Film & Video
3 min

Review: Looking, Episode 1

The first of Matt Thomas's weekly reviews of HBO's gayest show yet

Jonathan Groff, Frankie J Alvarez and Murray Bartlett huddle together on HBO's new gay series Looking. Credit: HBO Canada

When a major network like HBO announces that it is going to launch a TV series focused on young gay men living in San Francisco, it's a pretty big deal. Not since Showtime's Queer as Folk remake has television seen such an explicitly gay program. Expectations were high Sunday, Jan 19, when the first episode of the show aired, and while it's not the gay holy grail some hoped it would be, it's still pretty damn good and probably the most realistic depiction of gay life, for those in the 20- to 40-year-old age bracket in North America, that pop culture has ever seen. The brainchild of Andrew Haigh, the man behind the extremely good art-house flick Weekend, Looking is a dry documentary-style drama with a few laughs thrown in and less of the kind of situation comedy you see on a show like Girls.

In this posting (and my postings every Monday following a new episode), I'm more interested in talking about the ideas and situations in the show rather than offering just a synopsis or straight-up critique. Love it or hate it, this show is now a very visible statement about gay life that reaches a very large audience, and that alone warrants discussion and debate.

Episode 1: Looking for Now

The first episode features lots of laughs and many familiar situations. Awkward run-ins with exes at the gay-bar urinal, hearing your roommates fucking, indecipherable Instagram-filtered profile photos on dating sites, sloppy morning quickies and cheeky subway flirtation are all showcased. The real selling point for this show is going to be its quiet realism. Nothing about the show or its characters seems over the top, and while some of the actors nail the queer mumblecore vibe better than others, the show just barely gets on its feet in the first episode — but still manages to squeeze a lot into 30 minutes.

Ironic park sex

The episode starts off with Patrick (Jonathan Groff) getting a very awkward park-sex handjob from a "hairy like a gym teacher" stranger only to have his phone go off and ruin the whole painful encounter. Later, his character describes the experience as something that started out as more of an ironic joke spurred by the fact he wasn't sure park cruising was even "a thing anymore." As cruising apps seem more prevalent than cruising parks these days, it's probably safe to say many young gay men aren't familiar with the tradition — or even location — of cruising grounds these days. Will we see a time where this aspect of gay sex culture disappears? Is that a bad thing?

Three-ways to cause boyfriend drama

When Agustin, a scruffy hipster gallery assistant, meets his new co-worker, it's a classic boy-meets-boy situation where you can practically cut the sexual tension with a knife. But it's not until Agustin and his longtime boyfriend, Frank, have late-night drinks in the gallery with Agustin's new friend that things get steamy. With some very casual eye contact, Frank approves the start of what we learn is the couple's first three-way. Aside from the fact that in this scene (and the rest of the episode) we see less sex or nudity than you would in the penis parade that is Game of Thrones, something about this seemed off. Most gays I know define the boundaries of their relationship pretty quickly in terms of sexual openness. Would they not have had a discussion beforehand about their comfort levels when it comes to picking up a third? Or even had a quick chat when he went to the bathroom in between beers? After the sexy times, it's clear that it has caused tension between the couple, who are about to move in together. Have you ever had your first three-way occur without a moment of conversation about it with your partner first? Do you think this kind of situation is just mining drama, or are there guys out there who have sprung their first threesome on their boyfriends in the moment? If so, how did you handle it? How do you think they will?

Bad dates

Question: has anyone ever asked you straight to your face on a first date if you are drug- and disease-free? Or been so appalled at a story of a casual encounter you've harmlessly brought up that he ends the date? Poor Patrick goes on the worst date ever, and I'm curious: what are some of the worst reactions or things people have said to you on a first date? Is this a common occurrence? I'm sure it could have been worse.

How did this episode work for you? Did it ring true or miss the point? Let us know in the comments below.

Look for a review of next week's episode, "Looking for Uncut," next Monday, Jan 27.