Opening on a quietly hilarious riff on the all-macho city-break that is Deliverance, Season 2 of HBO’s intelligent, honest and razor-witted Looking once again rows gloriously upstream against the tide of gay telly clichés with a tighter confidence one only gets in the sophomore year.
“I really think that this weekend should be about the three of us together, not two hundred naked homos crammed in a pool” – Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Episode 1, Season Two
Of course it is not long before Patrick’s sober plans to hug ancient redwood trees and observe rare woodpeckers are swiftly replaced by booze, pills, plentiful peckers of a different kind and doing all sorts of nocturnal things against trees. One party invite from some sandbank-partying homos (“bring the clone and the seal pup!”) and a camp Cockette-ish fawn giving directions in the moonlight and we’re off – lost in music amidst a glorious opener marked by savvy slo-mo, some sharp editing and rich photography, a Sister Sledge classic and some pretty hot censor-baiting loving.
So where are our triumvirate of characters now? Ex-artist and career narcissist Augustin (Frankie J. Álvarez) is still trying to be less Augustin with varying success. Pop-up restaurateur wannabe Dom (Murray Bartlett) is now playing gay rugby and half-dating the “Dame Gladioli of The Castro” and flower shop mogul Lynn (Scott Bakula), but still over-panicking at the hands and minds that want to help him. And unlike the audience, main character Patrick (Jonathan Groff) appears to be over the soulful, barber boy Richie (Raúl Castillo) and the romance which so marked out Looking at the non-cynical tableau of gay American life. Or is he…? Following the end-of-season cliff-hanger (though Looking is not really a cliff-hanger show – it just ends on perfectly random anthems and bittersweet conclusions), the single Patrick is now seeing British software boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) who it seems is far from single. Series Two very quickly (though quietly) does not want us to like this new direction for Patrick.
Afraid to tell close friends Augustin and Dom he has been seeing Kevin all over the workplace, over-sensitive Patrick is however more confident about sex – both doing it and talking about it. The joy of Looking is the raw, fresh and recognisable dialogue. Looking talks like people talk (“straight people never have to think about squirting water up their ass before sex”). It is not about being candid or shocking. It is about being real. Part of the continued authenticity in season two is that – from the outset – these three characters believe they have evolved and learnt their lessons. The show naturally has to update and evolve. But Looking knows life is not like that. There is of course a sense of progression, but possibly marked more by the side characters taking to the story podium too. This is still Patrick, Dom and Augustin’s gig. However, Wave Two of Looking astutely lets some the support figures evolve proceedings too.
We learn more about Tovey’s Kevin and his British childhood in Romford (“is that like Wimbledon?” wonders Patrick). He confesses to adolescent stirrings over breakfast TV to boy-band Take That (and many a Brit guy of a certain age will wholeheartedly attest to taking that as all we could get pre -internet) and the click-rate on one of the band’s earlier twinky videos will rise when folk see Kevin’s rendition of the dance moves in question. He is not painted as such, and it is because he is not the kind Richie (in many ways the most personally sorted and clued up of all the Looking characters), but Kevin increasingly feels like the series villain despite thawing towards Patrick when their sex life finally finds a bed rather than a works store cupboard to continue in.
Of course firecracker fag hag Doris (the brilliant Lauren Weedman) is on early hand to lead the boys astray – “so you guys thought you were going to have your little sausage party without me?!”. But instead of being some comedy appendage, or “catnip for the lesbians” as she describes herself, Doris is soon afforded her own love story as the forty-something party girl meets her own [tangled] love story. Though that is very much after we are told Doris was last seen at the redwood party topless on a jet ski and offering a Navy salute to the lesbians. And there is a new character in the bear-shaped, Trans support worker Eddie (Mean Girls’ Daniel Franzese) – “the hairy assed mother of the Mission”. One moonlit skinny dip later and the kind Eddie is soon embarking upon a steadier, purer friendship with Augustin that the latter might be used to. Added to that, Castillo‘s Richie is accidentally back in the mix (yay!) and Bakula’s Lynn is possibly a gift horse with sharper teeth than Dom imagined.
When it launched in early 2014, everything the detractors threw at Looking was exactly why it worked. As Season Two underlines now even more, it is still not a peaks and troughs screaming cliché of a comedy-drama. If anything – and this is possibly the point – Tovey’s gossip-shy Kevin is the queer cliché, the less content and more troubled victim of the piece. Kevin is soon part of the uncomfortable Richie/Kevin dilemma Patrick is battling with – all of which is heightened with the latter’s scary talk of work-visa expirations and asides about gaining citizenship through marriage. At least Augustin’s problems don’t stem from his homosexuality. Or Dom’s. Or even Patrick’s. They might think they do with a private sense of martyrdom that some gay guys are wont to have, but the skill of Looking is it adeptly pricks all that with narrative ease and a scathing quip – always suggesting the characters fears, inadequacies and paranoia are actually universal to us all.
HIV/AIDS and the [now] higher agenda of the Trans communities situation have a greater presence than Season One. Hypochondriac Patrick gets a whole episode to worry that letting the bed bug bite might be something worse in a town where HIV tests are “given out like coffee stirrers“, and bear Eddie’s “Home In Virginia” status and telling tattoo is introduced with an ease and normalcy San Francisco has of course had to become the master of.
The momentum of the glorious nirvana that is the opening episode is somewhat lost in the couple that follow, but that is no fault. Every triumphant weekend needs a comedown – especially in San Francisco. Still sharply aware of the corridors of social media all our thumbs roam up and down (“You can’t shout at a homeless person…homeless people have Twitter accounts“), show runner Andrew Haigh, creator Michael Lannan and fellow writers are now free of the need to establish these characters and their world. Now is the time to enjoy the series template they have established. San Francisco is still the fairy godmother to the show, but without the gay landmarks turning into postcards of themselves. This is still a very familiar gay-by-the-Bay town. With a clever and often joyous soundtrack (continuing Looking’s musical habit of reminding you loved certain tracks you haven’t heard for years), it is already a TV privilege to be in these character’s company again.
Season 2 of Looking begins in the US on January 11th 2015 and in the UK on Sky Atlantic at 2255 on 5th February 2015.
Some thoughts on Season One of the show, Through the LOOKING Glass.
With thanks to Sky Atlantic and HBO.