The second season of Michael Lannan’s patient San Francisco dramedy, Looking, opens boldly. And evasively. Having ended the previous season in the warm cocoon of what looked like a month-long Golden Girls binge-watching session (we’ve all been there), Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Agustín (Frankie J. Álvarez), and Dom (Murray Bartlett) head out to the countryside for a lazy retreat at the rustic manse of Dom’s non-committal boyfriend, Lynn (Scott Bakula). Overgrown Boy Scout Patrick, in particular, hopes to spend the time clearing his head and recalibrating his friendship with the other two by exploring nature’s splendor, but, naturally, the cabin is adjacent to Guerneville during yet another circuit-party weekend and, for the other two, the temptation to drop molly and fondle bears at twilight by the pale light of the glow stick proves insurmountable.
When Looking first dropped last winter, think pieces sprung from every corner, fretting the series wasn’t gay enough, was too gay, wasn’t reflective of the Bay Area’s true diversities (e.g. racial, sexual, fetish). Oh, and that the ratings weren’t good and so shouldn’t these three queers be, you know, doing stuff? Written and directed by Andrew Haigh (at this point deserving of equal billing with Lannan as the show’s guiding voice), the first episode of season two feels like a direct rejoinder from the man whose brilliant season-one two-hander, “Looking for the Future,” turned the whole seemingly aimless series around by literally isolating its focus on two characters wandering around aimlessly. In form, “Future” played like Haigh’s Weekend in miniature, but in function it deepened the tragic implications of Patrick’s sexual schizophrenia, and turned his then-boyfriend, Richie (Raúl Castillo), from a marginalized token into a vulnerable human. Unlike Weekend, with its lovely fairy-tale coda, the wistful “Future” opened the door for a whole world of mess, which the impressive remainder of the season delivered in spades.
Season two is somewhat hindered by the need to reconcile with the fallout. Everyone involved is in rebuilding mode, and if it wasn’t clear before that the series isn’t called Finding, all doubt should be removed by now. Patrick, who internally and conveniently blames his uptight mother for keeping his emotions straitjacketed into perpetual adolescence, has succumbed to his correlated need for instant validation and fallen into the thick bloke arms of his partnered boss, Kevin (Russell Tovey). Dom’s peri-peri popup experiment hasn’t magically made him not 40 years old, and as such the open relationship he shares with Lynn seems less like a duty-free dream and more of a looming intermission filled with detached hot-tub threesomes. Agustín—separated from his partner, back in Patrick’s apartment, unable to pay his part of the rent, scared to continue creating art, still willing to take whatever twinks with Dolly Parton tattoos give him even if it means wrapping himself up in alley newspapers for the night—is the only one of the three you could say has definitely bottomed out and, given his state, not snicker over the connotations.
Does this sound like a series whose characters “aren’t doing anything”? While one suspects that a reasonable amount of Looking’s naysayers panic every time a series purports to show “their” lives and instead presents specific individuals, it may very well be that Lannan and Haigh’s sensibilities seem a bit quotidian compared to the current requirements of the weekly series format, or at least compared to Girls. Still, their attention to detail isn’t given nearly enough credit, even when the moments of true formal enlightenment are comparatively few and far between. (In the whole first half of the season, the most striking visual cue comes when Patrick and Richie finally have their first significant conversation since their breakup, and their guarded admissions that they’re both seeing someone new are filmed from the back, their heads craned around beyond the 180-degree line.)
Take the show’s continuing issue with the limited definition of desirability within the gay community, which was my biggest sticking point in the first season, but has belatedly started to emerge as a sustainable subtext, an honest critique of the ghettoization the show’s characters otherwise seem to enjoy. The vital new character of Eddie (Daniel Franzese), a loveable bear who flirts with Agustín and has a “House In Virginia,” consistently rises about the cognitive split that practically every gay man wrestles with to some extent: the self-loathing that’s the byproduct of being both distasted by monolithic standards of male attractiveness and perpetuating them. But more importantly, he falls, and he shows the audience how we all fall. (Early on, he refers to Patrick as a “seal pup,” which Dom translates as “hairless and a little bit chunky.” Patrick replies, “Wait, he’s calling me chunky?”) Eddie’s refreshing lack of tact and his playful lack of seriousness about everything (even his poz status) seem to slowly reveal a man who has constructed a workable series of defense mechanisms, whose blasé “just can’t even” routine doesn’t crack even when Agustín starts aggressively pursuing him. Because he can’t afford to let it crack, and he knows it.
So, returning to the first episode of the season: As the three protagonists, with sassy™ tagalong Doris (Lauren Weedman), venture out along the footpath toward their outdoors bacchanal, they’re confronted by a Radical Faerie, who answers the query of whether the group is headed in the right direction by purring, “Only you can truly answer that question. Look deep inside your soul and tell me what you see.” Without a beat, Dom retorts, “We’re just looking for directions to the party.” To which the Faerie shrugs, “Okay.” If the exchange seems overly meta, the circle completes as the group arrives at “The Promised Land,” where drag queens and gym clones alike are all having a moment to Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind.” The irony of using the track as a regressive siren song won’t be lost on anyone in the know enough to have intimate familiarity with its lyrics; in other words, anyone gay enough to be frequently drawn to the very same scenes that keep us all, like Hercules and Love Affair’s protagonist, older, lonelier, and far from wiser. And also to the friends who keep the stars in our blind eyes.