As Looking continued over the remainder of the first season and into its second, the tide began to turn. Reviews were much more favourable as the characters and their stories developed with confidence from the second half of the first season and beyond. By the time the show was cancelled after its second season, Looking had found loyal fans and a much more positive critical reception, although it lost viewers at the conclusion of season one as people failed to stick with the series into its next season. The second season is widely considered to be the stronger of the two.
For me, Looking never felt too slow. It has long been one of my favourite television shows and I've watched it countless times. Perhaps Haigh's focus on relationships with understated intensity appeals to me, or maybe it's because I watched the entire series from start to finish in one fantastic weekend of binge watching. Because the relationships unfold slowly I can appreciate why a show like Looking might have faltered when it was shown in half-hour episodes. The episodes as a rule don't end on the kind of cliffhangers that leave the viewer demanding the next episode be shown as quickly as possible and there is little by the way of drama. The steady unfolding of the characters and their relationships works beautifully when episodes are viewed back to back but that type of story telling might not have been enough to hold the attention of viewers over the course of one season and into the next absent any drama, excitement or showmanship. For that reason if no other, I'm glad that the decision has been taken to wrap up the loose ends left at the end of season two with a film. Friends that have watched Looking on my recommendation have loved it, but they too watched the majority of the episodes in quick succession. Perhaps the show works better when viewed as a whole without stopping and starting, so if you haven't yet seen the series my suggestion would be to curl up with it on a quiet weekend when it's raining outside.
I wonder, too, if Patrick's distinct lack of magnetism isn't supposed to be the heart of the show from the outset. There is something quite drawn-out and clumsy about the initial episodes, but that is very in keeping with Patrick himself and representative of his experiences with men and dating. He's unassuming and softly spoken, from a background of relative conservative privilege which has left him with a lasting self-consciousness and timidity when it comes to his own sexuality. He shifts between being bold and liberated and taking a chance on what he wants, to moments of anxiety and self-doubt which seem to be largely rooted in his past experiences and relationships with his family in particular. Patrick is the very antithesis of confident sex god Brian Kinney (Queer as Folk (US)), or a fabulous, flamboyant queen. He is stilted, naive, awkward and at times painfully self-conscious. He has a shy sort of charm despite the fact he sometimes does things so frustrating they can make the viewer want to shake him. If he is ever bland it is intentionally so and it's a facet of the character that the show seems to quite deliberately set out to explore.
Looking is rarely about larger than life characters who take up all of the space on the screen and that gives the series an air of authenticity, despite the Hollywood good looks of many of the series' leads. The characters in Looking are not always the most polished or enigmatic, but their quirks and flaws make them likable and interesting. With one or two exceptions, for the most part for their stories are cohesive and expertly told, the characters well-developed and the acting strong. I found the series impossible to put down after the first few episodes, so caught up was I in the developing relationships.
Looking follows Patrick's sometimes awkward, sometimes flawed and sometimes charming quest for love. Despite the elements of naivety which frustrated me at times, for the most part I found Patrick to be a likable character and I was invested in his journey and development over the course of the series. I rooted for the moments he shares with Hispanic barber Richie (Raul Castillo) who is confident where Patrick isn't. The progression of their relationship explores Patrick's self doubt beautifully as well as touching on issues of race and class. I also found myself rooting for the moments between Patrick and his British boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey). The relationship between them is fraught from the outset and Tovey has some excellent moments as he careers between his feelings for Patrick and his relationship with his long-term boyfriend.
The privileged and arrogant Agustin becomes more complex and likable as the series progresses. From the outset however, he's an interesting character and a vehicle for exploring polyamory, open relationships and the challenges with monogamy and fidelity. The addition of HIV positive bear Eddie (Daniel Franzese) in season 2 is a welcome one which provides some much needed character development for Agustin. Not only does the relationship between Eddie and Agustin give Agustin some much-needed depth, it also enables the show to touch on the work undertaken by LGBT community centers and address certain challenges faced by those with HIV. Meanwhile, Dom grapples with his age and clings on to a lifestyle which no longer exists for him in the way it once did. He explores casual sex, hookup sites and one more meaningful long term open relationship, but it's his friendship with Doris which gives his character the most depth and heart. Together, Doris and Dom provide comedic relief and moments of anger, sadness and betrayal which feel very true to life.
Looking has its moments of tenderness and romance and it has been described by some reviewers as "sweet". However, Looking thankfully bears none of the hallmarks of a sanitised Hollywood romance. There are rarely any 'fade to black' moments and the show confronts sex head on. It unabashedly explores sexual preference, casual sex and awkward moments before and during sex without hesitation and subsequent interviews with the cast suggest that in that regard, Looking: The Movie is no different. The series might have an intensity and intimacy to it, but because the storytelling is so understated, the more emotional moments never feel overwrought or saccharine.
When discussing a television show which focuses almost exclusively on a group of gay men, it is not surprising that the inevitable comparisons will be drawn with Queer as Folk which concluded a decade before Looking began. The UK version of Queer as Folk aired first and it caused uproar in the press and calls for television shows to be subject to censorship. It is now widely considered something of a triumph and a ground-breaking piece of television. The US adaptation did incredibly well in terms of viewing figures and suffered less conservative backlash than its UK counterpart. However, LGBT critics of the show railed against the show for being representative of only a small part of the LGBT community. Such critics blasted the harmful stereotypes perpetuated by the show which had its camera firmly trained on the club scene, bathhouses, drug culture (poppers, meth, steroids) and prostitution. For the most part Looking steers clear of hedonistic club culture showcased by Manchester's Canal Street in the UK Queer as Folk and Pittsburgh's Liberty Avenue in the US adaptation (actually located outside of Pittsburgh in Toronto's gay village). It is also less overtly political than Queer as Folk which touched on issues of its time like Prop 8 and the closure of bathhouses and gay bars. Some ten years later, Looking has a different political outlook although it has an air of relative timelessness which could place it at any point over the last two decades. It only really dates itself with brief references to marriage equality, something which none of the main characters seem particularly interested in on a personal level and accordingly the topic doesn't get any detailed exploration.
It is interesting that two shows (Queer as Folk (US) and Looking) could be so different and yet both find themselves under attack for not being sufficiently representative. The female-centric L Word also attracts critics on account of overt instances of biphobia and transphobia as well as several unlikable main characters. While Looking attracts its critics for focusing on three white male characters who are all from a background of implied privilege, it does grapple with race, class and stereotyping, albeit in a relatively subtle manner. When confronted with creating Queer as Folk (UK), Russell T Davies observed that the idea of creating something which sufficiently represented all possible facets of gay culture was a daunting - and impossible - task. In this it seems the critics of shows like Queer as Folk and Looking prove him right. Where Queer as Folk was too hedonistic, Looking was too dull and lacked any excitement or flamboyancy. Neither hit exactly the right note for LGBT audiences although both had detractors and supporters with the LGBT community.
When there are few shows around that focus almost exclusively on LGBT characters, it seems like an impossible task to craft a show sufficiently diverse and varied enough to capture the multitude of experiences people within the community will have. The important thing is to have these shows on television in the first place as they will pave the way for new and better shows and instigate dialogue around LGBTQ+ politics, visibility, marginalisation and so on. Love them or loathe them, for many people of my generation, shows like The L-Word and Queer as Folk were tremendously important simply because they gave visibility to a wider community and not everyone died. Queer-centric television bears the burden of responsibility which suggests the writers, directors and creators should be seeking to cast a positive light on the community. It could be argued that such responsibility fetters, stifles and sanitises the storytelling which should be more about developing compelling characters and storylines. A show which suggests a particular lifestyle is the norm may be irresponsible, but so is the show that seeks to erase them.
There will be further posts in due course which give Queer as Folk (both UK and US versions) a more thorough analysis on their own merits or otherwise, as well as exploring how the success of the US Queer as Folk paved the way for shows like The L Word. For the time being, however, it is simply interesting to note that where shows before it have looked outward at the wider threats to or inequality faced by LGBT communities, Looking is more introspective. The right to fall in love and to be equal is assumed; it's Patrick's personal journey of actually trying to find love which causes most of his anxiety and takes up the majority of screen time.
It's interesting that Looking: The Movie appears be rooted in the theme of marriage from the short trailer below, released earlier this month. By the end of Looking Patrick was in limbo and marriage equality which so many would have been fighting for at the time of Looking's first screening, is something Patrick confesses he's not even too sure he wants. It will be interesting to see how the writers and directors develop Patrick's story in light of a changing political discourse and whether they grapple with Patrick's earlier perspective on marriage at all.
Feel free to tell me your thoughts about the series either here, on Twitter, LJ or Facebook. Are you excited about the film? Nervous? Or did this show fail to push your buttons entirely? If you have seen the film then I'm happy to be spoiled so feel free to tell me what you thought.