown meeting a man); and Richie is shown returning to Patrick’s life, setting up that best soap opera staple—a love triangle. This viewer even learnt some stuff: “a seal pup” is a gay man who is smooth, not hairy, and a bit chunky (which greatly offended Patrick, who it was lobbed at); and a “home in Virginia” is swish, hitherto-unknown-to-me shorthand for HIV-positive.
“Can we all just watch the sunrise and pretend everything is going to turn out fine,” Patrick said, the morning after their drugs, dancing and sex-athon as the men watched day break over the tops of the huge redwoods.
That suggestion sat well with the other two guys, and us, because it rather suggests that upcoming episodes may be free of quiet daybreaks. One hopes the coming trouble and complication will be rooted in Looking’s characters, rather than grafting issues on to them.
The woods, just like Sondheim’s, offered his characters a freedom that also reanimated them. It’s early days, but—with cautious optimism—it feels like Looking has finally found the drama it desperately needed. Fingers are nervously crossed, and return tickets booked for next week.