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Looking is the best show no one’s watching

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In a television season filled with the promising debut of Amazon's Transparent, the triumphant return of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, and the continued excellence of FX's The Americans, among dozens of other quality shows, there was also a fantastic comeback story — HBO's Looking.

After a highly scrutinized 2014 debut, largely due to its status as one of the few shows ever to focus exclusively on the lives of gay men in America, Looking made a name for itself as one of the most gorgeous shows on television, thanks to producer/director Andrew Haigh's discerning eye. But the show had some first-season jitters, resulting in uneven episodes, jarring characters, and a loose story that at times plodded along.

This year, the show grew by leaps and bounds. It unapologetically and humanely explored honest stories of gay life. The last four episodes of season two were the best this show has ever been. But there's a slight problem.

No one is watching it.

According to TVLine, the penultimate episode of season two drew in a meager 300,000 viewers. To put that number in context, the season premiere of Girls this year drew 680,000 viewers, according to Deadline — a number that, while more than double Looking's, represented an abysmal 39 percent swan dive for the series. So if Girls caused concern, you can imagine how much Looking's low numbers hurt the program.

Because of these ratings, there's still some uncertainty over whether Looking will be renewed for a third season. While the powers that be can't control how many people tune in, they did do everything in their power to craft some brilliant television, which may convince HBO to renew this glimmering little gem of a television show.

The last few episodes of the season were fantastic

Oftentimes in TV, as in sports, all anybody remembers is how a show finished, how it pushed to the end of its season. When held to that standard, Looking comes home a champion.

The show's terrific endgame began to unfurl in the season's seventh episode (of 10). Doris (Lauren Weedman, the show's one female regular) heads back to Modesto, California, to deal with her father's death. The episode's languid pacing plays into one of the series' trademark qualities. But unlike some of the other beautifully aimless episodes, this one drastically pushed the show forward — it launched us into a Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Kevin (Russell Tovey) romance.

Patrick and Kevin's relationship was a bit of a surprise last season. It started with sex on the floor of their video game company's office, where Kevin was Patrick's boss. We saw the aftermath of that in season two's early episodes — Patrick was the other man, and Kevin was cheating on his boyfriend. The two then assembled a slapdash semblance of a relationship that depended on deceit and whether Kevin's boyfriend was in town. Their love wasn't exactly the kind you're used to rooting for.

Then the show raised the romantic stakes in the ninth episode. It opened in a cold yet startlingly beautiful apartment — a set that functioned as an allegory for how Patrick sees Kevin. Patrick thinks everything is beautiful, and he wants in. But it's Kevin who dictates the decision on whether to rent the place, already setting the terms of their relationship.

We don't see much of the apartment other than that initial shot. It's a way to idealize both the apartment and the relationship, but also a way to indicate that maybe Patrick hasn't had to figure out how to live in the apartment or in his new life with Kevin. In fact, the entire episode involves Patrick's sister trying to talk him out of moving in with Kevin.

In the season finale, that perfect apartment becomes a glass prison. We see a vicious argument about monogamy, Patrick realizing he doesn't really know the man he's moved in with, some emotionally damaging words being thrown around, and Patrick and Kevin having to resort to arguing about the settings of their Sleep-Number bed, because they can't talk about what either of them wants.

The fight — those camera angles, the allegations being flung, the salt being shoved into those wounds — was brilliant. It's no mistake that the fight starts in their apartment, descends on an elevator ride, plummets into a parking garage, and ends on their balcony — a nod to the idea that this glass house and this relationship are imperfect. It's a brutal, poetic, and beautiful piece of storytelling.

The show figured out how to balance its characters

(HBO/John P. Johnson)

Too often in season one, Looking focused on characters who didn't deserve it, shortchanging its more interesting fictional figures. There's no reason why the brackish Agustin (Frankie Alvarez) commanded exponentially more screen time and more storylines than Doris or Kevin, other than the fact that he was a regular last season and the other two weren't.

This season, the show promoted several actors to regular status and figured out a better mix of characters. Agustin was toned down and given a more lighthearted (as lighthearted as Looking can be) story to pursue, and Doris and Kevin were given larger roles — giving us more of what made the first season work.

Now the show can confidently explore the ugliness of Doris' relationship with Dom (Murray Bartlett), as well as the beauty of him being there for her father's death.

This character refocusing also made Patrick's interactions with Kevin more meaningful, as in the eighth episode, when Patrick and Kevin go on a double date with Richie (Raul Castillo) and Brady (Chris Perfetti). It wouldn't mean as much if the show hadn't spent its first season establishing Richie and Kevin's opposing personalities and their effect on Patrick.

Richie, the show's most likable soul, has always brought out the worst in Patrick. Richie is sweet, thoughtful, and loyal, but he doesn't fit all of Patrick's desires in a love. His ethnicity and his job as a barber exposed some of Patrick's ugliest feelings, which sometimes manifested themselves in cringeworthy moments of casual racism or embarrassment. That happens again on this double date.

By way of a drunken, rambling Brady, we see Richie's jealous streak. It's revealed that he thinks Patrick and Kevin represent everything that's wrong with the gay community. It's awkward, honest, and even disarming. Seeing it bounce off of Kevin, whom Patrick idealizes as "the one," and Patrick is both strangely satisfying and completely irritating — Patrick seems smugly flattered by it.

The consequences of a gay relationship

(HBO/John P. Johnson)

In the last few months, ABC's How to Get Away with Murder has stolen a bit of Looking's thunder. On Murder, gay sex is as stylized and erotic as any heterosexual hookup. And the show's depiction of these scenes has been unmatched by anything on television, including Looking, which has been criticized for shying away from showing gay sex.

Though Looking beefed up its sex scenes this year, it also examined and delved into the psyche and insecurities of gay men in relationships. Murder gives its gay characters problems that stray into a cloudy, generic bubble of "commitment issues." Plus Murder is more about, well, murders than it is about gay relationships. There's little room for the emotional intimacy of Looking.

In Looking's season finale, Patrick and Kevin deal with the idea of monogamy and Grindr. The hookup app isn't treated as a joke — it's a real threat to their relationship, which is something that, for the most part, only gay men understand. The show isn't afraid to make characters seem slutty or prudish, and it humanely deals with this fact of gay life without belittling the characters.

The same thoughtfulness extends to the show's plots featuring Agustin's relationship with Eddie (Daniel Franzese), who has HIV. Agustin goes from being inquisitive (almost to the point of festishizing) about Eddie's status to seeing that status as a badge of honor to being completely terrified about having sex with him. There's ugliness, sure, but it's done in a way that feels honest to Agustin's experience.

Looking succeeds because it doesn't create characters who just happen to be gay. Instead, being gay directly affects these characters' mentality and lives. The characters aren't meant to be exemplars for the gay community as a whole. They aren't always likable. And we may not agree with them. But they feel real, and that's more than enough reason for HBO to give them one more shot.

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