I should note before I start, I have a difficult relationship with television. To me it’s a fascinating and unique platform for cinematic storytelling… when it’s used cinematically. I’ve often found sitcoms, soap operas, and tedious police procedurals incredibly grating because of how crassly they deny any cinematic qualities. That’s not even to mention how often they rebuff any developing narrative or characters, lying content in rehashing the same dry scenarios over time.
Thus my favorite television series’ have often been on cable, most obviously Breaking Bad, Mad Men on AMC and Girls on HBO. I entirely deny Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, both of which mire its characters in plain cinematography, repetitious grandstanding, and a rather unsavory moral ugliness neither seems keen on criticizing. On rare occasion I’ve found myself falling for a network show, namely Fringe, which started as yet another vacant procedural before drawing me inexorably in with a curious focus on character and held me transfixed on its through its slowest melodramatic stretches.
where do I stand on television today. Not by total happenstance, it’s one of committed misery. Shows like Mad Men and Girls have kept me up late on Sunday nights either obsessing over them or addicted to their indelible charm. For somebody struggling through college, this isn’t a particularly healthy thing. Neither, for that matter, is my hunger for film, but television requires a more gradual commitment. You don’t get your narrative sweetly and compellingly served to you in 2 hours. It takes weeks, years even, to fully appreciate the nuances of a television show. Binge watching may be a healthier choice, but it’s not the same as living with a set of characters for years.
And when it comes to crafting intimate, believable characters, I have the utmost trust in Weekend director Andrew Haigh, who serves as central director and executive producer of HBO’s newest comedy Looking.
Episode 1.01: Looking for Now
It’s relatively easy to look at Looking and just see Girls, but with gay guys in San Francisco. I admit, I had those worries too, particularly given the trailers that emphasize this as a more obvious relationship comedy than Weekend was. Then again, this isn’t technically a show by the director of Weekend so much as from the director. The show is created by and largely written by Michael Lannan, whose prior work is neither substantial or notable, so this should count more or less as his debut, and an incredibly fine one at that.
It should be clear from first moments of Looking for Now – the show seems to be taking the Friends route of titling each episode based on what happens or what the core theme is – that Lannan is seeking a lighter comic tone than director Andrew Haigh might’ve with the same material. An amusingly botched attempt at cruising introduces Jonathan Groff’s central character Patrick, a meek, self-sustainingly peppy young man living in San Francisco where he hangs out with the show’s fellow protagonists, Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (a confidently possessed Murray Bartlett).
It’s clear from the beginning that Patrick more peckish and insecure than his friends, though their confidence doesn’t necessarily absolve Agustin and Dom of their own personal issues. Agustin’s life seems the most idyllically held together, moving in with long-term boyfriend Frank and launching an apparently fruitful career as an artist (or Avant Garde carpenter). That doesn’t relieve him of his own downplayed insecurities about progressing his relationship, which he can only do through a sexually relieving threesome. Though all seems fine by the episode’s end, there are frays of tension that surround this seemingly frivolous “bonding experience”. In traditional television, this would be an omen of a coming breakup. In real life a breakup may not be certain, but what is certain is either difficult compromise on both parts, or inevitable and destructive resistance.
I think it’s to the part of Lannan’s naturalistic, yet lightly heightened dialogue that Looking doesn’t feel like Girls, a show knowingly yet wisely steeped in the irony its characters sustain themselves with. There’s a comic sensibility that’s entertaining about it, particularly in how guileless every aspect of Patrick’s current existence feels. Be it at a bitterly flatlined OK Cupid date or the cutely embarrassing joint-bachelor party of an ex, Pat (can I call you Pat? Thanks bud!) is confident about his decisions in theory, but obviously awkward in practice, even when a positive opportunity arises with pleasing arrival of Raul Castillo (fans of Cold Weather, rejoice!) as Richie, a stranger whose charisma I suspect we’ll be enjoying much in the coming weeks.
And then there’s Dom, who’s possibly the most fascinating of our main trio, a nearly 40-year-old waiter whose homosexuality, one can infer, he’s only accepted more recently than his friends. A pleasingly spiky conversation with ex-girlfriend/roommate Doris (a pitch-perfect Lauren Weedman) conveys a lot about the stasis he’s only now realizing his life’s been in. His arc in this episode is pretty small, but it’s also filled with the most aching sensitivity. Realizing there’s his crush at work is all too evidently straight. Contemplating calling up an old flame. If Pat and Agustin’s issues are broader, the smallness of Dom’s dissatisfactions are all the more bitter because of our knowledge that he’s likely gotten to this point through the sum of such stoically withstanded moments of rejection. There are a lot of Doms out there, and they’re not exclusively male or gay.
To touch upon that obvious fact, Looking is a show about gay men, and it’s a show about seeking relationships (as the title makes particularly evident), but it covers universal themes and, more importantly, universal experiences. I imagine many of this show’s principal joys and pains will only reveal themselves slowly, but even for Now, it’s delightful to be amongst such sensitively developed characters with such a natural sense of humor about it. These are people I can happily see myself spending the next couple years with.
- Weekend‘s Andrew Haigh does direct this episode (and four others of this eight-episode season), and like in that film, he lends a naturalistic sense of beauty to ordinary environments, as well as shaping San Francisco as a light, open-air environment, though not yet as imminently, insistently sociable as his Nottingham environment.
- Speaking of San Francisco, I like how it feels like the free-minded creative space so many of my friends have described it as. I’d be more eager to live there if the film criticism communities weren’t so specifically huddled around LA and New York.
- “The lord tells us that a bachelor party is between one man and one stripper.” I feel like the joint-bachelor party is a concept now older generations would hail as a more sensible precursor to matrimony. If this shows anything, it’s that bachelor parties are meant to be the opposite of sensible and intimate. Not to be shared with someone you love, and I take it Pat’s ex’s marriage is less genuine love than a stunt to help him deny the thought of being alone or never finding somebody he does love.
- “Really, like a winking smiley face? What are you a Japanese teenager? I *was* a Japanese teenager. I didn’t even use a winking smiley face. If you want, I have some Pokemon cards I can sell you!” I don’t know if we’ll see Pat’s Asian co-worker again or if he was just cast so they’d have a Japanese person to say that line and not sound racist. That’d be a complaint if I didn’t find it so genuinely funny.
- “I could’ve easily said no to you.” “But you didn’t.” – Did Pat and Dom use to date? If so, interesting bit of relationship detail.
- So who’s your type? Dreamy, self-conscious Patrick? Wily and feisty Agustin? I admit, I so want into Dom’s rugged yet spry business. Yes, Dom, you can put your positive energy into my uterus.
- *I only graded this episode a B+ because I expect it’ll feel smaller and less intimate in comparison to coming episodes. If I were to give this series a grade, it’d be A-. I’ve a lot of faith in it so far.