Tops, bottoms, douches, enemas, rim jobs, “hot shower orgies,” and even a swinging dick or two: Tonight’s episode of Looking, written by John Hoffman and directed by Ryan Fleck, is all about the pleasures of sex and its most irksome complications. Hell, even Doris (Lauren Weedman) lands a big one. The series has never shied away from frank treatments of the subject (the pilot opened with Jonathan Groff’s Patrick cruising in the woods), but “Looking Top to Bottom” addresses the physical and emotional logistics of fooling around with newfound confidence. It’s unafraid of desire, and of the melancholic moments that often accompany its fulfillment.
Even the episode’s finest scene, a bristling exchange between Richie (Raúl Castillo) and Agustín (Frankie J. Álvarez), wends its way toward the topic of attraction, though in this case it’s held at arm’s length. The latter arrives at the former’s barbershop with an olive branch of tamales and edibles, at once a thank-you for Richie’s intervention in “Looking for Results” and an apology for past sins. “I come in peace, and sober,” Agustín says. “No pupusas?” Richie replies, landing a much-deserved jab. Fleck’s direction, recalling the graceful compositions of his collaborations with Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar), underlines this wariness.
In a series notable for developing an aesthetic that doesn’t feel like an aesthetic, the camerawork here is assertive. Framing Richie in the foreground at left, Agustín (reflected in the mirror) in the background at right, and shifting the focus as each character speaks, the moment fosters a spatial tension to match the tenor of the conversation; in the architecture of the shot, two characters of similar height standing a few feet apart are suddenly on unequal footing, with the embarrassed Agustín appearing much smaller and further away than he actually is. When the cut comes, as Agustín acknowledges that he “didn’t deserve anything from you but just walking on by” and Richie asks if Agustín is in love with Patrick, the orientation shifts. If all is not yet forgiven, the remainder of the scene at least suggests the closeness that comes with honesty, and Richie extends an olive branch of his own. “Why don’t you have a seat?” he says. “We’re closed, but that bush on your face. Seriously?”
Agustín returns home to find Patrick in yet another neurotic “spiral,” furiously cleaning the apartment after making plans for Kevin (Russell Tovey), whose boyfriend is out of town, to spend the night. Patty, in the market for his first enema kit, asks Agustín to come with him to the pharmacy, and the subsequent scene is alternately as honest, endearing, and horrifying as last week’s HIV test. It’s disconcerting to hear a protagonist utter words that have more or less come out of your own mouth (paying heed to your asshole before sex is annoying) and then make an ugly, fey-voiced joke about bottoming, as if goading the viewer to admit his own regressive anxieties. Luckily, Agustín sets Patrick straight: “Is that what’s going on? You still think that getting fucked makes you ’the girl’ in the relationship?” Patrick turns out to be nearly as maddening as Girls’s Hannah Horvath, and Groff’s underappreciated performance manages to tread the line between innocence and willful naïveté in the course of a single scene. As soon as he wins you over with a reference to his “self-cleaning oven,” he loses you with an awkward stab at being “sex-positive.” “Oh, honey,” the woman at the checkout counter says, speaking for all of us. “Do you know where you live?”
As Lynn (Scott Bakula) discovers the next morning, unable to conceal his fussiness behind a forced smile, Dom (Murray Bartlett) and Doris’s apartment is no palace either. Before “Looking Top to Bottom,” it was easy to chalk up Lynn’s opaqueness to a flaw in the writing, the product of trying to squeeze eight or nine characters into a format more suited to four; with this episode, it becomes clear that Lynn is simply uneasy with Dom’s unorthodox lifestyle. As Doris’s beau, Malik (Bashir Salahuddin), says skeptically, “Two grown-ass 40-year-olds still doing the roommate thing?” Lynn’s halfhearted attempt to laugh through his grimace as Doris hops into bed is telling, as is the affection between her and Dom. Weedman, the one member of the cast who comes off as a natural comedian, is glorious here, bringing an irreverent warmth to Doris’s dirty mouth.
Alas, Dom is off to his first gay rugby match, where Eddie (Daniel Franzese) gives Doris a run for her money as the episode’s MVP. “Does anyone know what they’re actually doing, except for, like, being all porny and I want a naked calendar with them on my fridge right now?” he says, to Doris’s great delight (he’s a bear after her own heart). “Agustín promised me a hot shower orgy after the game, so I better get one.” After stopping off for a few pints of “Dutch courage” and a rather laborious discussion of Kevin’s coming of age as a lad in Rumford, England, he and Patrick join the fray. Patty’s face, recording every emotional tremor, tracks his increasing attachment, smiling as Kevin organizes a chant for Dom and biting his lip as Eddie asks if Kevin has a boyfriend. Like his pricelessly panicked reaction when Kevin jokingly mentions needing to get married before his visa expires, these quicksilver changes warn of treacherous terrain, the uneven ground we all trip over as lust imperceptibly shades into love.
And so, as is Looking’s wont, the ribald humor evaporates in the final minutes, homing in on the notion that even our most casual arrangements—open relationships, illicit affairs, friends with benefits—tend to create unintended consequences. Lynn can’t be bothered to show up until the match is over, and anyway Dom’s already pissed after learning in the shower that Lynn sees him as a restaurant manager and not an entrepreneur; later, Kevin flips from top to bottom, but Patty can’t avoid the fact that his love interest is involved with someone else. “Looking Top to Bottom” refers, in part, to being versatile in bed, but what the heart wants is never quite so flexible.
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