When the thinkpiece-industrial complex rolled out its multi-part whine of boredom last week, I imagine “Looking For Uncut” is what critics had in mind. Patrick goes on another awkward date, Dom accidentally ingests some backstory, and Agustín hangs a painting. In the high-stakes world of TV criticism, clearly it takes something flashier to make an impression. But just because Looking is understated doesn’t mean it has nothing to say. It just means, like Patrick Googling “uncut Latin cock,” you have to look closer.
Andrew Haigh directed and wrote “Looking For Uncut,” and it’s telling that those are the first two credits at the end, in that order, ahead of the title card and the creator. Looking certainly has its writerly moments, but the dialogue strives to sound unwritten, not in the “um, uh” Jason Katims sense but light on polish nonetheless. What’s more expressive are the performances and the camera. Take that great shot of Patrick and Richie dancing to Erasure. To that point, the date has basically been an airing of Patrick’s assumptions about class and race: He’s surprised Richie dressed up for their date, he’s fascinated with Richie’s Catholic chain and his big, international family. Most of all, though he manages to keep a lid on this one, he’s curious whether Richie’s uncircumcised or not. Yes, Patrick has gone 29 years without beholding an uncut Latin cock, and it’s all he can think about once Agustín brings it up. And Patrick wonders why his friends act like he’s fresh off the bus. At least he’s aware enough to be embarrassed, but drowning himself in alcohol only makes him sloppier. By the time they’re ready to go, Richie tables Patrick’s offer to go back to his place, suggesting they go somewhere else first. How rare to see a cringe comedy that doesn’t announce itself. After all, understatement is the name of the game. At the club, it’s still hard to get a firm handle on Richie. What is clear is that Patrick is totally out of sync with the guy, yammering on about maybe blowing him in the bathroom if he wants, just kidding, let’s do shots.
Then comes “A Little Respect.” It’s halfway through the song when we drop back in on Patrick and Richie on the dance floor, but the club is so dark that the focal point is the white shirt smack in the middle of the frame. He’s practically making out with his partner. It takes a second to realize that they aren’t Patrick and Richie. Worse yet, they’re visible in the vast space between Patrick and Richie. The contrast speaks volumes. Patrick’s flailing, not exactly with the beat. Richie’s practically unreadable—head down, face unlit, back angled slightly toward the camera—which speaks for itself. And then comes this transformative 45-second dolly in on them through the crowd, eye-level for maximum immersion. Most of the time they’re silhouettes, but about halfway through the light hits them at the perfect moment: Patrick’s bouncing with his hands on Richie’s shoulders, singing the song to him, and Richie can’t help but laugh. By now we’re close enough to see that Richie’s really getting into the song himself, and when he dons his trying-to-have-a-moment face, suddenly it’s palpable. They are having a moment. They go dark again as the camera gets closer to the silhouettes, Andy Bell blaring, “Oh, baby, pleeease!” By the time the lights hit them again, they’re two smiling faces filling the frame, inches apart, moving in sync. Like the climactic smile in “Looking For Now,” it’s a huge emotional beat that you’d miss if you weren’t paying attention. This isn’t just people dancing. It’s a turning point.
Sure enough, the next cut brings Richie back to Patrick’s apartment, but he can’t stay long, hint hint, so they go right to the bedroom. Now, Haigh’s Weekend is notable for a money shot on the main character’s stomach that shows what sex is really like, but Haigh’s work is more prone to sexualizing everyday male nudity, like a neck or an armpit. So after the tasteful cut away from the threesome in the premiere, I understand the skepticism about the show’s treatment of sex. This is an episode about a penis that can’t even match up to the male nudity of television’s preeminent breast showcase, Game Of Thrones. Don’t get me wrong: The second-screen experience that Patrick walks us through is quite edifying, but gay television has been politely behaving itself since before Batman. If Looking is so interested in sex, it might help to show some.
“Looking For Uncut” is at your service. First Dom fucks a Grindr guy from behind standing in front of a mirror. A long shot keeps us in the moment, panning from a profile of Dom’s bare ass up and across their bodies, where it lingers for a bit, and to the mirror to put some safe distance between us and the bottom’s final yawp. They’re impossibly shadowed for mid-afternoon, as if we’re meant to think about something other than Dom’s body, but nevertheless, this is half a minute of panting, moaning, bodies slapping into each other, heads collapsing in unison, and laughing together. How refreshing.
That night, Patrick strips Richie while making out in bed. There’s plenty of kissing up and down Richie’s body, and some comedy when Patrick falls backward: “God, you wear tight jeans. Motherfucker!” Then he peels back Richie’s waistband and says, “Huh.” It could be a big, broad sitcom moment, but the effect of Looking’s restraint is to look closer. In every scene we’re trying to get a read on people. How does Agustín really feel about moving to Oakland? What is Dom’s reaction to the new and improved Ethan? Is Richie seeing the same Patrick I am? Only Mad Men is this opaque, this adept at engaging the audience’s social skills.
Yes, while Patrick spends the day designing characters for his new Kenneth Anger video game, Dom sees Ethan twice and Agustín settles in with Frank. The Ethan story doesn’t take much time, but I already know he’s a tool, so I’m already ready for Dom to move on. Before it even begins I’ve skipped to the end in my head. Good thing there’s a sex scene in the middle. That said, the way every new scene forces us to recalibrate is what Looking is all about. At first it seems like Dom feels bad about himself for arrested development, then it seems like he was hoping to have sex with Ethan (which results in the Grindr hookup), and finally it turns out Ethan just rekindled his anger. Actually all three are probably true. But the thing about mumblecore-style realism is that there’s no leeway. The second the spell of everyday life is broken, the refusal to stylize looks like careless amateurism. When Dom calls Ethan a meth-head in front of Ethan’s clients, he trails off, an admirable attempt at something human that’s nevertheless an awkward fit for that moment of public rage. Muting everything is no truer to life than anything else.
Yet here I am wondering why Agustín hangs a painting. He claims to hate it in front of Patrick and Dom. Is it because Frank loves it (“It’s a unicorn with a cock inside. It’s fuckin’ awesome”)? Did Frank’s affection help him see the value in his own work? Probably so, at least enough to give into Frank and hang it anyway, see if it grows on him. He’s also moving in, creating a sense of history in his new environment. Most importantly there’s a sense of resolution in hanging the painting, collapsing the space between who he is and how he thinks of himself. When Frank teases him (“If you want we can just check in someplace cool on Facebook so your city friends know that you’re not dead”), he laughs and moves to cuddle, genuinely happy to stay in. Dom is somewhere in the middle, achieving some one-sided resolution eight years after the fact but not much closer to feeling satisfied. Patrick hasn’t even begun that process. He’s so obsessed with proving he’s someone he’s not that he sabotages himself, and Richie leaves. “I think we’re looking for different things.” The sad thing is they really aren’t.
It’s nice to have so many gay shows to choose from when you need a stick to beat Looking with, but Looking isn’t those other shows. It’s not as funny as Husbands, but it shows more sex. It’s not as flamboyant as Queer As Folk, a sexy soap that does all the work of feeling for you. It’s older than Please Like Me and more together than The Outs. All of these are excellent, but the closest comparison is Treme, HBO’s other niche slice-of-life. Both feature diverse casts, both depend on local flavor, and both are magical when the music’s playing. It’s just that on Looking, the music is Erasure. How’s that for not gay enough?
- The moving sequence is a welcome look at how the guys interact. When Patrick says, “Who said anything about a boyfriend? Maybe I just wanna get myself a fuck buddy,” I love how Dom pops up into frame. And how Patrick can barely keep a straight face and strategically lowers his voice on “Mexican fuck buddy” when they ask him to say it again.
- As Patrick says his goodbyes, Dom says: “Get in the car, Rose.” Which brings up the irresistible subject: Which Golden Girl are Agustín and Dom? I’m thinking Blanche and Sophia but I’m open to argument.
- The opening debate about the difference, if there is one, between sex and intimacy is a nice way to plot Patrick and Agustín on a spectrum, but the more revealing filter is the running thread about authenticity, as in what defines the real San Francisco or a real Mexican-American. “He’s become so L.A. He drinks refreshed tea.”
- More history: Agustín’s from Florida. Patrick’s maybe from Colorado. And Dom gave Ethan a lot of money to get clean, but Doris still wants to neck-punch him.
- Doris gets home while the Grindr guy showers. “Why is he taking a shower? What did you do to him? Am I gonna have to buy Clorox again?”
- More of Dom and Doris, please. Him: “I’m such a cliché.” Her: “You mean how you dress?”
- The closing phone call between Patrick and Agustín is one more reason to see the guys together more often. “Well, everything was going fine until I acted like all I wanted to do was suck on his uncut cock, which it turns out he doesn’t even actually have. I think I may be a racist as well.”