Looking at “Looking”: The episode when it gets better

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Chad Kaydo: In the third episode of “Looking” the world of the show seems to expand, as we meet new characters who start to challenge the three men at its center. The show also gets more intimate, showing us more about who they are, who they think they are, and who they want to be. 

Patrick (Jonathan Groff) hits the launch party for “Naval Destroyer,” the video game he’s been working on, on a military ship, where he unsuccessfully flirts with a British colleague, Kevin (Russell Tovey), who—he learns later—is his new boss. Now, we’ve seen Patrick stumble like this before, but this time, he actually shows he’s got some game, confidently straddling a torpedo and asking, “Do you play as the British lady or the bloke?” Later, armed with records of Patrick’s office computer use, Kevin warns him to spend less time on OKCupid and Manhunt and more time on work. 

Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), the artist who doesn’t actually make art, gets fired from his job as an artist’s assistant after comparing his boss’s piece to “a chair apocalypse.” Consoling himself with cake, he meets a prostitute—er, “sex worker”—after hearing him bluntly schedule a job on the phone. While Augustin doesn’t like to call himself an artist, he’s struck by how confidently C.J. (T.J. Linnard) proclaims his profession. 

And Dom (Murray Bartlett) the waiter heads to the gym with his roommate, Doris (our beloved Lauren Weedman), and tells her he’s finally going to open his own restaurant, and then heads to a bathhouse, where he meets Lynn (Scott Bakula, looking terrific in a towel), an older man who runs a beloved Castro floral shop and tells Dom his long run working at Zuni makes him “an institution” too—even if that’s not how Dom would like to see himself.

When the guys get together, they focus on their perceived and real identities. Patrick tells Augustin, “It seems like all I do lately is give people the wrong impression.” And later: “I don’t think either of us is good at being who we think we are. Maybe we need to try a little harder.” 

All of which moved my feeling about the show from “This is good, please make it get better” to “OK, this is actually really good.” As I felt the stakes starting to rise for these guys, the pace seemed to pick up as well. Did you guys agree? Did “Looking at Your Browser History” pull you in more than the first two episodes?

Matthew Phillp: Yes, I think that the show has now effectively presented us with three essentially multidimensional characters and now they all have something at stake. This was an episode where all our characters got projects to work on. They all seem to be on their way. What I’m expecting here is for this show to be something of a subtle, slow burner when it comes to plot. The emphasis is always going to be on character nuance and I don’t mind that. It’s not falling short so far but it’s also not possible for me to be completely invested yet either. I’m not horrified and I don’t emphatically hate any of the characters—I’m just waiting to genuinely care about them as people—not as socio-political symbols. 

Sam Wineman: I’m on board. “Looking” was off to a slow start, but this is the week that has me ready to commit—which is fitting since this episode ends on a note about commitment. I can’t be the only guy who feels like this, but I am pretty sure [series creator]Michael Lannan has been sitting in on my dating life and taking notes. The is-he-or-isn’t-he bet is fantastic and Patrick’s cringe-worthy pass at his boss made me look forward to more future fails. Is it strange that I find Patrick even hotter when he says something awkward?

Jesse Oxfeld: I’m flipping positions on Patrick. I’ve been in the camp that the key problem with the show is that Jonathan Groff is just too adorable, and too charming, to credibly portray a character who can’t manage to have a decent date. But after watching him muck up three consecutive potential (or not so potential) liaisons—telling the oncologist about his park cruising; turning off Richie, up until that moment very game, with his uncut-cock fascination; saying all the wrong things to the cute British homo who turns out to be his boss—I’m reevaluating. He’s a smart guy, and analytical and talkative, and unable to keep his mouth shut when he really ought to. I know that type (I am that type, maybe, though sans that Groffian adorability, alas), and I’m beginning to find him credible. Also, he should drink less. (I know, I know: Critic, criticize thyself.)

This feels like the bridge episode, the one that converts viewers from watching “Looking” because they should to watching “Looking” because they want to. The first, as a pilot and as we carefully caveated, was so laden with establishment and exposition that it wasn’t and couldn’t be independently compelling. The second was, for the most part, a weird, self-contained fairy tale, following Patrick on his little, doomed fascination with Richie. The third, finally, feels settled into its role: all three main characters’ plots chugging along, all three characters developing, all three confronting real challenges in their lives: Patrick getting the job shift he wants at work and figuring out how to work for a new, gay boss; Dom moving forward with his restaurant; Augustin figuring out what the hell he’s doing with his life.

And also, to continue my old “Mary Tyler Moore” analogy, with Kevin, the gay boss, we now have our Lou Grant. Oh, Mr. Grant.

Chad: I look forward to meeting our Sue Ann Nivens.

One of the things I liked about this episode is that it pushed sex and romance, which were at the forefront of the first two episodes, to the background. Patrick flirted with Kevin, but later his focus was keeping his job. Dom went to a bathhouse, but he worked harder on getting his restaurant started than getting laid. (Granted, he didn’t have to work very hard.) And Augustin was titillated less by C.J.’s job as a sex worker and more by his forthrightness in proclaiming it. Did you feel a shift in focus?

Matthew: I’m not sure that Augustin was reacting that way to the sex worker. It seemed to be a new way for him to earn money and it’s also something that could feasibly play into his need to be sexually progressive as a political statement. I can absolutely see him deciding to do sex work in a future episode, it putting all this stress on his relationship, and then he will insist that the relationship stress is unreasonable on socio-political grounds. I suppose he was impressed with the way the sex worker was so confident about what he does for a living but there were other things at play there.  

Sam: While I agree with Matthew that the setup for Augustin’s dive into sex work is here (particularly when he looks at the business card a second time), I don’t believe that it is the primary purpose of their moment for this episode. Augustin is able to realize that he’s either outgrown his identity or it just doesn’t fit him anymore; he can’t say who he is with that kind of confidence because he isn’t who he says he is. Or doesn’t say he is, as he points out to Patrick. I like how their conversation influences Patrick to push harder with his work. It’s a good example of how the writing of this episode felt particularly well integrated to me.

Jesse: I like how we’re all being so polite and respectful and East Bay progressive in continuing to call Augustin’s ersatz-Colby Keller acquaintance a “sex worker.” Sure, he serves a dramatic purpose by projecting confidence that Augustin lacks, which reflects the episode’s larger theme about the importance of taking charge of one’s life and career versus the frustration of passively just letting one’s life and career happen. But also Augustin—who jumped into the threesome with that hot lanky other artist dude the same day he decided to move in with his boyfriend, who seems never to have met a shirt with sleeves, who wears all those bracelets—is totally going to be whoring himself out soon enough. Beards are popular, after all.

Chad: Says the guy with a beard.

Facial hair aside, one of my favorite moments was Dom’s conversation with Scott Bakula’s character. I liked the ambiguity of their interest in each other (sex or friendship?). I liked Lynn’s understanding of Dom’s purpose there regardless (as a younger guy cruises Dom: “You should go for it”). And I liked the suggestion of how their age difference dictated completely different experiences. (Dom: “I bet it was cool back then.” Lynn: “Suddenly I feel like I’m 103. But it was, it really was. And then it wasn’t.”)

Bakula suggests so much, including nostalgia for some things lost to time and to middle age: a culture, a camaraderie, a generation. (Also, by the way: Wikipedia tells me Bakula is 59, but his body seems to be in some sort of time-traveling “Quantum Leap” situation.)

I think some people want this show to incorporate a broader spectrum of gay people and experiences (or at least their own specific demographic). This moment suggests the show might get there, but in its own way, on its own time.

Matthew: Scott Bakula is such a great choice for this role. The role he played on the well-written, prematurely cancelled “Men of a Certain Age” had him play an actor who was grappling with fading youth and the unlikeliness of professional success and while the character he plays in “Looking” is very different, it’s also similar in a lot of ways. He just has this face that resonates with a bit of a forced smile that covers a certain amount of sad but peaceful resignation.  

This is not really about what we’re talking about here but—and maybe this has to do with my painfully strict upbringing—but can I just say, it’s so repellant to me when Patrick talks as he shovels unreasonable amounts of food in his mouth. There was the mac and cheese and the Thai noodles. I will admit that it plays into his anxiety really well and hints at his tendency towards being frenetically adolescent but god, it’s gross.  

Sam: I can’t say I noticed the way Patrick eats, but it sounds like the makings of an awesome GIF series.

Dom and Lynn’s conversation in the bathhouse was a highlight for me. Much was said in such little dialogue—“And then it wasn’t.” Lynn’s fond recollection of a time when anonymous sex wasn’t so anonymous had me wishing that’s the way things were now—and wondering if it really was like that? The cold and quiet moments Dom has leading up to his interaction with Lynn were an empty kind of familiar, much like Patrick’s OKCupid hunt. When Patrick deleted his account, I was rooting him on. He says to his boss that he can balance work with having a life, but he deletes it anyway—maybe it has more to do with wanting a different kind of connection? 

Jesse: JonathanGroffMessilyEatingCarbs.com? Look, we made a meme.

Bakula was good, and that one line (“It was, it really was. And then it wasn’t.”) was great. Dom is quickly becoming the most interesting character to me, although maybe that has to do with my age and place in life. (It was perhaps a touch demoralizing after the first episode to realize that I’m the same age as the “old” character.) To sound like a bitter old coot for a moment: Patrick and Augustin’s problems are, in a certain way, fundamentally adolescent: I want my boss to like me; I keep going on bad dates; I don’t like being an assistant; do I really have to have sex only with my partner? They’re young; all these things will change and change again. Whereas Dom is grappling with some real shit: This is what my life is, and I’m not happy about that but also don’t know if I can change it. He also provides access to a more varied experience, to long-ago exes you can’t quite shake, to Lynn and a different San Francisco. 

I know he’s mentioned it before, but I didn’t really stop to think until this episode that the restaurant Dom works at is Zuni Cafe. It makes his quick, intra-apartment building tryst with Andrew Keenan-Bolger last week make even more sense: The man knows from good chicken.

Chad: Ba-dum-dum. Well, “It’s the queen of meat, it’s the meat to beat.” See you next week. 

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

Jesse Oxfeld is the publisher of Tabletmag.com and the theater reviewer for The New York Observer, in which capacity he has twice seen Jonathan Groff’s bare tush. He lives in Greenwich Village and tweets at @joxfeld.

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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