The first season of Looking on HBO experienced an intense and often incoherent attempt by the media to place it in some kind of box or context. The initial press and audience reaction was followed by disappointment in the show’s slow, naturalistic pace, in the ordinariness of its characters, and in its lack of obvious entertainment value. But by the fifth episode of that season, “Looking for the Future,” where Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Richie (Raúl Castillo) have sex and then spend the day together just getting to know each other, there seemed to be some grudging acknowledgment and respect gathering for the patience of this show, for its careful and unshowy quality. Looking is a kind of wallflower at a dance. You have to go up and make an effort to talk to it before you can recognize its character and its virtues.
This second-season premiere starts with our three main characters driving up to Lynn’s cabin in the woods. Patrick is enthusing about nature and wants to see a 1,400-year-old tree while Agustín talks about wanting some random sex at a clothing-optional pool. “There are not enough antibiotics in the world to get me into that water!” Patrick says. They have fallen back into a familiar pattern: Patrick the prude and Agustín the miserable libertine, with Dom in the middle to say, “Cool it, ladies,” every now and then.
When they arrive at Lynn’s place, Patrick and Agustín are both impressed with its largeness of scale, but when they get inside, a kitschy painting of Lynn with his shirt open stops them both in their tracks — they just stare at it with their mouths open for a moment. “Is that completely amazing or totally hideous?” Patrick asks. “I think it’s both, actually,” says Agustín. It is pretty lame, this painting, but by the standards of older-gay-guy wall-art, it really isn’t that bad. At least Lynn isn’t fully nude in the painting, and at least there isn’t a photo of Judy Garland framing her face in a close-up from A Star Is Born right next to it (yes, I have actually seen such a juxtaposition, and more than once).
Agustín wants some vodka, but Patrick wants him to lay off the booze and drugs for a while. “Is this an inter-fucking-vention?” Agustín asks, with his patented charmless aggressiveness. Agustín is not a sympathetic character. He is written that way. But Looking isn’t Girls, where humor lightens the load of behavioral obnoxiousness and all of the characters are basically being satirized. Frankie J. Alvarez needs to learn to lighten his effects for Agustín just a little bit. On that “inter-fucking-vention” line, he pushes the pedal to the metal on Agustín’s petulance, whereas Jemima Kirke, whose Jessa is probably the most deeply irritating of the foursome on Girls, makes her character tolerable by delivering many of her very off-putting, entitled lines in a blithe, “don’t care”–ish way.
As Dom looks at old photos of Lynn, we learn that Patrick has been obsessing about Richie. This is maybe the most interesting section of the episode because of the unexpected chemistry between Patrick and Dom; if you were to come upon this scene randomly with the sound off, their body language would suggest enormous intimacy. Dom looks at Patrick with openness and love on his face, and there’s something very sexy about their interaction because you can see that they once went to bed together in the way they relate to each other, so there’s just a tiny bit of erotic tension between them. All of this is a way of saying that the Dom-Patrick dynamic would be much more fruitful, ahem, to explore than the somewhat played-out Patrick-Agustín dynamic. (Also, on a purely visual level, Dom looks amazing in shorts throughout this episode, and I think we can all agree that he should wear shorts throughout every episode.)
Self-consciously virtuous Patrick literally hugs a tree at one point, and he wants to play board games rather than go out, but a visiting Doris puts a stop to that, and she also puts a stop to Agustín abstaining from drink and drugs (though he has been smoking pot on the sly). Doris makes fun of the Lynn painting, too, which is in character for her, but man, these people sure are being mean behind the back of a guy who has set them up for a pretty sweet weekend. Again, that painting really could be far worse.
Since this is a San Francisco–based show, they encounter a Radical Faerie in the forest who leads them to an outdoor party with hairy bears and seals and otters and what have you, all dancing to quasi-disco music. Agustín gives his friends some drugs, and Doris thinks it’s ecstasy. “Oh God, it’s like 1994 all over again,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve had sex since 1994,” she reflects. “Hanging out with you guys is not so good for my vagina.” But it is very good for Looking itself, of course.
They dance and the drugs kick in, which stops Patrick from confessing to Agustín that he is still having sex with Kevin. We learn that Agustín has moved back in with Patrick, which sounds like a very bad idea on all levels. They dance some more, and then the camera hones in on the back of a guy’s head as he moves slowly toward Patrick. This is a mysterious shot. Who is this guy? Why is he being privileged visually all of a sudden? Is this someone we already know? It turns out that it’s just a cute guy we don’t know. He moves in on Patrick, dances with him, and kisses him. He is a possibility, but no more. Kudos to whoever decided to shoot the scene in this distinctive way; it’s a colorful red herring.
Speaking of bad ideas, instead of exploring the red-herring guy, Patrick calls Kevin, who somewhat improbably drives up to see him in the woods. The signals in this scene are very intriguing. “This had better be worth it,” Kevin says a little skeptically. When Kevin is bending Patrick over against a tree and getting ready to nail him, there’s a very heated kind of sexual chemistry between them, but once they actually start screwing, the scene is filmed in such a way to emphasize their disconnection.
After they finish, we learn that they have been having sex at the office when they can, and you get the feeling that the sex is exciting but brief and basically unsatisfying, at least for Patrick. This is not good, but a certain kind of sex thrives on “not good,” so that it’s both sexy and awful at the same time. And Looking isn’t afraid not to spell these things out in dialogue and leave them open to individual interpretation.
Agustín finds himself a very nice-seeming hairy bear who works with homeless kids while Dom is tricking back at Lynn’s place, putting paid, so to speak, to their open relationship. After this night of debauchery, Goody Two-shoes Patrick confesses his transgressions with Kevin to his friends, and they seem genuinely surprised. Throughout the first season, Patrick had a tic where he would suggest he might be dirtier than his image and behavior might suggest, but now that this is actually true, he seems uncomfortable, and so do Dom and Agustín. Patrick has changed, and friends don’t like it when their friends change, because change so often augurs loss.