Midway through the second (and last) season of HBO’s criminally short-lived series Looking, our favorite gay hypochondriac Patrick (Jonathan Groff) justified his tryst with then-taken Kevin (Russell Tovey) by arguing that Kevin and his boyfriend, John, were in the ruts of their relationship and about to end it anyway. “I know how that sounds, like the worst TV show you’ve ever seen,” Patrick admits to reformed narcissist Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) and, in a weirdly positive way, he’s not very far off the mark.
For all of its 18 episodes, Looking‘s plots lined up with a large swath of typical boilerplate, romantic-drama television that hid a lot of its cliché behind the one thing most people take it for: a gay show. Patrick’s series-long, two suitor dilemma is typical hollywood wish fulfillment – Richie (Raúl Castillo) represents his fear of something new, Kevin his anxiety to connect with someone so similar, both make just enough sense to keep you guessing. But the show, and now Looking: The Movie debuting Saturday on HBO, works and guts its fans because of the way its frustrating, approachable characters work in tandem with creator Michael Lannan’s neon-drenched, serenely realized world, all making such glamorous, only-on-TV problems feel completely ordinary.
Those fans will be happy to know that the show’s 90-minute coda does essentially everything it needs to do. This ranges from offering closure on running gags (is Patrick’s wallet-chain-wearing co-worker really gay? Tune in!) to tying up relationships of various side characters that essentially came to the forefront as fan favorites, a.k.a. Doris (Lauren Weedman) who’s still this gay show’s secret straight weapon, and her lovable, willing to cross-dress boyfriend Malik (Bashir Salahuddin). There’s a lot to do in 90 minutes (84 if we’re being technical), so minor characters like Malik are mostly set-dressing, but Lannan and co-writer Andrew Haigh weaponize Doris as effectively as ever.
She’s facing major decisions, like all of these 30- and 40-something characters are, but at an intriguingly late life stage. She can still twist the knife into anyone – “I love it when gays argue with other gays about who’s better at being gay; it’s awesome” – but she’s also the most adjusted of everyone, so it works when she can stop and cleverly begrudge Dom (Murray Bartlett) for fearfully choosing work over a relationship after the fiasco with Lynn (Scott Bakula).
Everyone’s still on the top of their game here, especially Alvarez as the turned-around potential rent boy, who was easy to loathe in season 1 of the show and is entirely endearing in the new movie. His central crises of becoming a mainstream gay, and everything else he raged against in college, is simple but succinctly effective. Likewise, Eddie (Daniel Franzese) is forever a delight, as is Castillo, who always clicks best with the writing’s languid, understated dialogue. Patrick is still (slightly) a frustrating mess, but there’s an anything-for-love, more realistic Ted Mosby-ness granted to him by Groff, which pretty consistently trumps his dumber decisions. They – and San Francisco itself – are shot with an ethereal, still beauty that immediately evokes the unique look of the episodes that have come before.
On the down side, Bartlett is maybe the least of Looking: The Movie‘s concerns, which is especially disappointing after he and Bakula intermittently dominated the second season with rich subplots about open relationships and fighting a necessary need to find a partner or end up alone. Patrick, young as he is, mirrors some of those concerns when his entire life comes to a head in one return-trip weekend to San Francisco. In one of the best, briefest scenes in the movie, Doris assures him that loneliness isn’t permanent, no matter how infinite it feels in the moment.
That’s one of Looking: The Movie‘s best assets; there’s an undercurrent of melancholy and poignancy surrounding Patrick’s return to the city, from which he’s been gone for 9 months because of a work opportunity at a virtual reality video game company in Denver. That’s what he says, but everyone knows it’s because of his fallout with Kevin. His arc of accepting that is really interesting to watch, especially considering the subtle, natural chemistry shared between Groff and both Castillo and Tovey, but the script doesn’t skimp on reminding you that this is the end.
Throughout the movie, characters talk about growing old together, love is professed, accepted, and (most maturely) put in the past, wedding bells for one couple surface some holy-crap-we’re-growing-up jitters for the entire group. Like the series, Looking: The Movie finds a lot of engaging drama from conversations that have a relaxing, ping-pong vibe, which can (and usually do) potentially swerve into bitchy blow-ups in milliseconds. It’s an endearingly low-key film, and a little meandering, but not without tension. This time around that’s mostly in the form of Richie’s new beau Brady (Chris Perfetti), who still sends unfortunate digs Patrick’s way when he’s plastered.
Most of the other epic palavers are between the usual suspects (a coffee shop meet-up between Kevin and Patrick is as stinging as anything from the show’s previous run), but there’s still time for some new characters that showcase Lannan and Haigh’s ability to create interesting people from tiny details.
In an early-on hook-up (which Groff referred to as his “most intense sex scene ever” and it’s easy to see why), Patrick’s nameless new friend rocks an Action Comics t-shirt, works at Zynga for the free Reese’s Pieces, and references his abundant boyfriend back-catalogue, which he’s acquired at a ripe 22. That’s not only a succinct burst of fun-to-watch character building, but a fascinating personal spiral for Patrick’s introvert side to hold onto. Would your life have been better if you came out at 16? Could you have had better relationships? Less of a fear of sex? The questions feel simultaneously broad enough for mass relatability and uniquely, controversially Looking.
But that’s the thing about the series, which Lannan has carried over into his movie – it’s never been a show built around exploring controversy or gaysplaining blowjobs from strangers in parks. It’s showcased interesting, LGBT topics before – particularly that of HIV positive relationships and, in last season’s twist, a tendency for the gay community to readily accept open relationships – but it felt like moments that were stumbled upon, not written as manifesto on the show’s pitch bible. Series critics have feared for its potential to minimize large issues, but how could it be one show’s problem to solve hatred in a world – and a year – that’s undoubtedly made it hard for closeted people to feel safe?
Looking: The Movie continues this construct, placing it in the neighborhood of gay entertainment (most scenes do admittedly take place at pulsing, sweaty night clubs), while straddling the universality of romance. Are gay people identified solely by their preferred sexual position? (“You come out and everyone is like, oh so you like butt sex now?” Is still my favorite line from this show). Or is it their moment of coming out? Their manner of speech? Looking: The Movie deals in ideas and issues that are undoubtedly gay-specific, but the emotions run far wider than its LGBT agenda. That’s understandably a point of contention for anyone really looking for personal representation and not finding it in Looking‘s narrow, out-of-the-closet, low-BMI, older male leads. But it’s also a noble move on Lannan and Haigh’s part, and a modern TV show at the end of the day; their new movie essentially punctuates the notion that they don’t intend to ever apologize for their creation.
Similarly, it’s especially rewarding when they keep true to the show’s subdued legacy in other aspects, and fade to black on Looking: The Movie‘s very own, dialogue free “You had me at hello.” That’s the point that drives home the frustration with HBO’s ultimate decision: Looking never sought out a status as an important or pivotal entry in the pantheon of television. It just did its own thing, to the chagrin of haters and enthusiasm of viewers who were either in it for the slight weaving of gay politics or simply wanted to hang out with Patrick, Dom, and Agustin around San Francisco for a few hours.
Those who did stick around got the chance to glimpse tiny, truthful moments that do what all good fiction should: justify and reassure that any one experience or belief or idea or action is not singular, it’s shared. Even though it might not have been created for it, Looking could potentially serve as that cornerstone for someone discovering the show down the line, who connects – even in a sense they might not understand – with the furtive, throwaway moments that haven’t become habitual in their own life yet. For a story so preoccupied with being ordinary, it should be awarded – and remembered – for even just being occasionally extraordinary.
Nuanced, compact, and unapologetically romantic (not to mention steamy), Looking: The Movie is everything fans of the series will want from a curtain call that should have ultimately been much farther down the road than this.