By Marc Snetiker
Updated July 20, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Credit: Melissa Moseley/HBO

Looking: The Movie

type
  • TV Show
network
  • HBO
genre

Looking was never supposed to be “the gay Girls,” but in its 2014 debut on HBO in the post-Dunham timeslot, Michael Lannan’s dramedy was pegged from the start with a presumed characterization that the show never delivered on, nor should have had to, throughout its far-too-short two-season run.

Perhaps that’s the reason why Looking was never properly found by a wide audience, but those who did stick with the show found something of comfort in its central trio of young gay men (Jonathan Groff, Frankie J. Alvarez, and Murray Bartlett) navigating modern romance in San Francisco—and it’s the open wounds of those fans that the gift of Looking: The Movie aims to serve. As 90 short minutes attempt to wrap up the final threads the show introduced over two seasons but never quite concluded in its sophomore finale, the looming question is one that any series finale faces: What constitutes a satisfying ending, especially for a show given a decisive opportunity to craft one?

The “film” — which essentially reads as a lengthy Patrick-centric episode — charts a three-day wedding weekend that forces the Frisco homecoming of Groff’s perennially indecisive protagonist, who fled the city months prior to hit reset on his life (which crumbled following the implosion of his relationship with his boss, Kevin, played by Russell Tovey). To reveal any more about what Patrick’s friend group looks like when he returns — particularly, who’s getting married — would be to spoil the whole reprise visit, since the nature of Looking’s dramatic foibles has always lied less in shocking TV twists and more in the consequences of our everyday, almost insignificant choices. But the spoiler-free version is this: Loose plot points are indeed tied up, and some lingering fan-service questions (like the story of when Patrick and Dom hooked up in the past) are delightfully answered — but not for everyone.

Patrick gets a tease of a happy ending, so to speak, but it’s not particularly happy, nor is it particularly an ending. (Given the fickleness of the character, there’s an argument to be made that Patrick is unlikely to even stick with his choice anyway.) With the movie, as in the series itself, Lannan and director/producer Andrew Haigh assume the audience’s prime interest lies in Patrick’s reconciliation of his life choices (an arc accompanied by so many mentions of the phrase “closing the chapter,” it’s easy to lose count). In particular, they hinge the entirety of this reunion special on Patrick’s romantic decision — which seems reductive in and of itself. There was always more to Looking than Patrick’s heart, even if the show didn’t realize it.

As a result of the focus on Patrick’s romance, supporting characters get a mere percentage of screen time, and it’s their stories which deserve far more closure than this weepy wrap-up affords. Agustin takes a large step in his life, but it’s treated unceremoniously; Dom get little more than a quick status update on his restaurant (and a very unsettling mention of his temporarily unresolved love life). Both check-ins skirt the surface of both characters’ underlying drama, which is particularly tragic for a character as especially layered as Dom, whom I would argue serviced the best part of the show. (Doris, meanwhile, offers a single bit of news that’s perhaps the best and worst example of the film’s unfortunate treatment of its featured faces.)

Ultimately, Haigh and Lannan manage to raise a few compelling questions about our litmus test for happiness, and they deserve praise for pulling off a handful of sentimental moments of friendship. Groff is in fine form with the introspective material he’s given, even if his emotional climax — with Tyne Daly serving up some fierce Outer Critics’ Circle work as a sage judge — feels less important than “important.”

In the filmmakers’ defense, there’s a lingering sense that perhaps Looking purposefully used its rare second chance to leave its audience longing for definitive closure that simply doesn’t exist — which may be what the show was always trying to say in the first place. Dom’s romantic hiatus, Agustin’s cold feet, Patrick’s tenure in an unassured purgatory — is there ever an ending for characters on a slice-of-life show such as this? Or is there a bigger statement here, one that examines the nature of being a gay man as linked to a winding journey into a happy ending buried in a blurry frontier beyond what TV has ever dared to show?

There’s a point to be made that Looking was cancelled not for its trouble finding an audience, but its trouble finding a point of view, a difficulty the film doesn’t do much to assuage. No, it wasn’t the sister (well, brother) program to Girls that scheduling and critics stipulated it must be, but on its own merits, it also isn’t the martyr its premature cancellation might suggest. In two seasons, Looking never elevated itself from slice-of-life to critical mirror. As a comedy, its humor was specific but unchallenging. As a drama, it was sluggish and indecisive. In its attempt to show real gay men, it was laser-focused to a fault, bearing friendships that were relatable (and will remain the most important part of the series) but individual melodrama that wasn’t (unless you’re one of the lucky few who can identify with a torrid work romance, a self-destructive starving artist, or an impossibly handsome mature entrepreneur).

Despite it all, Looking cemented itself as a bastion of Sunday night television for gay circles — some, watching with esteem, others, with reluctant allegiance, but all, watching. Its content offered a voice to a crowd often relegated to a fringe circle of TV representation. Looking spoke to an audience that deserved to be taken seriously, an audience for which Grindr is not a punchline but a plot point. If Queer as Folk has long held the title of must-watch viewing for any individual freshly discovering his sexuality, Looking may soon, if it hasn’t already, reach that same threshold for the oughts. Though flawed, it meant something more than when it aired and how it performed.

Looking: The Movie cuts its fans, but in the same stroke, it comforts them, which outweighs its idiosyncratic missteps. The series deserved better from audiences and from itself, made all the more evident in its absence today. Following unresolved tragedy in Orlando and the current upswing in political hate speech, the void of representation and a safe space on television is all the more necessary to fill. At a time when America’s LGBT citizens are in dire need of respect, assurance, and warmth, Looking is an old friend who may have fallen out of touch but can still be counted among those most fondly missed. B

A version of this story originally appeared in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now, or available to buy here. Subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Looking: The Movie

type
  • TV Show
rating
genre
network
  • HBO

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