Looking at “Looking”: Are these guys racist, realistic, or boring?

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Chad Kaydo: The second episode of HBO’s “Looking” opens with its trio of gay San Franciscans discussing fuck buddies, open relationships, and kimchi tacos, as Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Dom (Murray Bartlett) help Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) move his things into the Oakland apartment of his boyfriend. 

Before Patrick recites the lyrics of the “Golden Girls” theme song as a goodbye to his departing roommate, Agustin makes a suggestion about Patrick’s upcoming date with Richie (Raul Castillo), the hairdresser he met on the BART in the first episode: If he’s “a real Mexican,” he’s probably uncircumcised. Does Patrick know how to perform with different equipment?

That gives the episode its title, “Looking for Uncut,” and gives poor Patty something to make him both excited and nervous, and ultimately something to tell Richie that ruins the date, just as the clothes are coming off. “We’re looking for different things,” Richie says, putting his pants back on, and it’s clear that Patrick has signaled what he told his friends earlier: He’s experimenting with separating sex and intimacy.

Meanwhile, Agustin and his boyfriend, Frank (O.T. Fagbenie), get settled and stay in to eat pizza and watch a variation on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and Dom confronts his former meth addict ex, buys him tea and a protein box (which is what exactly?), and hooks up with a guy from Grindr who sings “Defying Gravity” in his shower, prompting my favorite line of the episode, from roommate Doris (Lauren Weedman): “Did you fuck the pain away with the cast of ‘Wicked’?”

So, gentlemen, what did you think? And did you Google “Latin uncut cock” after the show?

Sam Wineman: No, but I did Google Jonathan Groff’s nudes before the show—does that count? I have to say, I loved this episode almost as much as I loved those search results. It delivered on what I was craving last week, specifically, that single-line hint at Patrick’s baggage: “We don’t want to talk about my family—it’s not very sexy.” And Patrick tries so hard to nail sexy this episode. It’s painful and funny and extraordinarily relatable.

Ultimately, I think that’s his downfall. Patrick tells Agustin that “Everything was going fine until” his moment of cut-cock surprise (hashtag, please?), but it wasn’t. Richie doesn’t seem to be on the hunt for a new FB. I wonder how much of the rejection was triggered by Patrick’s handling of race and how much of it was his desire to prove he can separate sex and intimacy. When Patrick does “sexy,” it may not sexy, but it’s still so gosh-darn adorable. Mac and cheese, please!

Matthew Phillp: I spent a second or two thinking about Jonathan Groff’s nudes during this episode as well. That film, “Twenty Thirty,” where he did full frontal, was just so terrible. I wonder what he actually thinks of it now. I digress… 

I realized this week that I don’t think I actually LIKE any of the characters that much yet, I mean in the sense that I’m not sure I’d hang out with any of them but they’re still becoming more interesting and the show is settling into itself a bit. Even though he’s fairly smug and self righteous, Agustin is the most interesting character for me so far, in that he’s the least predictable to some extent. At the other end of the scale, I think the only thing that keeps me from being totally disinterested in Dom is the way he is steadily channeling his anger at aging and his lack of direction. His anger at his ex and the world in general feels like the most human thing about him at this point and it could pay off in future episodes. I should disclose that I’ve known Murray Bartlett, the actor who plays Dom, for many years. I’ll make a point of not allowing that to get in the way of any discussion of the character.

I got chills when Patrick was transparently racist in his pursuit of unemotional sex while on his date with Richie because I think it might have been one of the most realistic portrayals of the kind of racism that occurs within gay culture that I’ve seen. It was subtly but clearly perpetrated and then angsted over briefly at the end with a comment from Patrick himself, who wonders aloud if he himself might be racist, as though his own acknowledgment makes it OK. I was impressed at the way they laid it out there and left it for us to just sit with. Jonathan Groff really is good at playing out neurotic awkward until you are actually squirming. I squirmed and had to look away at one point as he and Richie were in bed and he just wouldn’t stop talking.      

Chad: I’m glad you both mentioned the racial element here—it’s clearly a factor in Patrick’s attraction to Richie as well as his interest in him as a hookup rather than a husband. And I saw Patrick’s line about his family as a sign that he wasn’t going to bother revealing much about himself before they head to bed. Patrick seemed to be looking at Richie as just another flavor of sexual experience to sample, and that was both ugly and true to life.

What I also found interesting is his pursuit of a FB appeared largely inspired by the conversation with Dom and Augustin at the start of the episode, which laid out the characters’ relative positions on associating sex with intimacy. (For Patrick they’re necessarily tied, Augustin is trying to untie them, and Dom only appears interested in sex.) Although some of the language felt a little stilted (“done up the butt”?), the frankness and the playful razzing (“Get in the car, Rose.”) felt familiar. A friend who came over to watch with me said, “They talk the way we talk,” and I had to agree.

That conversation clearly planted something inside Patrick’s head—not just the curiosity about the status of Richie’s foreskin, but a dare to show his friends that he can separate sex and intimacy. But is this really what he wants, or is he trying to prove a point? Which is an interesting area to explore: How are our choices influenced by our friends? How are they informed by the cultural norms of our communities—whether we mean the broader “gay community,” whatever that is, or just the people with whom we have sex and conversations about sex?

Sam: I had a they-talk-like-we-talk moment too, Chad. Questions about how a sexual experience will shape the future of a once-monogamous relationship felt spot on (“Does is mean you’re in an open relationship?”). Despite being a part of a broader culture that doesn’t often include portrayals of our own community norms, conversations with friends swapping our own experiences has helped shape how it’s going to work for me and my relationships. I think this week’s episode captured that brilliantly.

As far as whether or not what Patrick ultimately wants is to separate sex from intimacy, I like that it’s something he’s willing to try and find out. But I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not something that seems like a natural fit at this point. I love the moment when he offers Richie either his bedroom or his mom’s mac and cheese—sex or the possibility of intimate conversation over a beloved family recipe.

Matthew: I hadn’t noticed that moment with the mac and cheese versus the bedroom but now that you mention it, Sam, you’re right, it was a kind of fork in the road moment that illustrated Patrick’s ambivalence really nicely. Which leads me to wonder what Patrick has been doing for the past eight years that he’s been living in San Francisco. He complains to Richie (albeit probably on purpose) that his friends think he’s just some kid from Colorado who is clueless about sex but that can’t be the case, really. They’ve all be there together for eight years. He had something resembling a relationship with his now engaged ex-boyfriend but, how has he operated for the past eight years without being prompted to a moment of self reflection that at least resembles what’s he’s going through now? He’s never thought about sexual experimentation or an uncircumcised penis? Really? They live in San Francisco. He’s almost 30. 

Sam: Great points, Matthew. I think that the problems written for him play a little younger than he is. And trying to shed the image he describes is very much act one of the new-guy-in-town story, except, as you pointed out, he’s not new. Also, he was wearing a Cal shirt (go Bears!), which means he graduated from one of the most notoriously progressive universities in the country. His encounters in a space that encourages new experiences would have began long ago, presumably. Unless there’s more to his story than we know? I certainly hope so.

Speaking of Patrick’s Golden Bears shirt, I want to give the episode credit for capturing an authentic Bay Area feel. “Do we have time for one last coffee at Philz?” was one of the earlier lines. YES! PHILZ! A nod to NorCal folk. And the shots following the station wagon over the Bay Bridge from East Bay to SF made me nostalgic for that drive myself. Looking is doing a good job integrating their surroundings both visually as well as in the writing.

Matthew: Yes, I think the show has a nice sense of place so far too. It’s not labored either. I think the fact that Patrick works for a video game company actually explains a lot of his capacity to miss details of real life in favor of emergency escapism. It hints at the origins of his anxiety and neurosis too. If there’s ever a sign that someone is stunted in some way, it’s an obsession with video games. Seeing as Patrick actually designs them, it’s only reasonable that he’s actually quite adolescent at heart.  

Chad: Oh, Matthew, I’m not going to touch the video game suggestion there (if they can tear themselves away from “Grand Theft Auto V,” some people are going to be mad at you!). Patrick’s naivete does feel forced, and while I think three friends could be discussing these issues at their depicted ages, it’s hard to believe Dom and Augustin’s opinions haven’t rubbed off on Patrick a bit more already.

So while Patrick only gets Richie out of his tight jeans for a few moments, this episode does deliver the show’s first completed sex act and first performance of a Broadway show tune, both courtesy of Andrew Keenan-Bolger, as Dom’s Grindr hookup. This wasn’t terribly sexy, but the awkward small talk and the apartment curiosity (“Do you have a spare room?”) felt right-on. Still, someone with Dom’s presumed experience knows better than to hook up with someone who lives in his building, doesn’t he? That’s bound to make for some awkward elevator rides.

Some of the critics of the show say it’s not sexy enough, but aren’t there plenty of options across the internet for watching guys go at it? I’d rather the producers focus on all the complications that come before and after the actual sex.

Speaking of criticism: Have you been reading all the internet commentary on the show? What do you think of the people who say it’s “boring”? (Do they enrage you the way they enrage me?)

Matthew: It really seems like the people who are saying it’s boring are just trying to promote themselves.

The show does seem like it’s heading towards being an examination of the lives of these gay men in a way where the details of their lives are presented up front and the quiet, consistent loneliness they live with pervades beneath. There’s a subtlety about that that I like. The sadness doesn’t dominate the show but it is there and it does have an effect on the way they live their lives. That doesn’t feel boring to me. 

I feel like that kind of narrative is actually far more realistic and potentially interesting than many of the gay narratives that say, Mick Stingley longed for in his cringe-worthy, tone-deaf, pointless review of the show for Esquire. The piece on Slate.com by J. Bryan Lowder was also profoundly self important and myopic. I was happy to see the flood of essentially well-articulated rebuttals to these two pieces in the form of comments. Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair wrote a great take-down of Lowder’s review that allowed me to exhale with relief.    

Chad: I was grateful for the Lawson piece, too, especially his assertion that “Lowder seems to be suggesting that any gay man who recognizes himself in the show is somehow deficient.” I think that cuts to the heart of so much criticism of the show—there’s a reluctance to acknowledge you might share some of the characters’ struggles. (A welcome exception: Rich Juzwiak on Gawker.)

Whether I’m reading reviews or recaps by culture writers or Facebook comments written by my friends and their circles of friends, the show feels like a Rorshach test, with reactions often communicating far more about the writer than the show. (Andrew Sullivan hates “Angels in America”?) How much does your sexuality define your identity? Do you feel part of “the gay community”—whatever that is? Do you care more about how the show plays to heterosexual audiences or your own enjoyment? How do you feel about facial hair?

Are you so much more worldly and experienced and advanced in your thinking about sex, race, and foreskin that you can’t recognize and empathize with these characters? 

Lawson (for my money, one of the funniest people on the internet) says he finds the characters both foreign and familiar, but isn’t threatened by either feeling as much as Lowder’s alienating dismissal of the show and its characters: “So if they are ‘boring,’ empty and inexact depictions of what it means to be queer in America, then what the hell does that make me?”

Here’s the thing: If you’re not entertained by the show, that’s fine. Different people look to TV to fulfill different impulses. Maybe you’d rather contemplate an affair with the president or the social life inside a women’s prison.

But I expect (in some cases, I know!) many members of team “boring” don’t feel the same way about their own endless conversations about love, sex, open relationships, and exes they’re not quite over. Also they probably dance to Erasure. 

OK, time to wrap this up. I gotta finish my kale salad. With chicken. 

Chad Kaydo is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. He edits the “Back 9” section of FourTwoNine magazine and tweets at@ChadKaydo.

Matthew Phillp is a writer and journalist who lives in Brooklyn. He is minutes away from completing the final draft of his first novel and has banned himself from all all forms of social media until it’s done.  

Sam Wineman is an Orange County-based writer and dating veteran. Watch his web series “Date Trip” at thedatetrip.com.

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