Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TV Review: Looking (Season 1 Episodes 1-5)

Looking was one of my most anticipated shows of the year. I’ve been waiting for a contemporary version of Queer as Folk for awhile now. And while I’ve found a lot within the first 5 episodes of the show to be enjoyable and entertaining, I’m not at all ready to consider it to be within the same league as its Showtime predecessor.

In a lot of ways, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Setting itself apart from other queer shows that came before it could well be what rises Looking above the pack. It seems to have the frankness and sexual boundary pushing abilities of QAF coupled with some of (but certainly not all) the comedic timing of Will & Grace. Where I find the show to be lacking thus far is in nuanced and exceptional writing.

Looking is the story of Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and a few of his closest friends as they try to make their way through life in current day San Francisco. The cast of characters features no real surprises: Patrick’s best friend, Agustin (Frankie Alvarez) is in a committed long term relationship that’s in the early days of being opened to outside play, Dom (Murray Bartlett) is the aging man who uses his sex life to feel young and in charge of something, and Patrick is the romantic making his way through a string of dates to find the perfect boyfriend. The collection of characters is a bit hackneyed, but no less interesting and entertaining.

It’s hard to pin down exactly where Looking succeeds. The first two episodes were slow building and seemed far more interested in shock value than adding actual depth to the world and the characters. There’s an extended conversation within the second installment where the characters have an in depth and graphic conversation about sex. The conversation itself doesn’t ring false (indeed I’ve had some version of the same conversation multiple times over), but it’s placement within the episode, and the series as a whole feels forced, as if the writers were trying their hardest to slap viewers in the face with the fact of what kind of show this would be.

In fact, if I have one problem with Looking (and I have a number of them), it’s the dialogue. It hardly ever feels organic and natural, and the way a lot of the characters talk has left them feeling more like caricatures than actual people. The effect is such that it feels like the writers know what they want the characters to say but not why they need to be saying it, or perhaps it’s the actors who don’t understand why their characters are saying the things they say; the overall effect is the same.

But if I had to pinpoint a moment when the show started to win me over, it was towards the end of the second episode. Patrick has met a nice Hispanic guy (Richie played by Raul Castillo) who seems to also be into him; the two of them go home together and after having spent the entire episode giving in to his baser tendencies and some of his own racial notions, Patrick is surprised to find out that Richie is circumcised. The tentative foreplay they’re engaging in is peppered with a number of subtly racist (or at least stereotypical) statements being made by Patrick and we can see Richie becoming more and more uncomfortable by them. The outcome of Patrick’s shock over Richie’s lack of a foreskin is that Richie decides to leave, claiming that the two of them aren’t a match. Subsequently, Patrick makes a bowl of comfort food and has a phone conversation with his best friend that features him acknowledging that he might be a racist. This development in and of itself was remarkable, no queer themed show that I’ve watched in the past has seemed interested in tackling the issues of racism within the gay community in such a straight forward manner, but it wasn’t the statement that interested me so much as the effect it had an episode or two later when Patrick and Richie bumped into each other again and Patrick actually apologized and Richie actually forgave him beginning what should be Patrick’s first serious relationship of the series. While I was worried the show would make the statement and then have no follow through, what they’re actually doing is embarking on a story within which they’ll start to parse out some of the complexities and the rewards of interracial dating.

One of my longstanding annoyances with Queer as Folk was always that the cast was so whitewashed. Every main character and every one of their major love interests was white. While Looking still isn’t as diverse as I’d like it to be just yet (there are no African American characters and the one Asian American character is as minor as a character can be on a show. It’s the latter I have a bigger problem with as the show takes place in San Francisco, a city with a fairly large Asian American community), the fact that they’re at least striving to include Hispanic characters and looking at the effects of dating outside one’s race is interesting and promising.

The side plots of the show are interesting, but not a huge draw. The "will they, won’t they" element of Patrick’s relationship with his boss Kevin (longtime favorite of mine, Russell Tovey) is cute, but of course something we’ve seen before, the stories surrounding Dom (his relationship with Scott Bakula’s Lynn and his attempts to start a new business) are endearing but less than memorable, and the just about anytime Agustin is on screen I want to change the channel. But at this point in the show’s exceptionally young run, the writers at least seem to know what they’re doing with the lead character, so there’s that.

Right now, Looking is good. I enjoy watching it every week and I’m curious to see where it goes. If it finds itself capable of telling new stories, or at least telling old stories in new and interesting ways, and possibly even making grander points about being gay in America in the 21st century, then I think it might find itself capable of being truly great.

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