In the grand tradition of a drug dealer telling McNulty, “This America, man,” and Amy Jellicoe shouting at her boss, “I will kill you, motherfucker!” through the closing elevator doors of corporate America, Looking begins like all great HBO dramas with a short framing parable when Jonathan Groff’s Patrick enjoys a four-second handy with a random in the park. The many meanings tangled in the bushes of the scene will doubtlessly reveal themselves as the years pass. For now there is just a young man, a stranger in his pants, an experience around the corner, and an excuse to get out of it gestating in his head.
Actually, that is rather revealing. As “Looking For Now” will demonstrate, Patrick is never more than half-committed, and it starts right there in the park, sexually passive, nervously looking around for anything that would defuse the situation, slobbering an apology for the inexcusable buzzkill of a ringing phone. The one thing on Patrick’s mind is finding a guy, preferably but not necessarily for a long-term relationship, yet he spends most of the episode getting out of meeting men. The only one he’s interested in is a doctor named Benjamin who looks good on paper (or OKCupid as the case may be) but who turns out to be the personification of a Christopher Nolan movie, a humorless accountant who lets an obviously bad thing keep dragging on to the point where he owes his audience money. Meanwhile there’s a flirtation on the bus that Patrick leaves hanging and a harmless park handjob that leaves Patrick hanging. The goal, then, is for Patrick to realize his half-heartedness and open himself up to new opportunities. Chin up! All it takes is a bad date, his ex getting married, and his friend leaving him to wallow in solitude, but Patrick does push himself in the end. Half an hour in and Looking is already violating its press mandate to be the gay Girls.
If there’s a coming-of-age component, that’s because Patrick’s 29-year-old video game designer is the protagonist. The other main characters are a little further along in life, his best friends Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), who has a boyfriend he’s preparing to move in with, and Dom (Murray Bartlett), who has a full decade and a fuller mustache on Patrick. Because each has his own subplot in “Looking For Now,” written by creator Michael Lannan after his short film, “Lorimer,” the episode relies on structure. After Patrick introduces us to the world of awkward sexual experiences, he meets up with the guys for a sped-up evening of blather, and most of the episode takes place over the following day. They get up, first Patrick, then Agustín with his boyfriend Frank (O.T. Fagbenle), then Dom with his roommate Doris (Lauren Weedman). In the same order they go to work, which is really a prelude to a hook-up: Patrick moons over his OKCupid doctor to a straight friend, Agustín gets a strapping young assistant on an art project, Dom inquires after (checks out) a new kid at the restaurant who advises him to give out positive vibes. From there everyone gets down to business in the same order. Patrick goes on his date while Agustín and Frank have a more casual encounter with the assistant Scotty, and Dom flirts with his new object. Most importantly, a fellow passenger named Richie flirts with Patrick in transit between two embarrassments, his failed date and his failed relationship.
With such grounded subject matter, what stands out is the rhyming structure. When Richie mistakenly believes Patrick to be a doctor because he accidentally takes Benjamin’s business card (Benjamin and Patrick swap cards first thing, because, again, Dr. Ben is the dullest man in California), Richie gets cheeky. “That’s good, ’cause, I need some taking care of.” Cut to Dom asking his new friend out for a drink. “Or we could just go back to your place. I’ll put my positive energy into your universe.” Both Richie and Dom break into enormous grins. No wonder Dom sticks up for Richie when Patrick tells him about his day.
The camerawork reflects the ice breaking, too. Before Dom’s cutaway, Richie and Patrick are shot independently as the editing ping-pongs between them, which is also how the episode painstakingly presents Patrick’s appointment with Ben. Then Dom offers his new friend a taste of something or other, luring him into the same shot. When the episode cuts back to the bus, now it’s the camera swinging back and forth between Richie and Patrick, together in the same shot if not always the same image. Despite Patrick feigning a bit of reluctance, you can really feel Richie winning him over. Things are even more charged when Agustín and company start to hook up, the entire scene told in one shot as the camera explores first the looks among the men and then the contours of Scotty’s body as the chit-chat gives way to more. This isn’t shaggy, shruggy indie naturalism. This is filmmaking that knows what it’s doing. The final shot of Patrick sauntering toward the camera, aligning himself with Richie, their lined tops glowing in the black light, their smiles feeding off the energy, it’s the culmination of the episode, all that scene-to-scene momentum building to this portrait of uncontainable excitement. It’s a rush.
“Looking For Now” is directed by Andrew Haigh, who also executive produces the series. Haigh isn’t usually a director of long-term relationships. He’s best known for 2011’s Weekend, which stews in the exaggerated emotions of a weekend fling, but his older work is similarly in the moment: the impressionistic escort diary Greek Pete, the brief affair of “Cahuenga Blvd.,” the sense memory of a past relationship in “Oil.” “Looking For Now” fits right in. With its meets-cute and is-this-really-happening art-sex, it feels like a series of electric encounters and moody comedowns emphasized by some of Haigh’s visual touchstones, like the butterfly handheld long shots and the abstracted lights in the club. That string of lights is flattened into little dollops of color in a pitch-black room so that Patrick and Dom’s faces are left a slightly lighter shade of black, just visible enough to make out their expressions as they unload their disappointments: “Something awful happened to me at work today. I didn’t get to fuck someone I wanted to fuck.”
Naturally the romantic encounters are begging for teen-magazine breakdowns, especially since we don’t even really know Patrick, Agustín, Dom, and Frank yet. There’s so much to analyze I’d be fired for covering it all. Does Richie come on too strong? Why is Patrick so hesitant? At what point do Agustín, Frank, and Scotty know what they’re in for? To this point, Dom has the least to do, but he also seems the most at ease with himself and his life. Except his final shot is a call to his ex, Ethan, whose name already signals alarms. Agustín’s not feigning his excitement about his life, moving in with Frank in Oakland and experimenting with another partner, but he’s obviously a little unsure, not that there’s anything wrong with that. This feels like the set-up for a break-up, but hopefully that’s just Hollywood conditioning.
Patrick gets the most screen time, and the writing suggests a guy who needs to get over himself. He has this fantasy in his head (the softly lit sit-down dinner with the doctor) so he resists the charming reality (the harsh fluorescent chance encounter on a city bus). But the performance is more slippery. Take the bus scene. Part of what’s so fascinating about that interaction is the tension between Patrick and Groff. Richie tells him he’s working the door at a friend’s club. “Wanna come? Got a special tonight: Pretty blue eyes drink two for one.” Patrick seems buzzed still, but also that’s just kind of his face. Patrick is cute, and I don’t mean that as a window into my attractions. Cute is Patrick’s whole demeanor: a little baby-voiced, blushing expressions, permasmile, especially when he’s feeling awkward. Even when he’s letting some guy jerk him off in the park he looks like a kid amused to be getting away with something. He’s funny, but that cuteness threatens the landing of edgier jokes, like when he suggests to Dr. Ben that he’s open to just hooking up (which doesn’t actually seem his speed) or tells his ex that he could always cheat on his husband. Patrick is buzzing for some of those scenes, but I’m dying to see what Groff can do without the grin. If “Looking For Now” is any indication, even Patrick’s ready for himself to grow up.
- Another structural touch: In the morning, the guys pass the baton from waking up (Patrick) to getting out of bed (Agustín) to going to work (Dom).
- I’m impressed how much history Lannan packs into perfectly natural asides. Patrick’s longest relationship was (probably less than) six months with someone named Jason. Dom and Doris moved out here from Modesto, Dom and Patrick once hooked up (pics or it didn’t happen, y’all; show, don’t tell), Ethan once tried to kill Dom. Or as Dom puts it, “He did not actually do anything. He just threatened to.” And did I hear right that Dom and Doris used to be together?
- I love Patrick’s scene at work with his friend Owen (Andrew Law) as Patrick blabs about Dr. Ben’s profile and Owen busts his balls. “A winking smiley face? What are you, a Japanese teenager? Look, I was a Japanese teenager. I didn’t even use a winking smiley face. If you want I have some Pokémon cards I could sell you.”
- I’m not saying Mad Men is the only way to learn about Frank O’Hara. I’m just saying Patrick would know who O’Hara is if he watched Mad Men.
- Patrick tells The Bay Area High Priest Of The Healing Arts he works at a videogame company. “Isn’t that just a bunch of kids playing air hockey, going down slides?” He’s serious.
- In the worst moment of the Dr. Ben date, he asks Patrick if he wants another drink. Patrick isn’t sure and bounces the question back to Ben. Ben says no, and Patrick says yes anyway, and now I’m trying to find a cringing smiley face.
- Patrick tells Dom about Richie: “He came on really strong, and he’s not really my type.” “Why, because he’s not some fuckhead with a Stanford degree?”