It’s been a while since I’ve felt the kind of butterflies that Jim and Pam gave me in the early seasons of The Office, but Looking has now done that for two relationships in four episodes. Not to undervalue the writing, performances, and direction, but that’s the power of seeing yourself on screen. Now about that, about finally having a new gay-centric romance on television, “Looking For $220/Hour” feels like the moment before a band breaks up, like Yoko Ono’s been whispering to Patrick that this is his story. We only know what’s going with Agustín to the extent that he’ll tell (or otherwise reveal himself to) Patrick. Dom gets a couple cutaways to prove he’s still breathing. There’s this new guy, Hugo, on drums. And what would Doris say about her representation? She’s a reversal of the gay sidekick trope, a straight woman in a gay world presented as all sarcasm and no humanity. Which is only funny for a couple episodes.
Now I share a sad amount in common with Patrick, and his story is the funniest, swooniest one so far, but I’m pretty curious about everyone else. Frank seems like fun. What’s he up to all day? Still, there’s something to the show clinging to Patrick, beyond first-season jitters. Agustín says the Folsom Street Fair is too gay for Patrick, by which he means too flamboyant, too rebellious, too dangerous in a way. In fact, when nice, safe Kevin walks in on Patrick in a leather vest and no shirt and much arms, it’s played as an embarrassment. Patrick wearing that leather vest is a risk. Similarly, the show keeps the walls up between Patrick’s fantasy life and his real one. It’s when it’s not focused on cute, comfortable Kevin in the red button-down that it delivers rentboys in jockstraps, diarrhea, and full frontal cock (and tits, y’all, can’t have cock without tits). Which is to say, real life, risk, danger. Dom’s out actually trying to change his life, ergo the episode has no time for him. Eventually Patrick’s fantasy crumbles and he puts himself out there with Richie. Perhaps that’s a sign the episodes will start to live a little, too.
So with apologies to the Agustíns and Doms of the world, set everyone else aside for now. This is about Patrick and Kevin and—surprise!—Richie. The episode doesn’t exactly recapitulate Patrick’s choice from the premiere, but isn’t this whole series basically about the split between what Patrick thinks he wants—in this case a dot-com billionaire butt buddy (Agustín’s words)—and what he really wants—once again represented by cute, unpretentious Richie? Structurally, “Looking For $220/Hour” goes from flirting to pining to dancing to kissing with all the sparks that implies. The twist is that progression covers two different relationships.
Now, I don’t work at a hip, West Coast videogame-design company with tasteful splashes of color and hammock chairs, but it seems to me Kevin crosses all kinds of lines with Patrick. There is foremost the fact that Kevin is Patrick’s boss. It’s easy to ignore that Kevin has firing power over Patrick from where I’m sitting—watching two cute boys laugh incredibly awkwardly—but just last week Kevin was looking into Patrick’s web history just to mess with him. (This episode is chock full of actors pretending things are funny, which might be exactly what it looks like when two people would really rather be kissing, and it’s not that distracting given this is the funniest episode yet.) There is also the fact that Kevin has a boyfriend of two years, the poor unseen—well, let’s not say his name just yet. Next, Kevin is, unconsciously or not, placing higher demands on Patrick’s time and work, first by letting him come in on a Sunday to finish an unfinishable assignment at all, then by seeing up close and personal the good time Patrick is meant to be having on “what seems like a gay national holiday” and still letting him send his friends away to get back to the task of finishing that unfinishable assignment. Just because Patrick likes Kevin doesn’t mean Kevin isn’t taking advantage of him.
Absolutely none of which enters my head while I’m watching Patrick and Kevin flirt and get their hopes up and try not to show what they’re really thinking. This episode is all about the faces. We’re trained on Patrick while Kevin answers the question about his distant boyfriend. His eyes start to glaze over while Kevin defends the boyfriend, but he comes back to life when Kevin admits that long-distance relationships are hard. He beams when Kevin talks about getting used to an absent boyfriend and having to re-acclimate to his presence. Patrick clearly like-likes Kevin. He’s energized by him, whereas he’s a little lethargic at the fair. For Kevin, it’s not so obvious, at least not at first. I really enjoy getting to know other gay people even when I’m not romantically interested in them, and Kevin is new in town. But look at Kevin’s behavior. When his boyfriend calls, he prioritizes Patrick by showing him instead of answering. That’s when we find out his name is John. He’s not only real now; he’s here. Kevin gets dressed as he prepares to leave, and then he gets kind of tender, one might say boyfriendy, and asks, “Are you hungry? Can I bring something back for you?” That night after his boyfriend’s gone to sleep and he’s alone in the office with Patrick, he talks about the sex appeal of pecs.
And then comes the biggie. Kevin wants to order fried chicken because John won’t let him have it. Patrick says, “Really?” with his mouth but, “Don’t bring him here,” with his face. And that’s his cue to leave. He finally sees it the way Agustín sees it: Kevin gets to flirt with Patrick all day and go home at night to John. This time we’re trained on Kevin and his face melts from mischievous to protesting way too much. Go home, Patrick, sure, take a week off, totally cool, here’s a raise, nothing to be embarrassed about here. His brain is still working. He can still think of clever things to say as Patrick leaves, but there’s no denying the look on his face. I don’t know if he’d truly considered what’s going on before, but now it’s clear. He likes Patrick, and Patrick is leaving him. He can barely smile. Context aside, who hasn’t felt that?
Patrick meets up with his friends at the bar to pretend like they matter for a couple minutes, and there he spots Richie, the camera struggling to refocus on a man just 20 feet away. Doris shows up and takes all the guys off to dance, except we’re still watching Patrick at the bar. He’s staring, smiling at his friends until he sees Richie, at which point the camera moves dramatically in on him. He doesn’t even notice that Frank is still there practically grinding on him. Patrick whines that he can’t go say hi because Richie never responded to his texts. Baby steps. Frank plays Anna to his Seth Cohen: “Perseverance!” Now we’re a little behind Patrick at the bar, looking at him in profile, on the left side facing leftward. Suddenly the camera breaks the 180-degree rule and Patrick is on the right side facing rightward. He’s smiling, too. The episode is directed by Ryan Fleck, he of the shakycam American neo-realist wave, but the move is no accident. It’s a jarring reorientation.
Given what follows, it’s simplistic to say that Patrick is rewarded for putting aside his fantasy for reality. Richie puts him through the wringer, letting Patrick flap awkwardly in the breeze, telling his buddy something inaudible (presumably, “This is the guy who saw my penis and said, ‘Huh,’ and then chuckled that it’s no big deal”). But Richie can’t help himself. He must really have a thing for blue eyes. We pivot around Richie’s face through the last bit of awkwardness when Patrick asks if he should leave and suddenly they’re dancing close. There are about three Looking-style mid-scene endings in quick succession: First we cut before Richie explicitly agrees to take Patrick back, then we cut before they kiss on the dance floor, and finally we cut before, uh, they kiss on the dance floor again. Still, it lands because that last cut is final. Now who gets to flirt all day with one guy and then go back to another? The scene doesn’t measure up to the Erasure dance, but that might have something to do with the real life here. This is decidedly not the first flush of romance. Patrick and Richie still feel tentative toward each other. Notice also that sweaty club complexion goes better with an ebullient, strobe-lit push through the crowd than a slow, tender pan upward. Still, even while I have all these romantic feelings toward the bad idea of Kevin, Patrick is making good decisions. Just in time to see Agustín make some bad ones.
- “Looking For $220/Hour” is written by Allan Heinberg, whom you may know from Young Avengers but whom I know as an early writer for The O.C. whose script credits include “The Nana.” Also, this episode stars Honey Mahogany as herself.
- Since I vented all kinds of hopes and guesses for the series this week, I’ll say that I haven’t seen any future episodes yet.
- So Agustín hires CJ the rentboy presumably for another threesome with Frank, only Frank doesn’t know Agustín’s paying him? Is that what’s going on here?
- Agustín is obsessed with the sex vs. intimacy question, personally putting up another tentpole in this running theme, but it’s really one of the least interesting parts of Looking. One can have sex without intimacy, one can have intimacy without sex, one can have both, one can have neither. The rooting interest I guess is to get Patrick to accept that they’re not necessarily connected and to get Agustín to accept that they they’re not necessarily separate. First of all, duh. Second of all, couldn’t this time be better spent watching Dom get dressed for the Folsom Street Fair?
- Oh, that’s right, Dom denies himself the fair in order to get this once-in-a-lifetime lunch with Lynn the florist. Boo, writers.
- As for that lunch, Lynn used to be a loan officer, yada yada yada, he might know some investors if Dom can get a business plan together. Notice too how Lynn is experienced enough not to indulge the fantasy. When Dom offers to cook him dinner, he just laughs. “What are you doing? You’re not interested in me.”
- The moments when Doris is not entirely sarcastic are the best. In fact, she’s the one who tries to be cool when Kevin walks in on them at Patrick’s office.
- Although I have to mention that she says Patrick in a black polo under the leather vest looks like her Uncle Tom from Reno. Unless they know her Uncle Tom, I’m calling that another example of the show’s spot-on use of city competition, because first of all that does fulfill some kind of unconscious Reno stereotype and second of all these people wear San Francisco like a designer label.
- Given the mountain of evidence against him as a romantic candidate, I want to clarify the attractiveness of Kevin. There are all the superficial things which you can fill in yourself and aren’t all that superficial, but also irresistible are the way he starts mock bobbing to the beat and how he gears up to say yes (that he’d be more comfortable at the Folsom Street Fair) but then turns it into a no. If he weren’t Patrick’s boss, given the state of things with Richie, I’d be rooting for him to break up with John and date Patrick.
- Kevin says it’s hard to have his job and have a boyfriend. Which is a very Patrick answer (excuse) if you ask me.
- I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Kevin’s underwear showing when he falls out of the hammock chair. He really has been caught in flagrante.
- Patrick asks Doris about his leather vest,“You think I should Scotchgard it in case I get ejaculated on?”
- Agustín: “Sorry, I’m being horrible. Must be the meat.”