Looking at “Looking”: Is It OK to Laugh About a “Gay Voice”?

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Chad Kaydo: How do you celebrate a 40th birthday? On “Looking,” it seems, you bring together almost everyone who has ever appeared on the show in Dolores Park, and stir the pot a bit on their various storylines.

Gentlemen, let’s start with Patrick. He opens the episode not-quite-on-purpose calling Richie his boyfriend, later looks embarrassed to have his boss and his boss’s hunky sports doctor boyfriend hear Richie is a hairdresser, gets chewed out by Agustin (“You’re slumming, and it ain’t cute”), and then invites a wounded, justifiably upset Richie to his sister’s wedding. This is not going to end well, is it?

Matthew Phillp: I’m inclined to attribute at least some of Patrick’s obliviousness about behaving inappropriately when his boss shows up and Richie comes over to naivete rather than embarrassment. He is, after all, socially awkward and suffers from anxiety on some level. That scene served to illustrate the cultural divide between the two of them that will obviously be the cause of future conflict and possibly the ultimate demise of the relationship though. Just when you think Patrick is making progress, it’s not hard to see how the medium to longterm will play out between him and Richie. I also think this episode brought more depth to Richie, which I’m glad about.  

Sam Wineman: Let’s hope Richie is a better fit for Patrick than that itchy scapular. He seems to be the only character on the show capable of telling Patrick the truth. 

Did anyone else cringe when Patrick was kissing him toward the end? He wasn’t listening, wasn’t reading his body language. Patrick’s solution—introducing Richie to his family a few weeks into dating—feels like he just doesn’t get it.

And speaking of not getting it, can I just mention what a miserable wet blanket Agustin has continued to be? Patrick needs to stand up to this guy already, but something tells me he won’t anytime soon. He’s going to blow it with Richie, which wouldn’t be the worst thing since it seems like Richie may be a little too good for him.

Jesse Oxfeld: So here’s the thing: Patrick is an awful character. He’s dull, he’s boring, he’s whiny and entitled and blows up his entirely banal problems into Issues, which they’re not. That, I’ve come to realize, is my problem with this show; when I don’t care about the protagonist, it’s hard to care much about the series. Agustin is a pretentious ass, sure. But Patrick’s just having a pleasant little fling with an unambitious hairdresser, and he’s making such a kvetchy big deal about it.

All that said, the class/status issue is a real thing, and I think it’s being treated well. Several years ago, I went on some dates with a guy who was a Houston’s waiter. I made a similar sort of comment—“Well, he’s a singer and an actor, and he’s just waiting tables while he auditions”—and he later on told me that he seriously considered not even speaking to me again after I said that. So, no, this is not going to end well. (The actor/waiter is a corporate lawyer now, living with his boyfriend in the East Village. Nice for him, right?)

Matthew: I don’t know—I don’t think Patrick is boring—he’s immature and clueless and he does blow up banal problems into major Issues—but I sort of feel like that’s because of his propensity towards anxiety though. I find that kind of interesting. 

I totally agree about the class thing. It’s a very real thing and I’m glad they’re exploring it.

Chad: I’m wondering what you guys thought about the conversation about how “gay” Patrick’s voicemail message sounds, and his exaggerated mincing in response. 

This felt a little ballsy in that I’m sure some people will be offended by it. (I expect I’ll read commentary calling the characters “self-hating” this week, and I expect I’ll be annoyed at the oversimplification.)

It felt real to me. I’ve had conversations with my core group of guy friends about how effeminate each of us is or isn’t, and while there’s some ribbing implied in calling someone out for being especially “gay” or girly, I’m my girliest self and my most comfortable self when I’m with those same friends. 

I think you can laugh about how a friend is unaware of his swishy walk and still love that he walks that way. You can joke with your friends about this and also refuse on principle to contact anyone who finds it important to label himself as “masc” on the various digital platforms where we meet other gentlemen. You can support parents who let their sons walk around in tutus, and love a performer who refuses to use traditional gender-specific pronouns, and also still cringe (and laugh!) about the time a Clinique counter lady said “Hello girls” when you walked up with your female cousin.

It’s more complicated than “self-hating,” right?

Matthew: I could almost hear the steam blowing out of the ears of earnest angry commentators when I watched that scene too. I think you can always make the argument that being ashamed of any swishy behavior is always, without exception, inherently self-negating—and it ultimately is—but it just depends on whether you really want to go to that argument ALL the time. People who insist on being militant about that are sort of like members of PETA. You’re not going to argue that their cause is baseless but the way they protest makes it clear that the protest itself is about so much more than just gay or animal rights. 

It really seemed like Patrick was just feeling comfortable—I mean, he pranced about, hamming it up for all his friends, in front of his new boyfriend. I felt like the scene was really written to unseat Patrick in the moments before his boss arrived. 

Can I just point out, also, that his boss arrived and stood there with his arms folded in that way guys who need you to notice their arms do—where they want you to think they’re not pushing their pecs and biceps out but they really are. So, that’s something that happened too.  

Chad: And it worked. I didn’t notice the move so much as the muscles. Seriously, I thought to myself, “I didn’t realize Russell Tovey was that stacked.”

Jesse: Do you typically invite your straight coworker and his girlfriend to your gay best friend’s park-picnic birthday party? Because I can’t quite figure out why Asian Dude was there, except to set up that voicemail bit, which any other character could have set up, too. (Also, who listens to/leaves/talks about voicemail?) 

In any case, to paraphrase Larry David, yes, Patrick is self-hating, but it has nothing to do with being gay. He’s just boring and needy and whiny and self-dramatizing, so of course in the moment when he’s able to let his hair down and camp around with his friends, he’s going to turn it into some whole thing about his boss with the arms and the doctor and blah blah blah. But don’t worry, Chad: He’ll never be the lady you are.

Sam: Confession: for a good portion of last year, my voicemail was a Britney Spears recording from 2000 where she says, “Leave a message at the beep and baby, they’ll call you back one more time.” But that doesn’t make me sound gay, does it?

Patrick’s performance goes on so long it begins to get uncomfortable, but I think it was a choice made to accentuate the awkwardness of his shame with his rather stiff boss. Some of Patrick’s funniest scenes come when he’s caught in an I-swear-this-isn’t-always-me moment and I think this plays to his perception that everyone just has him wrong…even when they don’t. He fears that he sounds “too gay,” so he distances himself from it by going overboard and yet is ultimately seen from afar by his boss acting as what he fears the most. Funniest joke ever? Maybe not. But I don’t think it needed to be.

Chad: OK, let’s talk about Dom. On the night before the party, he has a meeting with Lynn and some potential investor friends who don’t seem very interested in his restaurant. During his birthday party in the park, a guy recognizes him from Grindr and tells him, “You should text me later. My roommates are going to be gone.” But instead he goes to see Lynn, who says his friends won’t fund the next steps, but he will.

Then Dom went in for a kiss, Lynn rebuffed him, and I flashed through so many reactions: They are hot together! They are sweet together! They should do this! They shouldn’t do this! Dom looks so wounded! This is good for him! This is horrible for him! I would like to start a restaurant with Scott Bakula! 

All of which got me thinking: How revolutionary is it that the hottest character on a gay show, the one who seems to have his life together and his priorities straight, is also the oldest? I mean, this is exactly how life should work, but in a subculture that can fetishize youth even more than American culture at large, this is subversive, no? (I mean, Lynn is also ruggedly handsome and has visible abdominal muscles, but we can question one convention at a time, right?)

Matthew: I think that, in addition to the revolutionary fact that the most together gay man on the show is the oldest, the fact that they’re showing a character turn 40 and really stumble around trying to be a functioning human as what has made him feel secure his entire life seems to be slipping away—even if it’s in his own mind—is equally revolutionary.

Dom seems at least somewhat morose about the whole thing but he’s not doing so badly and I like that. He’s not having a complete breakdown, he’s just getting through it, tripping a bit but he still makes essentially healthy decisions. His comment to Lynn about Grindr was a great setup to him deciding to reject the hot 24-year-old in the park, instead deciding to go to Lynn’s place when he doesn’t hear back from the text messages he’s sent. It was a good combination of acting out in a totally unreasonable way—you’re really going to go to his house just because he didn’t text you back immediately?—because maybe Dom has never had much experience with being ignored or rejected, but then he is making the decision to head towards a role model who feels healthy.  

Doris was on fire this week by the way.  

Chad: “You’re so gay fired” was a highlight of my week.

Jesse: Dom remains by far my favorite character on the show. He’s complicated, he’s interesting, he’s dealing with some real shit in his life, and, not for nothing, he provides access to both Doris and Lynn. I thought the Grindr dude in Dolores Park was a bit on-the-nose, but I do like the twinks-vs.-Lynn binary. It’s also nice to see him genuinely considering something that’s real and grown-up and age appropriate, and I think you’re both right that this is a little revolutionary, that the one who might end up being the happiest/best-adjusted character is the one who isn’t worshipping (any longer) at the culture’s temple of youth.

Sam: When Park Grindr guy says to Dom to text him later, it felt to me like that moment was written by someone who doesn’t use Grindr. You don’t “text” someone on Grindr, you message someone on Grindr, right? Maybe it’s just more apparent to me because I’m with Jesse on this one—it was a little too on-the-nose. I get the function that scene served, but it wasn’t very well disguised. 

I’m into Dom and Lynn, though, and I love that Lynn shut down that kiss. Yes, he’s a professional and doesn’t want that to get in the way of things, but I think he’s also too mature to put up with Dom’s mixed messages. I agree about Lynn, though—they are ridiculously hot together.

Jesse: Hey, don’t forget “taking weed,” from Episode 1.

Matthew: Oh, don’t get me wrong—Park Grindr guy was forced and it felt awkwardly convenient, yes.    

Chad: So, in what I think we all agree is the most underwritten storyline of the season, Agustin finally introduces his boyfriend and his hooker friend, who bond over their enjoyment of Cheetos and head home for a threesome. I expect this won’t end well either—probably because that’s always what happens in these situations on screen—but it’s hard to tell what’s really at stake here as written so far, and perhaps hard to care? It’s a shame, because I think an open relationship is something we haven’t seen explored in a smart, unconventional way on TV (murderous politicians aside), but I don’t see that happening here.

Matthew: I’m totally GLAD it’s not going to end well because Agustin needs to be knocked down a few pegs. Sadly, I don’t think Frank will escape being a casualty of Agustin’s absurd life choices though and he seems sweet and supportive. We aren’t going to be able to have a nuanced look at a functioning open relationship in the show at this point because the one open relationship they’re featuring involves Agustin.  

Sam: I agree that it would be interesting territory to explore, but I don’t think what Agustin and Frank have is far enough along to be written as an open relationship any time soon. They are monogamish, yes; agreeing to exceptions together, but I wouldn’t say it’s much more than that. The real drama is that Agustin just paid a prostitute to screw his boyfriend…without telling his boyfriend. Dishonesty will certainly lead to disaster, but I’m just hoping that’s the way it will be written–emphasis on the lie and not the act. I’m a little sick of threesome-shaming stories. A good relationship can define its own boundaries and still thrive, right?

Matthew: I agree—I think that this storyline will be far more interesting if they focus on the lie rather than the act. I mean, they will have to let Agustin have a tantrum about how it’s unfair that things transpired in a way that he doesn’t like despite him setting them up that way, which allows for that storyline a bit. Maybe that’s a way the writers can avoid the topic of a functioning monogamish relationship though. I wonder if that’s the threshold for what can work on a show right now before it becomes too alienating for mainstream culture—to whatever extent this show is considered mainstream.

Jesse: I mean, it’s going to have to be a money thing, right? Agustin has no job and is shelling out $220 per hour for a not insignificant number of hours. He’s going to have to borrow some cash from Frank, or stop paying rent, or something like that. That’s where this is going, I think—which means ultimately it’s not really going to explore the boundaries of this quasi/non-monogamous relationship but instead the boundaries of not working and paying a pricey hooker.

Chad: Which I guess is also something people can relate to? We’ll see next week.  

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