Why Looking Was an Enormous Missed Opportunity

Putting Looking to rest. Photo: John P Johnson/HBO

After many last-minute articles and petitions trying to save the show Looking, a series about a few gay guys in present-day San Francisco, HBO put the matter to rest in a polite statement today: “After two years of following Patrick and his tight-knit group of friends as they explored San Francisco in search of love and lasting relationships, HBO will present the final chapter of their journey as a special. We look forward to sharing this adventure with the show’s loyal fans.” Loyal fans? Where had they been hiding all this time?

First, the bright side: Back in the olden days when networks pulled the plug on a series that was underperforming, there was never any attempt at closure. It’s really generous of HBO to be promising a special that will wrap up some of the story lines on Looking, and this reflects the changed television landscape. Wouldn’t you have loved to have seen a show or special that wrapped up My So-Called Life when ABC canceled it in 1995? In fact, wouldn’t you love to see where Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano and all the other characters on that show are today? Twin Peaks is probably coming back, and so is The X-Files. Television shows don’t ever need to be over now, it seems, until there are no cast members left alive.

But right now, Looking feels like an enormous missed opportunity, and there is plenty of blame to go around for that. Why did Looking suddenly seem to have so many “loyal fans” only when it was about to be canceled? Where were these people and their support when the show really needed it, as the second season unfolded? It wasn’t just the audience who failed this show. The confused response to Looking started to color what the creators were trying to do with it, and they seemed to lose confidence in their own material. They didn't keep to their own naturalistic impulses, and that sunk the show creatively when it drifted into an unappealing, unconvincing, plot-driven love triangle.

Even before Looking premiered, it struggled — the relative merits of the show were debated incoherently as soon as it aired its first promo. A large contingent of gay viewers reacted similarly: They decided they hated it based on the promo, complained about the first episode, and said it didn’t reflect their lives. And then there was a kind of silence, as if everyone were willing to wait and see — until the first season episode “Looking for the Future” aired. That gentle two-hander between Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Richie (Raúl Castillo), where they spend the day getting to know each other, was favorably compared to Looking co-creator Andrew Haigh’s 2011 feature Weekend. This episode was Looking at its best: quiet, sweet, observant, realistic. You could feel the sunlight on the faces of Patrick and Richie and what the weather was like on this special little day they were having together, and you could feel love starting to grow between them.

But then the creators turned Looking into a triangle between Patrick, Richie, and Patrick’s boss Kevin (Russell Tovey), ending the first season with a nasty, coerced, mistaken sexual encounter at the office between Kevin and Patrick. Responses to this varied, but the problem here, and the main problem everyone had with Looking, is that it wasn’t clear what you should feel or think — sometimes in the second season, it felt like the creators themselves didn’t know what they felt or thought about Patrick and Kevin.

I was at a play one night a month or so ago and I eavesdropped on two gay guys in the audience talking about Looking. They agreed that Looking wasn’t “great television,” but still, they kept watching. The sad thing about the late-in-the-day articles trying to save this series is that they were based almost entirely around the idea that this was the only show just about contemporary gay life. So if Looking failed, we might not get another show like this anytime soon. And of course, that’s not a good enough reason to keep a show on the air.

In the promised special, we will presumably get to see Patrick leave Kevin, at least. How anyone can think Kevin is a good or viable option for Patrick after this season, and particularly after the season-two finale where Kevin plays such dirty pool with Patrick during a big argument, is beyond my comprehension. Maybe it has to do with some gay guys finding Kevin and Tovey “hot,” which means he can be as awful and dopey and tasteless as he wants and they will still want Patrick to stay with him. Meanwhile, Richie has become an emblem for the show — a sweet, not-too-exciting, but loving guy who has to stand by and let his love drain away because Patrick wants someone flashier and hotter.

The irony is that Patrick himself would have hated Looking, and he probably would have bitched about it briefly with his two best friends Dom and Agustín before forgetting about it. But while Looking goes down as a failure now, it also might age fairly well. Maybe not on the level of My So-Called Life, but on its own, modest level. It captures a certain point in time for hairy gay guys trying to make it and grow up in an era of lessened expectations. It will never be wildly popular, but it never wanted to be. It just wanted a chance.