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Looking for the Promised Land: A Midsummer Night's Queers

If the comments on last week's recap of Season 1 of Looking are any indication, what fascinates yours truly, Manuel, about the show is also the very thing that makes it so divisive. Disclaimer: what follows should in no way be taken as an apology for the show nor a glowing endorsement of it as "the best!" As I pointed out last week, there's room for improvement and Patrick & co. have great heights to scale before being able to sit alongside Don Draper, Selina Meyer, Valerie Cherish, Piper Chapman & Jane Rodriguez (my Top 5 shows for 2014). 

The burden of representation. That's how I diagnosed what has fallen on Looking for the mere reason that it's one of the few shows openly about gay people men. As some of you pointed out in your comments, issues of entertainment value and overall quality depend on the fact that the show (whether intentionally or not) announces itself as a mirror. [More...]

Do I want to see a show about friends of mine?

Should I champion a show that so narrowly and ill-effectively reflects my own experience?

Can a show about gayness really be entertaining and not merely didactic?

Looking brings up these questions in ways shows that aren't about minority subjects never do (or never to the extent that they become the sole conversation around them). It's always so much easier for gay men to identify with brassy, sassy, powerful, complicated women (fun house mirrors that help us imagine ourselves anew, helping us see the distortions we enjoy and hope to emulate) than with run-of-the-mill gay characters who hit either much too close to home or necessarily exist in a world too far removed.

But I ramble. What happened last night?

Well, we caught up with what I can only assume Haigh dubbed in his script notes "A Midsummer Night's Queers." "Looking for the Promised Land" (the actual title of the episode) saw Agustin, Dom & Patrick head to Lynn's summer house for a weekend to get away from it all. As if anticipating the criticism leveled at them, the first couple of scenes of the episode attempted to flag what we discussed last week about the show's shortcomings. Thus, while Patrick wanted a quiet dry weekend of board games and hiking (making him both adorable and insufferable, highlighting Agustin's own bitchiness and Dom's seeming passivity), Doris's whirlwind arrival has the boys go, in true Shakespearean fashion into the woods, to The Promised Land an outdoors retro-rave party. Of course, instead of a Nick Bottom-turned-Ass as in Shakeapeare's play, we get a 21st century bear, and instead of Puck's "love-in-idleness" potion we have the boys indulging in Molly. Thankfully, they are surrounded by playful fairies so my comparisons are not as far fetched as they may sound.

"Look deep inside your soul and tell me what you see" says the flouncing fairy

The setup of letting all three characters run amok while on drugs in a party that's equal parts 70s (that disco ball!) and 90s (the glow stick) highlights the way Agustin, Dom and Patrick cannot help but carry with them the gay history that has led to their lives being the premise of an HBO show. And so, we get three moments that speak to these characters individually but which cannot help but echo long-standing queer story lines: Agustin skinny dipping with his new infatuation Eddie (the funny Daniel Franzese of Mean Girls fame) who has a "House In Virginia" (that's HIV, not an actual house as clueless Patrick surmises), Dom popping his open relationship with Lynn cherry, and Patrick indulging in some equal parts bashful and shameless outdoors fuck with his boss, Kevin.

What makes you think I've been good?

Once the drug-induced episode is over and the three friends share their late night exploits with one another, we can begin to glimpse where the season might be headed. Indeed, if this episode (written by Haigh & Michael Lannan and directed by the former) is any indication, we're in a more dynamic show intent on exploring the friendships between the three leads while opening up the narrow world they inhabit. It's no surprise it's Doris and Eddie who amp up the episode's energy, infusing the scenes they're in with a verve that's intentionally, I'd argue, lacking in the main trio.

That said, the episode did offer us new facets of each of the leads in three moments that were definite highlights of the episode for me:

  • Patrick's confession that his own behavior shocks him. I think the episode leaned a little too heavily on Groff's puppy-dog demeanor (he kissed a tree!) but moments like these (and out in the woods) suggest they're aware his manufactured ingenuity has its days numbered.
  • Agustin's bitchy mask falling at the party and admitting to Patrick he's aware he's got a great support network. Oh that Alvarez had more chances to play more than one note as he does here. I'm not saying his character needs an interfuckingvention, but it seems he's getting one anyway in the form of Eddie.
  • Dom's sexy insouciance mid-blowjob after being asked whether Lynn was his father. Indeed, can we talk about Haigh's success in depicting realistically awkward if steamy sex scenes? 


Much as with last year, I'm more fascinated with the concept than with the execution of this show. Is it possible to enjoy a series mostly for the conversations one can have about it? Haigh's use of drugs and alcohol here as in Weekend, for example, to manufacture and enable intimacy between his characters seems troubling but I'm eager to hear whether I'm alone in this. 

What was everyone's take on the season 2 opener? Will you, as Patrick did, take the pill and follow these insecure, good looking boys into whatever promised land they've cooked up for us? 

Are you amazed I made it through this entire post without discussing that "totally amazing and totally hideous" Scott Bakula portrait?

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Reader Comments (8)

The season opener started with a doubling down of the "boringness" the show's been criticized with and then building up from there. Every other scene felt like a wink-wink-nudge-nudge from the creators. "We get it, this is the boring extreme of the show we want to make, but for this moment in the woods we'll give you what you want. Here's some drugs and sex and craziness. And divine Doris. But we're taking our characters back home to recover from this hang over and go back to normal."

But that might just be me. I guess I'll find out as I watch this season.

January 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRene

Not a fan of the first episode. I understand the appeal of starting a new season with the characters out of their normal habitat (it emphasizes the characters themselves rather than their situations), but it makes for a pretty unexciting return to a show if you ask me. I felt similarly about Season 3 of Girls.

"Is it possible to enjoy a series mostly for the conversations one can have about it?"
This is a brilliant synopsis of my feelings toward Weekend and, minus Richie with whom I'm hopelessly smitten, my feelings toward this show.

January 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Interesting piece and I completely agree about the 'representation' burden. So unfair!

I don't really identify with any of the people on this show in broad terms, probably because it doesn't really reflect my own experience. However.. like all well drawn characters.. I recognize myself in aspects of them and it cuts closer to home because I am gay. I'm not afraid to admit that it makes me uncomfortable at certain times.

What I wonder when reading your piece.. do straight people feel the same about - let's say Closer or Like Crazy - movies that aren't a (Hollywood romcom) cliche of the romantic lives people lead. Do they get uncomfortable watching people cheat, lie, be unbearable because it remind them of themselves in certain situations or certain feelings they might have? I really do wonder if other 'minorty groups' feel the same things we feel when we watching Looking.

And why are we uncomfortable watching certain aspects of looking? Are we even uncomfortable with it or is there a little bit of shame left? Maybe we are afraid we get associated with faeries fucking in woods. On paper it sure sounds like a sterotypical thing to do.

I think the show is not boring at all.. it's a wonderful look at a few gay people in San Fransisco (also a difference to many other places in terms of sexual freedom, expression etc.) They don't have to represent me.. just like Selma currently doesn't have to represent all black people.. or Norma Rae didn't have to represent all women. I think a good character consists of qualities EVRYONE can identify with. I think Looking fits that bill.

January 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Even though I'm a white dude, I hate that I feel a lack of diversity on the show. I get it, it's about some white dudes in SF, but I definitely have black gay friends. And lesbian friends. And I'm not even as immersed in gay culture as most. But, whatever.

Although I was extremely disappointed with season 1, this episode really pleased me! Maybe it's a sign that I actually enjoy the show more than I'd like to believe? Not sure. But I really felt like it was setting up the season well... and since the characters were really established last season, there's no lost time on that. I finally felt like I was seeing more sides of them, they felt a bit one dimensional season 1. I didn't hate Augustin for once. And I'm glad to see Patrick start to feel stupid for his actions.

Also... fucking Doris. Thank god for her, haha. If nothing else, I felt like the humor increased/improved on the show. I laughed out loud a few times.

January 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Really liked this episode. Season 1 was a real slow burn - I wasn't fully into it until maybe the fourth or fifth episode, but once I got on its wavelength and out from under the burden of expectation to allow the show to stand on its own, I really appreciated it. I haven't always "enjoyed" it, per se, but I've always looked forward to the next episode and had a good time while watching. This episode was far more fun than any Season 1 episode I can remember (largely thanks to more Doris - YAY DORIS!), so points for that. Also points for the great filmmaking on this show - that slow-mo tracking shot of the rave that gives equal weight to each of the main characters is stunning, especially for a half-hour TV show.

The plot of Looking is not my gay experience. I really don't care. In fact, I could care less. The burden of representation is ridiculous and unfair, unless a show claims to be about all gay men everywhere, which Looking does not. It's very clearly about specific types of gay men in one particular city, so why anyone who doesn't fall into that category would expect it to be reflective of their experience is beyond me. Just enjoy the show for what it is. Or don't. That's fine. Although for what it's worth, Looking is far more diverse and inclusive than its predecessor Queer as Folk (to which it will always be compared, despite the fact that the two shows could not be any more different), and frankly it's a better show too - and I enjoyed QAF as trashy soap opera trash. So it is a step forward for gay representation on TV, like it or not. And I, for one, like it very much.

January 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Well, I pretty much liked Looking from the beginning. I did not have any personal expectations w/r/t representation, and I was fine with its slow burn indie movie aesthetic - in fact, I think it's the most effective transfers of that aesthetic to television yet.

Which maybe explains why I was disappointed to see them so self consciously trying to address the criticisms of season one here. It felt more like they tried to deliver "the gay version of Girls" Looking was initially hyped as, and frankly, the thing I most liked about season one is that it *wasn't* the "gay Girls." Still, just on the fundamentals this was a solid episode. We'll see what the future brings.

January 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I guess it improved a little? It does make me uncomfortable to watch but not sure if that's because it's so deadpan or because I relate. It had some good parts - the fairy, more exploration of the friendship dynamic. And the tree sex scene disturbed my pants.

January 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBD

So glad to hear so many eloquent responses to this show. This is precisely what I feel is what's so interesting about this show, the types of conversation it can force us to have. Also fascinating to see the show being both defended and attacked for both being and not being "the gay Girls." Guess it's all on perspective?

Kevin, I think the difference is the breadth of what's out there. If you don't see yourself reflected in Closer, you can just as easily catch a Grey's Anatomy episode, or a Woody Allen movie, or a Kate Hudson romcom or an HBO show... whereas for minority viewers (gay ones in particular), we just don't have that luxury and those we both expect (unfortunately, I'd argue) more from the shows that allegedly "represent" us.

I have to agree BD, that scene was definitely something! ;)

Can't wait to see what the boys have in store for us next week!

January 14, 2015 | Registered CommenterManuel Betancourt

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