March 10, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Looking”


Is the dullness of HBO’s LOOKING a breakthrough or a flaw?  That’s the question that’s been following the series since its premiere two months ago, and it’s been argued both ways.

From the start, Looking has been presented as a show about gay men that would break the mold, different from forebears like Will & Grace and Queer As Folk (or for that matter, Glee and, to exaggerate just slightly, Sex and the City) in that its characters were ordinary people, neither sensationalized nor caricatured and without male-model looks, whose sexuality was just another aspect of their commonplace lives.  But if you took Looking at its word and watched it as though its characters were heterosexual–either men or women–it was still fundamentally a bore.

It isn’t that things didn’t happen in the course of its 8 episodes.  Relationships began and ended, professional ventures were undertaken.  Much like the romantic lead of a nongay series, videogame designer Patrick (Jonathan Groff) found himself torn between two potential partners, Latino hairdresser Richie (Raul Castillo) and Patrick’s own boss, the British and already-attached Kevin (Russell Tovey, perhaps best known here as the werewolf on the original UK Being Human).  The characters had nuance and emotional complication, not just Patrick but aspiring restauranteur Dom (Murray Bartlett) and sometime artist Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez).  There was dimension to the self-destructive behavior, rueful humor, class consciousness and camaraderie on display.

In the season finale alone (written by staff writer J.C. Lee and story editor Tanya Saracho, and directed by Andrew Haigh), Richie broke up with Patrick, who’d already had sex with Kevin, Dom launched a pop-up restaurant and despite his own issues with aging, showed himself interested in starting a relationship with older investor Lynn (Scott Bakula), and Agustin’s boyfriend threw him out after discovering that Agustin’s latest art project involved a male prostitute.  This being paycable, the sex was moderately explicit (and anyone who watched the series learned one concrete fact:  male escorts in San Francisco cost $220 per hour, a number that was repeated so often it was as though viewers were going to be tested on it), but more matter-of-fact in tone than salacious.

Although Looking was created by Michael Lannan, its creative voice seemed to stem from Haigh, who wrote and/or directed several of the episodes and served as Executive Producer.  The overall feel of Looking, in fact, was very similar to the indie film Weekend, which Haigh wrote and directed in 2011, and which consisted entirely of the weekend spent together by two men as their initially anonymous sex led to the possibility of a serious relationship.  (A Looking episode that followed Patrick and Richie through a single day was essentially a recapitulation of Weekend.)   Weekend got very strong reviews and film festival acclaim pretty much for the same reasons that Looking has been praised, for its low-key, conversational approach to gay subject matter, and frankly, like Looking, its 90 minutes felt about 2 1/2 hours long.

The problem with Looking had nothing to do with its gayness; it was simply as tiresome as any slow-paced, repetitive piece of work about people who aren’t terribly interesting would be.  (Despite the 30-minute length, it was rarely in any way a “comedy”.)  With the possible exception of the Dom storyline (and that mostly because of Scott Bakula, who dared to bring some charisma to his part), nothing in the show was particularly engaging.  Integrity, however admirable, isn’t necessarily entertainment.

Looking has been renewed for a second season despite unimpressive ratings, which is no surprise, because HBO thrives on buzz, and the series stirred attention even among people who may not have been watching.  In Season 2, Castillo, Tovey and Lauren Weedman (the only prominent woman in the cast, although still far in the background as Dom’s buddy) will be series regulars, and perhaps having more focal points will fuel a bit more pace and energy.  This season, Looking felt more like a public service project than great drama.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."