This time last year we previewed the first four episodes of Looking ahead of its first airing on Sky Atlantic in the UK. While I definitely felt it had promise, there’s no doubt that those four eps alone also had quite a lot issues, largely due to the fact that with each episode only clocking in at 30 minutes it had trouble properly setting up its world and moving the story along at a decent pace. However even within those four instalments there was improvement, so how does the full season stack up now it’s arriving on DVD?
The show follows a group of gay friends in San Francisco, mostly focussing on Jonathan Groff’s Patrick, a videogame designer who’s feeling a bit lost and is looking for love. He meets Richie (Raul Castillo) but the path of true love certainly doesn’t run smooth, especially with the arrival of Patrick’s new British boss Kevin (Russell Tovey), who offers the possibility of passion and a real connection, even though he’s in a relationship with someone else.
Patrick’s best friend Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) is in the process of moving in with his boyfriend, Frank (O.T. Fagbenle), however it’s clear there are issues. Even before they’re properly living together Agustin is trying to spice up their relationship with a threesome, and it becomes clear his impending domesticity is battling with the bohemian artist he thinks he should be.
Then there’s Dom (Murray Bartlett), who’s on the ‘wrong’ side of 40 and starting to feel what it’s like to get older in the gay world, especially after he meets Lynn (Scott Bakula) in a sauna. What Dom really wants to do is open a restaurant, but getting the cash to do so proves difficult.
Part of the tough sell with the first few episodes is that these aren’t uniformly ‘nice’ people, and most of the main characters live right on the edge of whether you even vaguely like them or not. While Jonathan Groff’s charm keeps you with Patrick, there are certainly times where if you knew him in real life, you’d probably think he’s a bit of a dick. Agustin meanwhile has the potential for people to truly dislike him.
It’s partly the issue with the running time – and indeed something that’s been the same with several 30-minute US cable shows, such as Nurse Jackie – that’s it’s trying to create complex characters and tell the story of multiple people, but doesn’t quite have time. It’s very noticeable that most of characters don’t really come into their own until the second half of the season, not because they suddenly become ‘nice’, but because we start to understand them due to the fact Looking has finally had the time to develop who they are.
For example, some of what Agustin does seems incredibly selfish and verges on cruel. However the show eventually gives you the chance to understand him and his motivations. You may not agree with him, but it becomes more interesting to watch him once you properly understand where he’s coming from. I also wonder whether some of those who hate Agustin are in a bit of denial about their own more selfish tendencies, as one of the things Looking often does well is to attempt to be truthful about people and that means not trying to varnish their uglier sides.
I also have to say that the arrival of Russell Tovey and Scott Bakula helps, as it allows the show to broaden out a little and feel slightly less navel gazing. Both actors inject a bit of passion to the show, with Bakula’s Lynn offering a little wisdom and clarity, while Tovey’s Kevin becomes the antidote to Patrick’s other friends – even if he does offer potential problems.
By the end of these opening eight episodes Looking really does start to blossom and deliver on its promise. It manages to be sometimes funny, occasionally pretty sexy and picks up the pace on both the plot and what’s at stake. Indeed, it also benefits from a second viewing of the beginning of Season 1 too, as second time around it’s easier to appreciate what it’s trying to do.
It seems the show is learning from its mistakes, as Season 2 has just started on US TV, with the first episode getting extremely good reviews, and many suggesting it’s offering more in the way of plot while not compromising on the characters. Those of us in the UK should get to see for ourselves soon when Season 2 hits the UK. I also hope second time around it find more space for female characters, as while one of Dom’s best mates is a woman, generally the female of the species gets extremely short shrift in Season 1. Sure it’s about gay men, but it’s almost incredible how few women they interact with.
The only special features are a set of audio commentaries, which are actually quite fun and interesting, especially as they help illuminate exactly what the cast and creators were hoping to achieve, even if they didn’t always 100% succeed.
Undoubtedly no matter how Looking develops in the future, some won’t like it, and for many the problem seems to be that they don’t think it reflects the full breadth of gay life. In some respects they’re right, but what the show is keen to point out is that it isn’t about every gay person out there, it’s about these specific characters and trying to be true to them. Equally, what some may not want to admit about what they dislike about the show, is that it sometimes cuts closer to the bone about some of the less desirable aspect of parts of gay culture than many of us would like to acknowledge. However hiding these things doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Overall Verdict: It may have issues in its first half with a relatively slow pace and characters it takes a while to warm to (or at least understand), but once it’s created its world and brought in a couple more intriguing people, Looking starts to deliver on its promise and becomes the sort of show you want to watch, rather than one you feel you ought to view simply because it’s one of the few gay-led series around.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac