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Looking Series Premiere Recap: Parks and Rambles

Do gay men still cruise and have sex in parks? Apparently so, as Patrick (Jonathan Groff) finds out in the opening, disorienting moments of the first episode of Looking, which is dense with information and banter and cross talk. Patrick is on an expedition to find random sex out of doors, a lark inspired by smoking weed with his friends, who have led him into the woods and left him all alone. He doesn’t seem to know what to do and he starts to panic a bit when a bearded cruiser zeroes in on him.

Patrick tries to kiss Mr. Beard, but Mr. Beard dodges the kiss and shakes his head. “What’s your name?” Patrick asks, to which Mr. Beard barks, “Stop talking!” Mr. Beard gets a hand down Patrick’s pants, but Patrick squeals, “Cold hands! Very cold!” Mercifully or not, Patrick’s phone goes off, and he frantically apologizes and then disengages from Mr. Beard to take the call. As he stumbles away, Patrick drops his phone into gay guy public sex detritus, and he stares at the used condoms and other things on the ground with mild disgust and also mild interest.

The tightly wound 29-year-old Patrick is dipping his toe in a gay male outdoor hook-up subculture that had begun to fade before he was born. Practically all gay guys who are near Patrick’s age hook up via their phones when they want random sex, and so having him drop his phone into leftovers of an earlier gay sexual atmosphere is a sharp choice on the part of the creators of Looking, a suggestive mingling of the lost past and the anxious present.

Describing Mr. Beard after re-connecting with his friends Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) and Dom (Murray Bartlett), Patrick cries, “He was not even hipster hairy, he was like gym teacher hairy!” This is the first and far from the last time in this episode when Patrick will make a snarky, classifying judgment based solely on physical appearance. “You’re a pervert now,” Agustín says. “Wear those colors with pride.” It’s clear that he isn’t being serious. He knows that Patrick is uptight about many things and will never make for a really robust pervert or hedonist, even in the leather scene in San Francisco, where everything is seemingly allowed.

Patrick tells his friends that he thought his Mom was calling to stop him from “becoming one of those gays who hooks up with people in a park,” but he also doesn’t seem all that serious about this remark. Hooking up in a park is appealingly retro to Patrick, something to giggle about. When we see him cruising websites later on, he doesn’t look at Manhunt or adam4adam but is devoted instead to OkCupid. (Such a forlorn name for a dating website. OK, cupid. Shoot some arrows, get this done already.)

The way that Patrick and his friends mutter quietly and familiarly to each other sometimes makes their conversation a bit difficult to follow; their talk is thick with allusions and feints and hyper-aware, hyper-articulate humor. They have a group sound that takes some getting used to, and it is couched in a naturalistic style. Very rarely in this episode does it sound like actors are speaking a script that has been shaped and contrived for them. The group sound of Looking might be alienating to people at first because there is no attempt to hold your hand or situate you or give you your bearings here (and of course we are still inundated with TV shows that do nothing else but continually give us our bearings). There might be important information you miss in this episode because it flies right by verbally without any emphasis at all.

As Patrick cuddles up in a blanket with a glass of wine, he talks about his ex getting married and having a bachelor party. This is likely not a situation that pre-Grindr gay guys who went to parks to hook up would have ever dreamed possible. (And if they could have, would they have even wanted it for themselves?) “You had to leave him because he was boring!” Agustín cries. Patrick says that his ex’s fiancée is “a little portly,” and this bitchery makes Dom laugh really hard in a “No you didn’t!” kind of way. It seems that Patrick uses his own image as an uptight guy to get away with lots of little digs like this. Patrick keeps looking at the progress of his ex’s wedding plans on Facebook: “It makes me nauseous, but I can’t stop looking!” he says (possible drinking game: do a shot whenever the title of this show is spoken aloud in any context).

Looking was created by Andrew Haigh, the director of the 2011 film Weekend, and Michael Lannan, whose short film Lorimer (2011) provided a basis for the series. Haigh and Lannan are both hairy and presumably hipster-ish gay guys in their ‘30s, and Lannan worked as a producer for this year's Travis Mathews/James Franco collaboration Interior. Leather Bar. The aesthetic that they are working with and sometimes borrowing from could be called a Butt Magazine aesthetic, with stray visual hints of the short films Mathews used to make for the Butt Magazine website under the overall title In Their Room. When Patrick wakes up from his night on the town, there’s definitely an In Their Room sort of vibe (the only difference is that the guys in those Mathews shorts usually jerked off, and it’s not likely that Jonathan Groff, or Patrick, will be doing that any time soon).

Agustín, who works as an artist’s assistant, decides to move in with his lover Frank (O.T. Fagbenle), and they have an amiable three-way with a cute boy who reveals a tattoo of Dolly Parton’s signature on his stomach (this is presented as the epitome of hipster twink hotness, and I’m not going to argue with that). Dom, who is 39 and starting to feel his age, is a waiter still hung up on an abusive ex who is now making a fortune in real estate. His longtime friend and roommate Doris (Lauren Weedman) asks him how he knows this, and Dom says, “I read it on his Facebook page.”

There’s some social class specificity in the writing here: Doris tells Dom, “We have come a very long way for a couple of Modesto rednecks.” Doris is a nurse, and when she and Dom laugh “heartlessly” about one of her patients, a baby with a heart condition, Looking makes it troublingly clear that they are enjoying an inappropriate hipster laugh by putting quotation marks around the inappropriateness, which is what Patrick does when he makes disparaging comments about the physical appearances of various guys. The show suggests that this could wind up being a fairly bad habit for all of the characters.

Patrick, who works as a video game designer, finds a potential roommate/date on OkCupid and tells a co-worker he is impressed that the guy’s profile has a Frank O’Hara quote. I officially fell in love with Looking when I heard the name “Frank O’Hara” actually said out loud by one of its characters, though my ardor was cooled by the show’s insistent realism: Patrick admits he had to look up Frank O’Hara online to find out exactly who he was (at least that info is readily available). And then he endures a truly gruesome date with this Frank O’Hara-quoting-profile guy, an oncology doctor named Benjamin (Matthew Wilkas). There is veiled hostility in every word they say and every move they make. Patrick tries too hard and he winds up feeling very hurt and disbelieving by the way Benjamin firmly and coolly cuts off their date.

His ego deflated, Patrick accepts the attentions of flirty Richie (Raúl Castillo) as they ride the bus together. Patrick later tells Dom that Richie is “not my type” and thinks that Richie came on too strong (which is actually his own problem, of course). In the fast-moving talk at the bachelor party for Patrick’s ex, we find out that Dom and Patrick once slept together (I’ll admit, this is a piece of information that flew right by me when I first watched the episode and only came through clearly on a second viewing).

“How old do you think I look?” asks Dom. “In daylight or candlelight?” Patrick asks, which proves yet again that Patrick is an awfully bitchy guy for someone who has a reputation in his social circle for being “sweet.” Is his bitchery learned or innate? More episodes should tell. Until next week, I’m more than content to imagine the exact circumstances of the sex that was had between Dom and Patrick.

Looking will be compared to Girls, which it directly follows on HBO. There is a surface similarity to the shows and to the milieus that they depict, but Looking is far warmer and far more low-key. It isn’t out to grab you right away like Girls is, and it might never be out to grab you at all. That seems to me to be its strength, though I’m sure that others who crave a flashier show will never succumb to its modest charms. This first episode of Looking is the equivalent of a rapid-fire online chat that might or might not lead anywhere in terms of a real-world meeting, but as the series progresses, let’s just say that this person you’ve been chatting with might turn out to be sweet but fatally unexciting or they might turn out to be a total dreamboat. I’m more than willing to keep on chatting with it for now about places we grew up, sexual likes and dislikes, and Frank O’Hara.

Photo: John P Johnson/HBO