Looking: The Movie is the perfect ending to an imperfect show
'I love it when gays argue with other gays about being gays'1
If Looking’s two-season run on HBO left any kind of mark on the TV world, it’s one that has more to do with the show’s languid pace than its ballyhooed homosexuality. Has any other narrative-driven show ever felt so unhurried? It had more in common with Chef’s Table — in-depth character studies, stunning cinematography, tons of food — than Girls or your favorite serial rom-com. Its best episodes, like the first-season daydream in which Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Richie (Raúl Castillo) explore their nascent relationship, were praised because they felt so meditative and organic. And if people felt like condemning the show instead, there was always at least one valid criticism ready and waiting: “nothing ever happens!”
Looking: The Movie, the show’s extra-long finale airing Saturday night, doesn’t tweak that formula. It opts for a handful of compelling standalone scenes instead of a titanic climax; it doesn’t leave you with a definitive ending or any narrative relief. It’s more interested in giving every line of dialogue, pregnant pause, and meaningful glance space to breathe. It’s the best possible version of the show to which it’s saying goodbye.
Nine months have passed since we last saw San Francisco, and the men (and woman) of Looking: The Movie have changed. Patrick is stepping into the city for the first time since the rapid implosion of his relationship with Kevin (Russell Tovey), his former boss and boyfriend, and he comes back with some of his insecurity scrubbed away. He’s a calmer speaker, a more confident lover, and a little less self-obsessed. (Groff deserves plenty of credit for pulling off a subtle modulation that makes the character much less annoying.) The free-spirited Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) is on the brink of a life change that would’ve been unfathomable at the show’s premiere; Dom (Murray Bartlett) is a successful, independent entrepreneur, and his gal pal Doris (Lauren Weedman, still the show’s comic heart) remains awash in heterosexual bliss with her loving boyfriend. Everyone’s in decent shape.
The movie does Dom and Agustín a disservice by relegating their plots to the sidelines, and that’s a shame. They had just as much to do with the show’s success as Patrick, and their plots and problems were windows into parts of gay life the show sometimes shortchanged: anxiety over HIV, the questions posed by open relationships, and the struggle to age with grace in a community obsessed with youth. But director / co-writer Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) and co-writer Michael Lannan (the show’s creator) take Looking: The Movie’s Patrick-centrism and put it to interesting work. Instead of focusing on the Patrick-Kevin-Richie love triangle that dominated the show’s episodic existence, they use Patrick to explore and interrogate parts of gayness the show neglected. And because Groff is playing Patrick with a little more of a spine, he can withstand the pressure.
His one-night stand with a fellow game developer initially seems like an opportunity to shoehorn a sex scene into the movie. (It’s the spiciest such sequence the show’s ever done, and it feels like a mild rebuttal of people who thought the show’s sex was too sanitized despite the continued absence of penises.) When it turns into an intimate engagement that dances around microgenerational differences between gay men, the result is complex and unexpected. A bedtime vaping session with Dom dives into the liminal space between their close friendship and a deeper connection. And when he gets together with a newly blond Kevin for a coffee, it blossoms into an intense conversation that makes you reevaluate their breakup.
Looking: The Movie’s closest thing to a real dramatic peak is Patrick’s dance floor confrontation with Richie’s boyfriend Brady (Chris Perfetti), a petty spat that also feels like a battle over the soul of the show. Brady is sex-positive, socially progressive, and a little smug about all of his enlightened stances; he’s exactly the kind of guy who would’ve looked at Looking’s two seasons and dismissed them as heteronormative, insufficiently representative, and boring. (He also thinks Patrick has parachuted into San Francisco to steal back his boyfriend.) And while Patrick might’ve rolled over and absorbed Brady’s shade earlier in the show’s run, he’s less of a pushover now, and that leads to a fight about what "being gay" really means. "Brady thinks he’s the grand minister of queer! The leader of the gay thought police," spits Patrick. "I will never understand why you’re so intent on making me feel bad because I can’t live up to some ideal, [one] I’ll never live up to because it just isn’t who I am."
It’s a drunk, romantically charged argument that tiptoes the line between serious and silly. (Doris traces it before things get really heated: "I love it when gays argue with other gays about being gays.") The nice thing about it — and about Looking: The Movie as a whole — is that there’s no clear victor. "Winning" isn’t the point. There are no right or wrong decisions, no heroes and villains, no judgment, just a bunch of people trying to figure out how to make themselves happy without hurting each other too much in the process. In its finest moments, Looking slows that process down to a crawl and puts it under a microscope. What does "happy" even mean? Is it the same thing as being satisfied? How much risk are people willing to tolerate to achieve real fulfillment? It rarely makes for a compelling narrative, and that’s a dealbreaker for some people. But it feels like something real.