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Why Looking’s second season is worth watching

Jonathan Gross and Murray Bartlett in Looking
Jonathan Gross and Murray Bartlett in Looking
HBO

When Looking premiered last year, it did so under a huge amount of pressure. It was touted as a series that would really explore the lives and relationships of gay men, in a way that hadn't been done on television before. It was going to break ceilings, destroy barriers, and examine the guts of gay culture on perhaps TV's most respected network, HBO.

The show did a serviceable job. It was beautifully shot. The second half of the season was strong. Recurring players Russell Tovey and Raúl Castillo shined brightly, but in different ways, as Kevin and Richie, rival love interests for lead character Patrick (Jonathan Groff). The show could also approach truisms of gay life — like a fear of aging and the shame of not being "the man" during sex — with honesty and dignity.

With so many expectations placed upon it, it was no surprise that Looking disappointed some.

The show may have broken through television's gay glass ceiling, but some critics were quick to pick up the shards and start cutting. A few found it too boring, some wanted more drama, others wanted more nudity, and there was a cry for more diversity.

Because Looking is still the only mainstream show intimately focused on gay men's lives, it ends up being the only voice in the conversation. And that places a perhaps unfair burden on it. It becomes an avatar for gay life, representing the desires and hopes of people who want to see themselves, their lives, and their truths reflected on television. And that's impossible.

Fortunately, in its second season, Looking seems to have a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. It's blossomed into a sturdy, likable, show.

Here's why you should watch season two.

This season highlights its best characters

Looking's biggest strength last season was its ensemble cast.

While the story of Looking is really about Patrick and his two friends, Dom (Murray Bartlett) and Agustin (Frankie Alvarez), the satellite characters orbiting this friendship brought brightness and life into the show. Looking's biggest weakness was not incorporating characters like Kevin, Richie, and Doris (Lauren Weedman) into the story enough.

In Looking's off-season, Weedman, Tovey, and Castillo were bumped up to series regulars. And in the first half of the show's second season, Kevin and Doris are given meatier material to play. We explore Kevin's childhood and upbringing, and Tovey subtly gives him a texture and vulnerability missing in the first season.

Weedman has the more entertaining role, playing a light-hearted jester with a bottomless bag full of quips about penis size, lesbians, and millennials on a show that's often very serious about love and relationships. Though Doris could easily be a one-note caricature, Weedman gives her a humanity — doled out in brief flashes — that make you want to know more about her friendship with Dom.

The sex is better this year

(HBO/Looking)

One of the biggest criticisms of Looking, was that it didn't feature enough erect penises or hot gay sex for a show that's supposed to be about gay men. That criticism might seem prurient at first blush, but it's actually deeply important to the series' depiction of the lives of gay men.

This season ups the sex quotient accordingly. There's more nudity and sex. A Bravo Delta video Looking is not, but it has enough gay sex in the tank to give How to Get Away with Murder a run for its money.

Whether those sex scenes hit the spot and titillate depends on each viewer. But their very existence represents progress. While LGBT representation is growing on television, there are still many shows where gay men's sex lives are sanitized or non-existent. There have been a slew of characters (see: Modern Family, Glee, The New Normal) that are gay, but are rarely, if ever, seen having sex. That implicitly asserts that gay characters are okay, but there's something harmful, shameful, or simply not okay with gay men having sex.

Fighting to see two sweaty men humping might seem a trivial in the grand context of civil rights. But think for a moment about the cowardice of a (hypothetical) show that focuses an interracial couple who is never seen kissing, or just acknowledge the abundance of sex scenes featuring straight couples on any given network on any given night.

Granted, the actors all look like they've done their squats in the off-season. If we want to be truly honest, a lot of gay intimacy doesn't really look this glamorous.

But even a bit more sex is a big step forward.

Jonathan Groff has come into his own

(Looking/HBO)

As Patrick last season, Jonathan Groff gave an uneven performance. That wasn't entirely his fault. Patrick is an aggressively uneven character, who vacillates between mild racism, aggressive awkwardness, and hopeless romanticism. Groff was best in the moments that skewed closer to comedy  (like Patty joking about his voicemail sounding "gay") but made some of the show's heavier scenes (an awkward kiss at a wedding) seem like work.

The show's writers have recognized this, and leaned into Groff's strengths by giving him some physical comedy to play around with. Think enemas (yes, enemas), STD tests, and Molly.

Viewers will also be more used to Patrick's quirks this season. We know that he's mildly terrible, but we also saw why he acts the way that he does as the first season progressed. The pockets of his behavior that came off as brackish and off-putting in season one now have a logic behind them we don't always agree with, but now have a better understanding of.

Looking has only scratched the surface

(HBO/Looking)

While Looking has come into its own by focusing more on humor in its second season, it's only barely begun to realize its potential when it comes to the show's more serious topics. At times, as with Dom and Lynn's (Scott Bakula) relationship, the show breaches the topic of aging and death in a way that will resonate with so many gay men. Its stronger serious side is also present in the understated and under-played economic differences between Patrick and Richie.

This season also starts to explore serodiscordant couples — couples where one partner is HIV-positive and one is not — with Agustin and Eddie (Daniel Franzese).

These are complex stories, being told with an honesty that can be ugly. Patrick comes off condescending when talking about Richie's finances, Lynn's iciness to Dom feels stubborn, and Agustin comes very close to fetishizing Eddie's HIV status.

But the show also embraces, finally, these characters' complexity. There's an understanding that Looking isn't trying to represent all of gay culture or all gay men. And Looking is at it's best when it isn't making apologies for that.

Looking premieres January 11 on HBO.