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.
From an opening fumble in the cruising bushes of a San Francisco park, HBO’s new series Looking makes great play of not really being another gay show that starts with an opening fumble in the cruising bushes of a San Francisco park. Our main guy Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is already on the phone joking with his nearby pals like friends lost in a zoo no-one visits anymore. Already the path-paving brilliance of Russell T Davies’ Queer As Folk and its American remake cousin with all their nubile young lovelies and their helium heels hauled skywards now somehow seems so turn of the century.
Less a gold lamé baton handed on from the hindsight, camp and shock of Tales of The City, Will and Grace and Queer As Folk respectively, HBO’s Looking is not about running forwards. Like British director Andrew Haigh’s previous [and pitch-perfect] feature Weekend (2011), this is about half-seen exchanges outside busy bars and stolen conversations on various Lower Haight sofas as the work talk and weed pipes get passed round as inconsequentially as the prawn crackers from a Thai takeout (not a euphemism!). “I’m proud of you – you’re a pervert now” dismisses one of Patrick’s friends as Looking quickly proves it is not about coming-out stories, Cher gags, fantasy Madonna dance-offs in the bus queue or bottom licking commotions. This is not Sex And The City but just done with gay men replacing the ladies. We’ve had that. It was called Sex And The City.
Everything the possible detractors will level at Looking is exactly why it works. It is not a peaks and troughs screaming queen of a comedy-drama with sexual pratfalls and verbal grenades. Nor does it wear its politics on its leather/denim/tattooed sleeves. Equal marriage, Prop 8 and DOMA is not its agenda as it is not all of ours either. The show and us are aware of the principles at stake, but how many of us really fuss about it 24/7? When very straight comedies and dramas are tapping gay marriage as a narrative normality, it would be wrong of Looking to be throwing its bouquets out the pram in every episode (a wedding episode obviously touches upon such matters but from Patrick’s perspective of messing life up with his intended plus-one).
The opening story especially is a wilful almost inconsequential slow build – an afternoon-paced overture to these characters lives that may lose some viewers, but please stick with it. Episode Five is a beautifully languid Before Midnight exploration of a day off in Golden Gate Park, the planetarium and the kind of affecting character interplay which only Haigh’s Weekend ever got right in recent times. Yes, Looking is savvy enough to throw in a Golden Girls put-down (what isn’t, Rose?), but its gay pulse is not predicated on them.
Spring-boarding off creator Michael Lannan’s previous short film Lorimer (2011), there is actually an affecting delicacy to the lives and exchanges of games designer Patrick, lost artist Augustin (Frankie J Alvarez) and nearly-forty waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett). Like San Francisco itself, the differences and expressions of everyone’s sexuality is a given. There are no closeted jocks or intimate-shy handmaidens here. Moving too fast is a deliberate fault of some characters sex lives, but never the show’s writing or insight into at least three generations of contemporary gay men. These are [almost] nice people doing their thing – the Augustin character is a deliberate hard sell and carved with such pitfalls of attitude one realises he is totally familiar. The difference here is that for gay audiences – for good or bad – this is our thing now; and as one character astutely notes, “guys are guys”.
A key motif of Looking is “being who we think we are”. For the trio of main characters “looking” is indeed key. But looking for what? Maybe some are looking for love, intimacy, a better street to live on, better praise from their peers, better sex from a threesome (or not) or just looking for others who are also dissatisfied with their lot to validate everything (Augustin’s problem). All held together with a solid cast, the show slowly pulls you in. Whilst how Groff’s Patrick really knows Alvarez and Bartlett is perhaps not flagged up enough early on, the friendships are believable with a pleasing short-hand and explanations do arise without surprise.
Likewise Lauren Weedman’s Doris is a savvy, bubble-bursting best mate, Raúl Castillo’s Richie is a hot and kind Mexican and Scott Bakula is an old guard Castro florist with age and hindsight on his side – “we still had sex, but it was friendlier” he notes about the one-night stands of the 1980s and 1990s. Cyber-dating is of course a support app of the show – unavoidably used but not exclusively. Though there will be many a moment when some of us in the audience look to our overpriced brogues with acute embarrassment at the behaviour on show. Patrick and pals research their past and present dalliances and shag-obsessions on the Instagrams, okaycupid.coms and Grindrs of this world. Characters over-worry about the Instagram photos of a dinner date and the successful exes now with their own Wikipedia page. But their real stories are often advanced from chance encounters on the MUNI train, accidental glances through a bar doorway, in an empty sauna and works drinks nights. The relationship between Patrick and Richie is particularly lo-fi, not remotely reliant on new technologies. The politics of “friending” on social media and being “an 82%” match“ is rolled out, but so too are the real-life concerns about what messages Patrick gives his new Brit boss Kevin (Russell Tovey) when working overtime on a Sunday and when exactly does a three-way become a problem or a plus? And just when is it no longer polite to mock the Brits after too many bottles of free Bud?!
But is it identifiable to non-San Franciscan, non-American audiences? Of course it is. In the same way Haigh’s Weekend chimed with Top Ten film lists the world over, Looking is a wholly identifiable show, carved with the same incisiveness of its creators previous work. “If I was embarrassed about it, I wouldn’t do it” is a telling line from content, well-earning sex-worker CJ the adrift artist Augustin desperately wants to be like. Not every piece of dialogue need be a barnstormer. Not every quip requires its own t-shirt. Though “you gave him a winky, smiling face? What are you – a Japanese teenager?might do the rounds. It is never a glib show. Nor is it a dot.com, labels and luxury lifestyle fest. With an easy blend of ages and social backgrounds, Looking is thankfully never about whiny, white rich gays. The basement apartments, corridors and streets of Looking are worn and lived in. Like the characters and their love lives, not everything is new and shiny but all of it is functional. That is what San Francisco affords this series. And that is why it is the vital fourth character. Real-life Castro drag artists Peaches Christ and Honey Mahogany are on well-manicured hand, the Castro Theater cinema is the noble granddame backdrop it always has been, the leather-bound Folsom Street Fair plays itself to great effect mid-way through the series, Dolores Park plays Dolores Park, The Stud bar is a location must and the forever-vintage streets of Mission Dolores, Market, the Castro and their pizza [and men] by-the-slice sidewalks are recognisable to anyone familiar with the worlds of Maupin and Milk. What San Francisco brings to Looking is what the show itself gets very right. It is that sense of community, of a neighbourhood of characters and shared experiences often ticking over through nothing but an inexplicable and shared shorthand.
We may not have had the best timeline of televisual representation over the decades. But what doesn’t always embody us makes us stronger – and all that article-writing jazz (maybe). The landmark likes of Tales of The City, Queer As Folk, Will And Grace, Angels In America, Beautiful People, Queer As Folk and the queer Carrington boy in Dynasty may have been all we had. But they were still ours. Looking represents a smart new chapter. Season Two has been greenlit and audiences – despite a minority of initial and lazy reactions declaring “it’s boring” (it’s not) – have grown and spiked just as the series and its wise writing has. And in the fun, warm, unexpectedly raw, real and fresh-telling style it has on offer, going through this Looking glass could well bring us to a wonderful wonderland.
Director Ryan Murphy clearly has no glee left in him for this thumping, harsh, but selfless adaption of Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play, The Normal Heart. Chronicling the part-biographical real life sorrows and fights of Kramer’s own early 1980s world, this ensemble piece drops any pretence of a slow build for a fearsomely frank look at the early impact of HIV/AIDS on the gay communities of New York. The Normal Heart is less about the hedonism hangover of the 1970s and more about the fear of losing the social and political progress (such as it was) to do all of that all over again if needs be without prejudice.
It is 1981 and Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) is travelling to Fire Island for a bout or three of ‘Mighty Real’ no-strings debauchery. Clearly not at total ease with being in love, Weeks is a sexually adrift soul plagued by a small sense of self-loathing and a big of sense of self-righteousness. Within minutes friends begin falling by the wayside as director Murphy puts over the breathless speed and impact of the early 80s AIDS deaths via a clever piece of zeitgeist gay casting proving no-one was exempt. As this devastation takes its cruel hold, Ned is instantly compelled to begin the fight for better mayoral assistance and medical messages in a fiercely homophobic and two-faced world. Immediately, a concerned and already clued-up Dr Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) is dealing with the now constant stream of patients and a bubbling resentment her Polio-blighted world sees her in a wheelchair as all around her guys are gambling with their very lives for a human contact she has never had. Enter Ned into her initially cold world of pragmatic facts and health budget honesty.
As lesions spread like Rorschach spots testing the psyche of the whole gay community, The Normal Heart throws most of its trailer beats out in the first fifteen minutes. The end result is that you don’t know what the end result is. Exploring the merits or not of “promiscuity” becoming a “political agenda”, the film is partly about sex versus sense as Ned battles his own role in gay society – defying harsh truths posed by his older brother Ben (Alfred Molina, on terrific form) and assuming all past infatuations should become romances. But make no mistake – The Normal Heart is a grenade of a film about a grenade of a plight. Kramer’s adaption of his own play shares the operatic emotions of Tony Kushner’s Angels In America but has none of the fantasy relief. Or even the episodic structure to gather breath. As cold food is left in hospital corridors by medical interns too fearful to feed the dying victims and gay activist friends refuse to ask favours of influential colleagues for fear of outing themselves, the multi-stranded hypocrisy of it all is almost as much of a gut-punch as the very frankly played effects of the virus.
Clearly trying to remember the stage foundations of the original play, Murphy and Kramer let ensemble dialogues unfurl in single rooms before showing the scared panic of lovers hauling their dying partners across town or further (one flashback anecdote from Taylor Kitsch’s Bruce is truly shocking in its telling). Ruffalo is on aggravating form as Ned – possibly becoming too much of an irritant as others are trying to tread more cautiously and sometimes fairly. Dr Brookner suggests his “big mouth” is not an irritant but a “cure”, but Ned does do a lot of shouting. This is a piece where many a central character is afforded a powerful monologue that will just – like the original play – truly floor the audience. Joe Mantello’s Micky has a particularly salient and honest monologue, a volunteer Estelle (Danielle Fernand) wants to do anything to help and details the tragic reasons why and Roberts’ last act lambasting of the bureaucrats required this viewer to have a press of the ‘pause’ button before continuing.
Almost too separately pitched from his campaigning colleagues to make him in any way likeable (and possibly creating the vaguest of faults of the film), Ruffalo’s Ned is however unexpectedly granted a true love in the guise of Matt Bomer’s Felix – a figure he has known before (played out in a nearly fun retro flashback advertising the pitfalls of the bathhouses within faux ads for themselves). By bringing that deliberately beautiful and fresh Clark Kent canvas to the story, Bomer’s Felix is a welcome breath of cute fresh air. But a single tear running down his chiselled cheekbones whilst making love is a chilling coda of Felix’s future. “Men do not naturally not love”, he remarks, “ – they learn not to”. Bomer will get award recognition for this. So will others. Not that awards are why narratives like The Normal Heart need to be told. There is the film’s constant dialogue about equating history turning its back on the gay communities for gay men who blindly do the same with the next casual partner. The film and play both catalogue all facets of the gay condition – its support friendships, contradictions and gay homophobes. But Larry Kramer, Ryan Murphy and The Normal Heart do not make judgments. Judgments don’t help the dying. The Normal Heart is about the search for dignity – in the characters loves, their workplaces, their campaign tactics and ultimately their deaths. The film does have its flaws. It ends far too abruptly and offers scant respite. But that is maybe its point. And Murphy is reportedly prepping a sequel for Ned.
And there are pockets of not-bleak. Jim Parsons’ quick-witted Tommy is the only near-fun figure of the film, becoming a calm and waspish mediator for both the characters and audience. His use of suddenly unneeded Rolodex cards – his “cardboard tombstones” – is particularly affecting, as is the film’s end coda with a choice of music that is almost too much to ever hear again without seeing all those faces that are not here anymore. Tommy serenely observes when pondering now dead colleagues, artists and writers – “all those plays that won’t get written”. Larry Kramer should forever know he did write this and Ryan Murphy’s brutal film creates a new immortality for a vital piece of writing about those who had so such luck.
The Normal Heart airs on HBO in America on Sunday 25th May and on Sky Atlantic in the UK soon.