HBO’s Looking was a show that never lived up to the sense of urgency or importance that surrounded the idea of it.
When it debuted in 2014, it was touted as HBO’s first prestige, mainstream window into contemporary gay men’s lives — the gay version of Girls or perhaps a less fabulous version of Sex and the City, the gayest television series to exist that somehow didn’t explicitly focus on gay men’s lives.
But Looking itself was understated. It could be boring to its harshest critics, and it was perhaps lacking the excitement — in its writing, its point of view, or even its sex — that separates the way gay men live their lives on television and how real-life gay men think about what their lives mean.
With lackluster ratings, the show was canceled after its second season. But HBO was generous enough to reunite its actors — Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett, Frankie J. Alvarez — and director Andrew Haigh to give Looking a 90-minute series finale movie. And Haigh has crafted a charming, compelling, disarming goodbye.
Haigh and his series, it seems, work better with an end in sight.
Looking depends on Jonathan Groff. And Groff’s performance is very good.
Haigh’s movie Weekend, a romance about a pair of strangers who find lust and love (or something that feels a lot like it) over 48 hours, was as powerful as it was soulful.
Looking’s finale is shaped the same way, focusing on a tighter story set over a short amount of time. Indeed, the story focuses on Groff’s Patrick coming back for, yup, a weekend.
We last saw Patrick fighting with his boyfriend Kevin (Russell Tovey) and getting a buzz cut. Since then, he has moved to Denver and continued his career as a video game designer. He’s been gone for around nine months.
Now, seemingly less neurotic and cringe-y, Patrick is back in San Francisco for Agustin’s (Alvarez) wedding. He hasn’t seen friends like peri-peri chicken daddy Dom (Bartlett), cruelly kind Doris (Lauren Weedman), eternal flame Richie (Raul Castillo), or his ex since he left. But he’s back in San Francisco, and they’ve all been living their lives without him.
Focusing on such a short amount of time with the characters — especially when we know this the very end of the story — quickens and energizes Haigh’s story. Don’t get me wrong. Looking’s finale doesn’t hurtle along with the pace of a Shonda Rhimes production. But it’s much more exciting than a show that could, at times, turn into slow-braised mope.
The finale isn’t split as evenly as the series, which showed multiple characters' perspectives. It’s about Groff’s Patrick. The entire weekend is seen through his eyes, and we never leave his side.
Patrick is a bit more mature, or at least better at hiding his immaturity, than when he was cackling while Googling foreskin in season one. A crafty little scene featuring a tender one-night stand shows us a leap in the way Patrick comprehends sex, and acknowledges a generational shift between Patrick and young gay men. He’s more comfortable with himself, with his gayness, and with his life now.
Groff conveys perfectly a sense that all of this is now too limited for Patrick. Like any other human, he is already writing a better life for himself — and this wedding is his gateway to find it.
Patrick’s meeting with Kevin is painful, bracing stuff — the opposite of his one-night stand. Tovey is fantastic, showing off a soulfulness and tenderness to Kevin, whom we always assumed was as untouchable as he was unfeeling. This story also allows Groff to show off Patrick’s vulnerabilities, and a realization of just how selfish Patrick can be.
We’ve grown up. So has Looking.
When Looking premiered, it was seen as a pioneer of sorts, charting territory that HBO had never been to. Perhaps because there haven’t been and still aren’t that many television shows that focus on gay men’s lives, Looking represented the only voice of what gay men’s lives were like. That’s a lofty responsibility, and one the show could not escape.
By those standards, if Looking didn’t represent the gay life its audience lived, it was seen as a failure by the director, its writers, and its actors.
Since its premiere, though, there’s been progress throughout television. Though there’s work to be done to get more representation for LGBTQ characters on the medium, GLAAD reported that in the 2015 television season, the number of regular and recurring LGBTQ characters increased, and that streaming services like Amazon (see: Transparent) and Netflix (Orange Is the New Black) featured LGBTQ characters prominently. There’s also a variety of quality webseries (The Outs is fantastic) that tell LGBTQ stories.
Looking doesn’t have to be the one thing that LGBTQ people see themselves in, and that makes it easier to see its best qualities.
That’s not to say the show is perfect.
Bartlett’s Dom and Weedman’s Doris are underused in this finale, while Richie’s boyfriend Brady (Chris Perfetti) is very much a persnickety caricature of progressive gay men. I found myself more intrigued with Patrick’s life than with his friends’ preachy lectures on the historical magnitude of gay marriage or the lonesomeness of being an older gay man.
But in Haigh’s gentle hands, there’s a beautiful love story here with a simple message.
Looking is not about what makes the love between gay men different or rare or historical. It’s about one man’s life experience, a reflection of how our own friends, lovers, and exes have the capability to shape, nurture, or even damage how we love.
As the film finishes, there’s a desire to puzzle out Patrick’s life a little more, to give him the ending you think he deserves. And maybe a small wish that there would be just a bit more Looking left to see.
The series finale of Looking airs on HBO Saturday at 10 pm.