‘Looking’ for Complexity: Why HBO’s Great Show Can’t Seem to Break Out

John P. Johnson/HBO

Earlier this month, a shadowy cabal of industry types sequestered themselves in a conference room to determine the difference between comedy and drama. At the end of their labor, definitive verdicts were announced. Jane the Virgin and Shameless — which have featured plotlines about artificial insemination and the accidental ingestion of cocaine by children, respectively — were officially comedies. Orange Is the New Black, with its cunning, lingual dogs and tampon sandwiches, was a drama. That the arbiters were making these declarations on behalf of the Television Academy, and thus directly determining this fall’s Emmy race, made their work at once more conclusive and more absurd. The truth is, in today’s rich television landscape, the very best shows are always funny and moving. Think of Better Call Saul’s tightrope walk between laughter and tears, Mad Men’s killer cleverness, or the way You’re the Worst made broken weirdos falling in love into the most romantic thing I’d seen in years. As with real life, chuckling at someone slipping on a banana peel is only half of the story. Eventually, you’re going to have to deal with the violent impact of their fall.

That the Emmys are being willfully obtuse isn’t news. (Wake me when they finally separate the categories into Best Half-Hour and Best Hour, as they should.) But this obsession with classification was on my mind as I watched the end of Looking’s confident and effective second season. Like many of 2015’s better shows, the San Francisco–set series is ostensibly a comedy. The tone is often light, the misunderstandings plentiful, and the odds of personal embarrassment better-than-good. But Looking is far more emotionally intricate and aware than most series that will be competing for that Drama prize come September. It’s a show about fundamentally good and happy people wrestling with a barrage of tough choices that may seem slight when compared to the existential Sturm und Drang of people in Westeros or, say, women’s prison. But I’d argue that these are choices that are actually a lot more relevant to audiences — and a lot more delicate to portray onscreen. With the fearlessness of someone heading south of Market on Halloween, Looking continually asks the biggest of questions: Whom to love? How to love? And, once you’ve got that figured out, what the hell happens next?

I was an admirer of Looking’s low-key and charming eight-episode first season. I dug the way it entrenched itself in the rich specificity of a world unknown to me: that of late-twentysomething gay men in the Bay Area. Unlike the battles of previous generations —whose veterans were well represented by Scott Bakula’s beautiful performance as Lynn, a graying florist in the Castro — the contemporary conflicts of Patrick and Agustín were defined by an abundance of options. Thanks to the Internet, casual sex could be ordered like a pizza. Thanks to medicine, HIV was no longer an instant death sentence. And thanks to social progress, marriage and parenting were very much possible. Each of the eight episodes featured an exhilarating undercurrent of potential and a cold-sweat slick of fear: When everything is suddenly on the table, how do you know what’s right to choose? The first season’s best episode, “Looking for the Future,” found Jonathan Groff’s Patrick sharing a long, winding walk with Richie (the phenomenal Raúl Castillo), his maybe-boyfriend. Scenic views were appreciated. Ice cream was consumed. It was the sort of intimate meander there’s rarely space for on television — a glimpse of two people taking the time to find their place with each other and in the larger world.

What struck me about the second season, which ended last night, was the assured way it adapted and improved. Bitter, self-involved, and manipulative, Frankie J. Alvarez’s Agustín was the closest thing Looking had to a villain in Season 1. What was remarkable about his transformation in Season 2 was the way creators Andrew Haigh (best known for directing the indie hit Weekend) and Michael Lannan grew a new, improved Agustín out of preexisting seeds. The addition of Daniel Franzese as Eddie, a fun-loving, self-proclaimed bear who just happens to have HIV, had an enormous impact, too — his relationship with Agustín could have been treated as a fling or as a character-defining risk but became, instead, a character-elevating love story. (I loved the way intimacy was scarier to Eddie than any disease.) And Alvarez was particularly nimble at portraying the way bad behavior is very often a smoke screen for even worse self-esteem. Seeing Agustín brought low may have felt like a relief for some viewers; seeing him rise above was enormously gratifying for this one.

Other tweaks were similarly effective. Lauren Weedman brought great comic relief to Season 1 as Doris, the roommate and lifelong best friend of Murray Bartlett’s Dom. Adding her to the main cast allowed Weedman to function as much more than a foil. (In fact, Weedman carried the season’s best episode, “Looking for a Plot,” which chronicled Doris and Dom’s return to the Central Valley town they’d managed to escape two decades prior.) The former Daily Show correspondent brought a muscular vulnerability to her story lines this year, from a tender romance with Bashir Salahuddin’s Malik to a fractious, quasi-breakup with Dom. Here, too, the show chose the tougher path and was rewarded for it. It would have been far simpler for Malik to be threatened by Doris’s relationship with Dom or vice versa. Instead, thanks to the warmth of Salahuddin’s performance and the dexterity of the writing, Looking gave us a compelling conflict stripped of ill intentions: Everyone was kind, everyone wanted what was best. And that’s what made the discord so affecting and so real.

This dedication to evenhandedness, to lingering bruises over startling violence, might be a reason why the ratings, always modest, have cratered in the second season. (I’d also point to the strange time slot with which HBO saddled the show: Sundays at 10 p.m., with a freshmen series, Togetherness, as a lead-in and no prestige drama to attract extra attention.) In my podcast conversation with the stars, they also pointed to the weight of expectations that many in the gay community felt for such a high-profile show. That Looking was so resolutely low-key — so tightly focused on the circumstances of its characters as people first, proxies of a community a distant second — made for much stronger art. But I could also see it leading to disengagement and frustration. With so few shows focused on gay lives, it stands to reason that some would want to see Looking cast the widest net possible when it came to representation.

Looking-2John P. Johnson/HBO

But Looking never trafficked in big gestures. (Which is why the show’s few missteps tend to stem from overreach: the broadness of Patrick’s family, the implausibly sudden ardor of Kevin.) It is a proudly small-bore show that mines the intricacies of interpersonal relationships for maximum effect. Even last night’s dustup between Patrick and Kevin refused to resolve cleanly. While the former was rightly protective of his “valuables” — those in the box and otherwise — the latter was genuine in his desire for transparency, even if that meant some relationship-threatening appetites would be brought to light. Groff was sensational in this quasi-almost-breakup scene, just as he had been all season. Again and again, Patrick’s fear of being honest about his own desires led to decision-making that could often come across as more petulant than determined. Which is what made the season’s final moments so perversely powerful. Sitting with Richie, still affixed to Kevin, Patrick finally found the confidence to keep quiet and exist in the complexities of the present. It was a fitting cap for a series in which the sweetest moments are often wordless: Patrick and Agustín sharing containers of Chinese takeout, Dom admiring the neon glimmer of his soon-to-open takeout window. At its best, Looking doesn’t dazzle. It glows.

That is precisely the tone that can earn critical encomiums like this but, unfortunately, not much else. Despite its stellar cast and impressive list of indie directors (This season saw Haigh joined by Ryan Fleck and Craig Johnson), Looking has earned no awards or industry buzz. Its commitment to working the line between extremes of comedy and drama has cast it into an uncanny valley of perception. While its Sunday peers Girls and Togetherness were both quickly renewed, Looking remains in limbo. This is unfortunate, as Looking is precisely the kind of unique, high-quality storytelling in which a network like HBO can afford to invest, ratings be damned. (And it certainly can afford it. Five hours of pleasant dudes bumming around the Mission likely costs significantly less than five seconds of dragon warfare on Game of Thrones or one of Nic Pizzolatto’s tastefully bespoke orgies.) There are plenty of TV shows about the thrill of the hunt or the ecstasy and agony of resolution. Looking is about the journey, and it would be a shame to see it brought to an end so soon.

Filed Under: TV, Looking, HBO

Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

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