Looking at “Looking”: How gay is this show?


Chad Kaydo: The gentlemen of “Looking” seem to make some progress toward their newfound goals in the fourth episode, “Looking for $220 an Hour.” Also we get to see the arm muscles that Jonathan Groff has been hiding under all those hoodies. So, congratulations all around.

Groff-as-Patrick starts the episode holed up at work on a Sunday, flirting with his new British boss, Kevin, until Kevin’s long-distance-boyfriend calls to say he has arrived in town. Patrick heads to meet Agustin and Doris at the Folsom Street Fair, where Agustin sees C.J., the sex worker friend he met last week, who is apparently becoming his muse. C.J. also offers a bite of sausage at lunch to the vegetarian Agustin, which leads to some uncomfortable bathroom time for Agustin (and symbolism).

Also: Doris gets a leather bustier, and Patrick acts uncomfortable wearing a leather vest.

Meanwhile, Dom meets up with Lynn, the older florist he met in a bathhouse last week, to look for advice in opening his restaurant. He also offers to come over and cook so Lynn can taste his chicken, which leads to some uncomfortable Scott Bakula time (and symbolism).

Later, Patrick gets back to work with Kevin, until Kevin suggests they get dinner—he’s craving fried chicken, which his boyfriend won’t let him eat at home—which leads to some uncomfortable I-must-be-strong time for Patrick (and symbolism).

Patrick suggests they call it a night, puts his leather vest back on, and heads to meet Agustin and company out at a bar, where he spots Richie, the unexpectedly circumcised stylist he offended in bed a couple episodes ago. After an awkward but seemingly genuine apology, they’re on the dance floor looking like Patrick might get another shot.

Gentlemen, what did you think? Did we learn anything new about these characters based on their appetites for leather gear and/or various types of meat? 

Jesse Oxfeld: Why $220 an hour?

That’s the thing that’s been bothering me. I’m not familiar, alas, with the going rates for the companionship for a handsomely bearded fellow—though now that I think about it, perhaps the lushly whiskered man at Marie’s Crisis last night would have been more responsive had I offered cash—but doesn’t that seem like an oddly specific figure? Two hundred dollars an hour would make more sense, or perhaps $250. Do you think C.J. started at $200 and then raises his rates 10 percent each year, as my mother’s cleaning lady does? Was there a lot of market research that went into setting that price? Or is it just a price-elasticity thing—at $215 he found there were more people who wanted sex with him than orgasms he’s capable of having and at $225 there weren’t quite enough men to fill his dance card? I fear this is a mystery of “Looking” to which we shall never know the answer.

Another mystery: It appears that Agustin, who has become besotted with C.J., and whether muse-ily or hornily remains to be seen, is going to pay him $220 an hour to watch him and maybe follow him and somehow, nonspecifically, make art about him. Agustin is an unemployed former artist’s assistant, and those hours will inevitably add up. How does he plan to pay for this? Or is that the point here, that this is what’s going to lead him to start selling himself? It’s not quite “The Gift of the Magi,” whoring yourself to pay for your whore—excuse me, sex-working yourself to pay your sex worker—but I’d still like to think O. Henry would be proud.

And now for my twist ending: Having talked so much about Agustin and C.J. here, you’ll have to wait till later in the conversation for my takes on the others. (Gasp!)

Chad: Jesse, I don’t understand economics, but I learned the most likely answer from you—also re: cleaning ladies: With $220, he doesn’t have to break a twenty and make change.

Jesse: $250 = five $50s!

Chad: We’re going to different ATMs.

Matthew Phillp: It was the lack of the shoveling of food into Patrick’s mouth that struck me this week. The fact that Patrick decided NOT to shovel fried chicken into his mouth while maintaining a conversation with his boss was a loudly resonating point about Patrick making healthier decisions both about his body and his soul. So, there was that—and that is what struck me before anything else did.  

Speaking of Patrick’s body: I think we reached fever pitch with Patrick’s feigned awkwardness about going shirtless. Oh, what a difficult time it was for Patrick as he was forced to take off his shirt and reveal his awkward, stunning body…after randomly purchasing a leather vest that had to have cost several hundred dollars. Both those things struck me as odd and unfeasible. I mean, maybe people do just go and buy leather at the drop of a hat but leather isn’t cheap! These characters don’t strike me as people that are inordinately well-off. Whatever, though, the leather being expensive thing isn’t that important.

I did find the ending with Patrick talking to Richie sort of bizarre as well. He’s this awkward guy who walks into a bar and suddenly has this moment with a guy he went on one and a half dates with. The emotional depth of that interaction felt sort of implausible. 

I think Agustin, as a character, becomes more unbearable every week—which is not to say that he’s acted or written badly—it’s just that that kind of smug, self righteous, essentially delusional person who demands you prop up their self esteem by spiritually subjugated everyone they meet annoys me in real life. I doubt there will be any kind of dimension given to C.J.’s character, which could be a shame but then, this isn’t “Game of Thrones”: there’s only really room for like four plot lines here—and it’s obvious that Agustin is about to fall into something that will destroy or at least damage his relationship. If this show is building to a critique or a takedown of that kind of person then I’m all for it and I think that’s a really smart plot line for this show to develop.

Sam Wineman: Despite Agustin’s downward spiral of unlikability, one of my favorite moments this week happened as a result of his post-toilet outburst. Um. Post-toilet verbal outburst. When Patrick blames his lack of experience on not having met the right person yet and “not wanting to compromise,” Agustin says, “All you do is compromise.” It’s harsh, and to steal from Matthew’s description, smug and self-righteous, but maybe it’s because of its delivery that Patrick can hear it. He doesn’t compromise when he realizes Kevin’s emotional affair with him “isn’t going anywhere.”

And yes, I have to agree about Patrick being shy about his body…no one with those pecs has to be pressured into taking his shirt off. Isn’t that the moment he’s working out for? Or are we to believe his arms developed that way from playing all those videogames? The Naval Destroyer controllers must be heavy. Those aren’t arms that hide; those are arms that have their own Instagram.

Jesse: The man with whom I’ve been having a frustrating and unattainable emotional affair for nearly six months—I sort of fell in love with him, and I’m pretty sure he sort of fell in love with me, but he’s set to marry someone else; it’s like “Casablanca” but gay and without the fate of Europe in the balance (see why I liked this episode?)—reports that he regularly sees Groff in the Chelsea Crunch, working very hard to get himself in shape for he didn’t know what. Apparently, this.

Sam: Maybe I should drop by with some mac and cheese.

Chad: Related: I’m making a mistake by only going to the Crunch at the end of my block.

So New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz recently called the show “quietly revolutionary,” and wrote that “Patrick and his friends are people first, men second, gay men third (maybe fourth, if they’ve got something else going on that week).” (The review that ran online makes some of the same points, but is different from the print version.)

What do you guys think? Do you find gayness to be an essential quality of these characters? And do you think their actions and predicaments this week were intrinsically tied to their sexuality in some way?

Sam: This week’s conflicts aren’t limited to a single orientation; Patrick’s mutual flirtation with his unavailable boss, Agustin’s complicated exchanges with a sex worker, and Dom’s business-or-pleasure restaurant meeting could easily be written straight.

While their predicaments aren’t directly related to their gayness, there is no question that being gay is an essential part of these characters. One thing the show does well is it weaves identity into the story as one of many parts rather than having identity serve as the primary conflict. We don’t have to follow another TV character out of the closet, watch the world accept/reject someone for his or her orientation, or cry to another too-beautiful-for-this-world tragedy. This is different. This writing doesn’t feel heavy with the burden of telling the gay story. It just wants to tell the stories of these three gay men.

Matthew: Yes, I agree with Sam. I don’t think these are fundamentally gay characters, the nuances that make up their development are human nuances. I think that what makes the show interesting is that it’s a slow burner that features subtle nuances. You really can’t do that kind of thing successfully if you’re trying to make a social point about sexual orientation. Even the increasingly trying Agustin with all his insistent politicized queerness is really an example of someone who aligns themselves with a belief system not unlike religion in order to cope with life. There’s something really universal about that. Having said that, I think gay people probably see cultural fragments in these characters and the setting, etc. that are familiar to them that pass straight people by. 

Jesse: Of course these are fundamentally gay characters. That’s the point of the series, and especially the point of this episode. (I’m not totally up on San Francisco mores, but I suspect the population of straight yuppies who cut out of work to swing by Folsom wouldn’t fill a cable car.) What’s interesting—to Seitz (to Zoller Seitz?), and to us, and about which I think we’re all in agreement—is precisely that their gayness is fundamental, which is to say foundational, and not characterological. It’s who they are, and therefore informs everything they do, but it doesn’t need to be a specifically signposted thing in every scene or arc or episode. That’s what’s revolutionary here—the whole thing is actually sort of revolutionarily traditional. (Chad, I believe C.J. is the Sue Ann Nivens you’re looking for.)

So while so much of what goes on is in fact universal and human, it’s always gay-tinged. Sure, Patrick’s boss flirtation and Dom’s florist sorta-flirtation could have been straight scenes as easily as gay ones. (Let’s leave aside Agustin’s hooker-with-a-beard-of-gold fetish here.) But the is-this-a-date dilemma is, I’ve long argued, a uniquely gay one. We’ve all met some nice, fun guy—a coworker, a friend of a friend, an older fellow bathhouse patron—and made plans to meet for drinks, unsure of whether those are new-friend drinks or first-date drinks. This doesn’t happen to straight people: The only way straight guys make drinks plans with a girl they’ve recently met is to make it a date. (Men and women can’t really be friends, I’m told, because the sex part always gets in the way.) Lynn’s joke/confusion over lunch (“So this isn’t a date?”), Dom’s potential mixed feelings about Lynn (it wasn’t a date, but he kind of wants to spend more time with him), to a lesser extent Patrick’s am-I-bonding-with-my-boss-or-flirting-with-my-boss, they’re all #gaypeopleproblems.

It also made me really pleased with Lynn, for shutting down Dom’s attempts at quasi/professional flirtation, and with Patrick, for turning down Kevin’s dinner invitation. Because I never have the strength to say no to those things. 

Matthew: I get what you’re saying. I just don’t know that I can accept that straight people don’t experience these problems. My younger brother, for example, is straight and has, since he was a little boy, consistently been best friends with smart, fabulous women with whom he is not romantically involved.

Sam: It is absolutely possible for a straight guy to form a relationship with a woman and have it never move beyond friends—that’s where “just friends” comes from, right? It’s not just an incredibly underrated movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Amy Smart? But that said, I have to agree with Jesse—the act of a man asking a woman out for drinks is less ambiguous. It’s coded as romantic. Same goes for the word “dinner.” True story: My last three dates were with a guy who didn’t think they were dates. I actually had to have a Lynn moment and ask. Talk about relating.

Chad: This is what’s so interesting about the show to me: Many of the situations could happen with straight characters, but as written here, a lot of the texture of the show is pretty gay. It’s just not explicitly gay, or gay in the way we might expect. Bathhouse meetings and fetish gear aside, what I find gayest about the show is its observation of the smaller bits of what we might call gay culture—not Joan Crawford movies or Beyonce remixes, but a style of interaction specific to (some) homosexual men.

That includes Jesse’s #gaypeopleproblems. The date/not date issue is absolutely something I recognized here. I was also struck by the tone of Patrick and Kevin’s conversation about the Folsom Street Fair. How often do straight people talk to their bosses about old men masturbating in assless chaps, or joke about getting fisted? Some gay men have a way of slipping into graphic sexual conversations with acquaintances, often as a way of signaling—by my reading—”Hey, we’re in the same club.” Once, in a work-related chat with someone I didn’t know well, he casually mentioned his desire to perform a certain sexual act on Adam Levine. The comment’s out-of-the-blueness shocked me more than its blueness. (I mean, I wouldn’t have chosen that particular act, but Levine is cute.)

I also recognized the way Patrick and Kevin watched the proceedings from a distance—simultaneously acknowledging and denying their interest in what was on display. They’re part of this community, but not. It’s perhaps not unlike some gay men’s “It’s boring!” reaction to the show itself.

I’m not sure if these are the type of “cultural fragments” Matthew referred to, but I think these observations enrich the show for gay viewers, but pass by straight people who can still identify with having a crush on your boss. Which is an interesting balance to strike. It’s relatable for straight folks (OK, not the ones with “God hates fags” signs in the back of the pickup truck), but it doesn’t sand away the interesting parts of the characters that make me recognize them from my own life.

So what do we think of Dom’s time with Lynn? Dom says it’s not a date, he just wants help with the restaurant, but when he offers to cook for Lynn, he seems genuinely interested in spending time together. Where are we headed here? 

Sam: I wouldn’t say Dom is all that interested—yet. The seeds have been planted, yes, and the way he lingered after saying goodbye to Lynn indicated there is something more at play. But I think that, for the most part, Dom is selling himself and his skill set to Lynn. He doesn’t yet know exactly how Lynn will help him but he recognizes a door when he sees one, hence the chicken.

As we saw from past episodes, Dom is very direct when it comes to men he’s interested in and I don’t see why it would be different with Lynn. That said, just because he didn’t order it this episode doesn’t mean it’s off his menu. I just think the root to his flirting, at this point, is self-interest. When something real does begin to develop, count on it getting muddy. 

Matthew: If there’s anything interesting about Dom’s character at all, at this point, it’s that he’s friends with Doris AND that he represents a struggle to come to terms with the subtle, consistent mortal decline that befalls us all.

Murray Bartlett (who I’ve known in real life for years) is such a good choice for this role because if you look at everything else he’s ever done, he always plays some variation on the strikingly handsome, accomplished, almost impossibly perfect guy who has a hidden flaw if he has one at all. The role that springs to mind immediately for me is when he played the alpha male Australian in “Flight of the Conchords”—where he’s the sparkling nemesis to Brett and Germaine’s bumbling idiocy. It’s great that, here, he’s playing a guy who has always enjoyed a certain, effortless, probably oblivious confidence his entire adult life because of his looks and now he is dealing with it falling away and that is gradually but steadily unseating him in a way that is clearly disorienting. It toys with and refers to something the actor himself could be dealing with in real life (although, ironically, I suspect that may not be the case what with landing this series and also landing a major Coca-Cola commercial where he plays a macho football player) and it explains why he’s so tone deaf when it comes to Lynn, who possibly represents a healthy version of what happens if you manage to age gracefully. That Dom is trying to connect with Lynn bodes well for his character. 

Jesse: And I think Dom doesn’t quite know what he wants from/with Lynn. He ruled him out as a potential date from the very beginning: As good as Scott Bakula looked in a towel, he was simply too old. But Dom’s also clearly taken with him, with his role in the community, with his small-business success, I think with his confidence and comfort in himself, probably also with that sharp chin and those hazel eyes. He tells himself he’s seeking out the older man for advice and mentorship. But he also likes spending time with him, wants to cook him dinner. I think he’s attracted to him, even if he doesn’t so much want to be attracted to him, even if he hasn’t yet acknowledged it. (Or maybe I’m just projecting all of this? I have a long and accomplished history of interest in unavailable men; see above.) This—and Doris, obvi—is why I keep finding Dom the most interesting character.

Chad: Bartlett and Bakula play all of those possibilities too. Their scenes made me as nervous as some of Patrick’s past awkward moments, but because I couldn’t suss out the differences between what each man says he wants, thinks he wants, and really wants.  

Thanks, guys. You’re all so great I should douse you in gasoline. But I’m off to shop for a new “leather casual” look.

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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