When Looking premiered back in 2014, you could say I found it politically troubling. Those issues faded somewhat in Season 2; but by then, I had decided that politics aside, the earnest tone and gauzy approach of director Andrew Haigh and writer Michael Lannan just weren’t for me. If you like misty shots of the San Francisco skyline and close-ups of Jonathan Groff’s variations on a pained smile, you may enjoy Looking: The Movie, the show’s feature-length finale airing Saturday on HBO.
The film follows our hero Patrick during a visit to town for a wedding after a nine-month absence in Denver. Along the way, there’s copious dimestore wisdom on relationships and finding “something close to adulthood,” and plenty of moments where folks like Richie (Raúl Castillo) or a 22-year-old trick of Patrick’s named Jimmy (Michael Rosen) impregnate pauses with unbearably freighted clichés. The latter, on playing nicely with exes: “You have to bury your dead real good, you know? So they don’t come back and haunt you.” Jimmy, we’re meant to understand, has more going on than a great ass, which we watch Patrick devour in the film’s single—but truly great—sex scene.
Again, whether or not such lines make you groan at your screen is a matter of taste. But if there’s anything interesting about this film, it’s how self-aware it is about the division in reception, especially in terms of the ideological charges leveled against it by haters like me. I had to admire the writers for including—in a logic-vexing scene where Patrick attempts to “close a chapter” by having coffee with his philandering but somehow here morally superior old boss Kevin (Russell Tovey)—criticisms of the show in the guise of reviews of the pair’s failing smartphone app: “Stereotype, cliché-ridden dross,” and “What the fuck is the point?” And later, at a drunken post-nuptials party, there’s a nasty exchange between Patrick and Richie’s queer-blogger boyfriend, “leader of the gay thought police” Brady (Chris Perfetti). It made me LOL with its literal portrayal of the debate over gay representation that’s surrounded the series.
Brady: Is your femmephobia a joke?
Patrick: It’s OK, you can say it. It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve implied that I’m everything that’s wrong with the gay community. … I promise to read more of your articles and hope that one day I can finally learn how to be gay and be as perfectly adjusted as you!
Appreciate the clicks, pato.
On the point of marriage, the film deserves credit for attempting to explore many queer people’s ambivalence around taking part in such a conservative institution, even if the various positions are rather bluntly rendered. Points also for throwing something of a grappling hook to gay political history, with Patrick briefly acknowledging “all those people that came before us that actually had to struggle against something” and legendary activist Cleve Jones making a cameo during the wedding toasts to speak of the need to teach queer youth that “their lives do matter.” (Speaking of cameos, Tyne Daly’s turn as a City Hall marriage officiant provides the only eddy in a steady stream of “how to relationship” bromides that’s genuinely affecting.) Even these small gestures made this visit to Looking-land feel much more connected to the gay world I live in than it had before.
But overall, the stakes of the narrative remain too low to justify the reverence with which they’re treated. Aside from Patrick’s continuing to be a manipulative love tornado, Dom’s (Murray Bartlett) choice to focus on career over sex for a spell is presented as a major conflict point, and Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), who finds himself with steady job and a great relationship, actually says the words: “I’m not who I thought I’d be, and that’s tough for me to take.” In a story where apparently the bravest thing a person can do is move to another major city for another good job, this kind of hand-wringing is also tough to take.
Indeed, the only person whose life feels in any way worth exploring is Richie. We hear a snippet about his troubled relationship with his father, and Castillo’s superior acting skills make the character’s emotional travails feel more meaningful. As the film lost itself in Patrick’s puppy-dog eyes, I found myself wondering how the series might have turned out differently had it been told from Richie’s point-of-view, with Patrick as an occasional interruption and Agustín ideally appearing not at all. Who knows? Given that this film represents HBO’s no-hard-feelings farewell to the series, I doubt we’ll get to see a spin-off; but a show about the journeys of a handsome salon-truck owner is something I’d give a shot.
In any case, with Looking at an end, it’s worth asking what we found. Because precious few examples exist in the world, any art that seriously attempts to represent the gay experience will be asked to do an unfair amount of work, to meet the incommensurable expectations of an innumerable audience. For some, Looking was a gorgeous and subtle portrait of a specific collection of flawed humans by the bay. To others, all those moody hues were imbued with tropes too familiar and grating to ignore. And still others found it, well, boring. Haigh, Lannan, and company could never hope to satisfy us all.
In the final analysis, though, I’m glad the show existed. During Patrick and Brady’s catfight, galpal Doris (Lauren Weedman) chimes in with a helpful comment: “I love it when gays fight with other gays about being gays.” This seems intended as a blanket dismissal of criticisms like mine (and the rejoinders to them), but I actually think Doris is onto something. Anything that gets queer people thinking about our place in the larger culture, rather than just ambling passively through it, cannot be all bad. In fact, starting those fights could be seen as a kind of activism, a necessary spur to get us moving toward the queerer future—one with space enough for the Patricks and the Bradys—we’re all looking for.
Disclosure: Slate editor Julia Turner’s husband works on the show.