On the Looking Movie and If There’s Such a Thing As the ‘Right’ Show About Gay People

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Photo: HBO

Patrick’s back in San Francisco with a new haircut and a new outlook on life. Just kidding! He’s kind of the same. Last we left the boys on Looking, Patrick and Kevin had decided to move in together only to have everything fall magnificently apart on day one, when Kevin tells him he would like an open relationship. The finale ends with Patty getting a buzzcut from his old boyfriend, Richie, who asks him, “Are you ready?” The show was canceled soon after the season-two finale aired, with HBO promising a “final chapter” to wrap things up. Saturday night, HBO aired Looking the movie, an 84-minute short film on what happened after: Patrick moved to Denver, but of course he can’t escape the centripetal force of the Castro, and is back for Agustín’s marriage to Eddie nine months later. So let’s dive right in: Are you satisfied with the ending? And did we need it?

Jackson McHenry: Looking always felt like more of a vibes show than a plot show when it was on TV. As much as we were all dying to know about Dom’s peri-peri business, the best justification for a send-off was the chance to spend more time with this bunch of sweet, if often cringe-inducing guys. Looking’s best episodes always felt like they had the structure of a movie or a short story. There’s that beautiful, Before Sunrise/Weekend–esque episode in season one, and the episode in season two where they go to Doris’s father’s funeral. The movie felt like the grown-up sibling to those stories, a chance to wander around in these characters’ lives for a few more big moments. So yes, I’m happy to have a send-off, though I did feel that it was a little open-ended — or maybe I just don’t believe in Patrick. What did you both think of the ending?

E. Alex Jung: I rewatched the season-two finale as if it were series finale, and I liked the ambiguity of the ending. Patrick realizes that Kevin doesn’t give him the things he really needs from a relationship, and finds himself circling back to Richie. Looking was at its best (like that beautiful date episode you mentioned) when it allowed its characters to explore who they were with another person. To me, the ending of the film felt like it was definitively trying to put an end to the Richie v. Kevin love triangle. And without a doubt, Patty chooses Richie: He tells him that he loved him from the start, but that he was just too chickenshit to see that. He even uses Kevin’s logic to persuade Richie to give it another shot (“Do you want to try?”). The bigger question for me, is whether or not that was a good idea, for either of them. Part of me just wants Richie to run away to Austin and do hipster haircuts there.

Brian Moylan: I totally agree that it was more of a vibes show, so, yes, I enjoyed hanging out with these queers again, sort of in the same way that I like hanging out with all the queers at tea on Fire Island, in that some are hot, some are friends, and some are annoying twinks that I want to punch in the head because they spilled a Planter’s Punch on my shorts. But it doesn’t seem like they needed a movie at all. The way I interpreted the series finale was that Richie asks Patrick if he’s ready, and he says yes, and that means that they’re finally going to make a go of it. It seemed like the movie created all of these false obstacles (moving to Denver, his cringe-y confrontation with Kevin) just to put Patrick back in the same place, agreeing to make it work with Richie. I get why Patrick wants Richie, but I think Richie should run for the hills. How many times is Patrick going to put him through this and break the guy’s heart? And it’s clear that Richie wants to move away, and Patrick is going to be like, “But all my friends are herrrrrrreeeeeeeee.” It will, as it always is, be all about Patrick.

EAJ: If there’s something that Looking shares in its DNA with Sex and the City and Girls, it’s that its protagonist is the worst. He’s oblivious, naïve, self-absorbed, and yet! He gets the boys. I think one of the most frustrating things about the show was, as our fellow Vulture Kyle Buchanan put it, the Patient Boyfriend, no doubt epitomized by Richie. Good thing Raúl Castillo is so charismatic because there are times when Richie just feels like a sad hot puppy waiting at Patty’s stoop. And the moment he actually expresses something outside of Patrick in the movie, Patrick has to go and muck that up for him. I think that’s why one of the best moments of the movie was when Kevin actually calls Patrick out on his shit. That embittered, Supercuts-dye-job Kevin that you’re horrified by, Patty? You’re responsible for that.

JM: I agree it’s one of the best in the movie, and it gives Kevin some major character rehabilitation, after a whole season of that “I love you, but also I wanna keep my boyfriend” business. At least now Kevin’s clear-eyed about how messed up their dynamic was. Looking’s wise enough to see through Patrick’s neediness most of the time — aside from the Kevin scene, there’s that conversation with his 22-year-old hookup, which establishes that Patty’s self-hating shtick isn’t all that universal, especially when young gays can be a lot more open now. Tyne Daly (hooray for Tyne Daly!) gives her speech about how rather than expect people to change, they should adapt. And we get the scenes with Richie’s on-the-way-out boyfriend Brady, who says all the terrible and correct things about Patrick, though the way the movie shuffles him out feels a little too pat. But at least the movie ends with a shot of the group of friends, instead of just Patty and Richie. Andrew Haigh’s direction, cutting to that outside shot at the end, makes it about something larger than the two of them, though maybe that’s giving the movie the benefit of the doubt.

BM: Yeah, I don’t know who is worse, Patrick or Brady, but they’re both pretty awful. I also enjoyed the scene with Kevin where he calls out Patrick because I want to see a show called Yelling at Patrick, where everyone just airs their grievances with him. My biggest problem with that scene, however, is that it doesn’t give equal weight to Kevin’s choice to have a nonmonogamous relationship. He still seems like the villain for wanting what is a non-heterosexist arrangement. Also, the biggest advocate for radical queerness, Brady, is, as I said, the absolute worst.

Looking is always at its best when it’s discussing the cost of equality to the gay community, whether that is losing our identity as outsiders or how the sudden right to marry affects how we view romance and relationships. In the end, we have Agustin choosing a nontraditional framework for a traditional marriage, Doris choosing to have a baby but never get married, and Dom choosing his work over love (also that dude they set him up with is punching way above his weight with the super-dreamy Dom). With all of these great ways to show the rainbow that is modern gay life, I sort of hate that Patrick, the hero of the tale, can only feel fulfilled in this very traditional definition of what a relationship should be.

EAJ: This also gets at the representation of sex on the show. Jonathan Groff teased the movie by saying it would contain “the most intense sex scene” he’s ever done. But as with the second season, I feel like the sex was ultimately vanilla. Don’t get me wrong: I love that Patrick ate out that 22-year-old ass! But there’s an intersection between the show’s political orientation and its sexual one: Part of the magic of queerness is that it opens up sexual possibilities, and the show, bound as it is to Patrick, was ultimately fairly tame. Of course, there’s an interesting tension there when more conservative inclinations butt up (ha) against more radical ones. But the show could have benefited from Agustín really wanting to explore kink or a dominant-submissive relationship, for instance, rather than just hanging out with a sex worker and doing threesomes “for his art."

JM: If nothing else, I’m glad the show brought more gay sex to HBO. And not to bring up Looking’s East Coast Babadook, but Girls didn’t dive into major gay sex scenes until after Looking left the air. I doubt Andrew Rannells and Corey Stoll’s hookup this season would exist without Richie eating Patty’s ass in Looking season one, or that scene in season two where Kevin tops him against a redwood.

EAJ: It’s unfortunate that Brady, the character who was most interested in the politics of queerness, was, as Brian noted, also a hot garbage fire of a human being. Brady was like this little mole that would pop up and scream Truvada! and heterosexism! in your face when all you want to do is have sex with his boyfriend. But I digress.  I sense Haigh was channeling a lot of bitterness into that character as a way to respond to the internet. After all, Patrick dismisses him as a “human blog” who is constantly policing queerness and gay identity, and I can’t help but think that Haigh felt Looking went through exactly that when it constantly failed to meet expectations of what a “gay show” should look like. On the one hand, I completely empathize with that: It sucks to have to shoulder the burden of representation of an extremely large, diverse, and oftentimes fractured community. On the other, I just think it’s bad storytelling to reduce a character to push an agenda.

This raises a broader question around what it means to have a “gay show” anyway. In his initial review, Matt Zoller Seitz praised Looking for carrying itself “as if there have already been nine or ten shows about gay men,” and our recapper made an interesting point that “that lack of difference and urgency is partly what made potential viewers reject this show.” I find this an intriguing idea — that there should be the “right” show about gay people for the moment (and it’s not one that I necessarily agree with). Nevertheless, I want to ask you all: What do you think a show like that would look like?

BM: I recently wrote about this, in that we’re in a strange time where gay acceptance means there are lots of great diverse gay characters all over television, but having one or two gay characters on a ton of shows means we never get to see gay men and women interacting in non-romantic partnerships. Since we have much greater gay acceptance, I don’t think that we need another Queer As Folk or The L Word, but something different, something that uses gay people to look at what it is like to be a human in modern America. My favorite scene in the movie is when Patrick and Agustín talk while hiking, and Agustín says that he doesn’t know what to do with his life because it looks so different now. He wanted to be Robert Mapplethorpe and instead he’s Neil Patrick Harris (also the best joke in the movie). Everyone who has turned 30 understands what he’s going through — it’s just more pronounced for gay men right now because due to the events of recent history, we are now afforded a life we never imagined possible even ten years ago. I would like to see a show that explores those topics and uses gay men and women as a microcosm of humanity at large. I mean, is that too much to ask? Can’t Netflix just give Tony Kushner $100 million to make a show already?

JM: Dear streaming services, please throw all your money in that general direction — we know you have plenty for all those shows about misanthropic straight guys. One of the reasons that it’s hard to pin down what the “right” gay show would do is because TV can go in so many different directions. It can be small and particular, as Looking was, and use that to speak to broader ideas, but it can also take chances. Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies recently did a companion series, Cucumber and Banana, that leapt into other characters' minds for an episode or two, and I think there’s a lot of merit to that model. Give me the same cast of characters, but switch up the format week to week. Give me a queer Lady Dynamite (Please Like Me qualifies as this, to some extent) or a queer Master of None (or, heck, a queer Star Trek, though I’m praying Bryan Fuller has that covered). If queer life breaks conventions, queer TV should too.

Parenthetically, one of the things I loved about Looking, especially as someone who started watching in college, just a few years after coming out, was that it depicted gay life as a thing in itself. That may not have helped its ratings, but it did give it a special sort of force. I remember having to explain what bottoming was to my mom (in one of our more awkward phone conversations) after she watched the first-season finale, because the fact that Patrick bottoms for Kevin is a crucial plot point. One of the things that Alex’s question about having a “right” gay TV show brings up is question of whom the “right” gay TV show is written for. Given the fact that there can be so much more variety on TV, it’s important to have more shows that focus inward, instead of feeling the need to explain things to the mainstream. If the storytelling’s powerful enough, then the particulars are meaningful anyway.

EAJ: I think that’s exactly right. It’s okay if we don’t understand everything at first, as long as there’s a greater narrative at work. As an analogue, I think Transparent is the best show about queerness and sexuality we’ve had, maybe ever. What I like about it is how there are so many ideas and overlapping worlds already baked into the show — hippie woman-only feminism, liberal Judaism, academia, kink, etc. You might see a character like Cherry Jones and laugh at how spot-on it feels, or you might simply think she’s an intriguing character you’ve never seen before. Either way, she ignites something in Ali’s desire to be a queer woman writer. I would have liked to have seen more specificity for each of the characters on Looking in a way that didn’t have to center on Patrick all the time. Richie’s world outside of Patrick is more compelling, and you only get glimpses of it: that he goes to a psychic (his señora) because it calms him, or that his dad took his coming out badly, or the fact that he seems to date annoying white boys. Those are the aspects of his character that I wanted to see explored, and, ultimately, I think it would have made for a better show.