There are moments during “Looking Top To Bottom” that turn us into Doris and Malik, politely smiling and staring at our food. Even the title is a little bit embarrassing, and not in that productive way where Looking is out and proud about something typically repressed. More like, that’s what you settled on? Maybe it’s okay to have a little shame. “Looking Top To Bottom” is a much needed Kevin spotlight with charm to spare, but it feels like a first draft.
Partly that has to do with following the past two episodes, one a delirious reintroduction and the other a Diane Lockhart statement necklace. “Looking Top To Bottom” was more than likely going to rest in the shadow of the redwoods. But it also has to do with the episode doing so much housekeeping. Kevin and Patrick spend the day with Patrick’s friends and the night with each other for once. Agustín makes peace with Richie and in-roads with Eddie. Dom and Lynn bicker about the restaurant. For the first two, the episode somehow carries less weight than “Looking For Results,” and for the others, nothing really happens except for Agustín getting his beard trimmed.
If anything unifies the episode it’s Gay Things Looking Hasn’t Shown Yet. Patrick goes shopping for an enema, which makes for some funny moments like when Patrick makes it clear to the cashier that it’s for sex and he’s not embarrassed, and she’s like, “I’m a cashier in a San Francisco convenience store. I’ve seen some things.” Dom plays gay rugby, which occasions such a party in the bleachers you wish Looking were about Doris, Kevin, and Eddie, except then you wouldn’t get to see some full-frontal, non-porn-star nudity in the showers. And at the end, Kevin grabs the lube during sex. The individual moments are fine—hell, the lube is something of a step forward—but they feel like a checklist.
There isn’t much editorial flow beyond “And then this happened,” but there is a basic organizing principle: How reliable are the guys’ current (or future) squeezes? Lynn of all people is the flake, and it’s frustrating from the moment he tries to climb on top of Dom and then weasels out on account of some complaint about the mattress. It’s like “The Princess And The Pea” over here. The result is a feeling of distance right from the get-go. Then Lynn tries to talk Dom into taking a manager position at an up-and-coming SoMa hotspot. (Note that Doris’ immediate reaction is to piss all over it; she knows that’s not what Dom wants.) And finally he shows up late to Dom’s first rugby match, which is the first of a few little things that inch their relationship from boyfriends into son and disappointing dad territory. Add in Doris telling Lynn he’s paying, and another argument about how Lynn is trying to make Dom work somewhere he doesn’t want to, and their first fight—aww!—really brings out the age difference.
Eddie is on the other end of the spectrum. He comes through for Agustín pretty easily when Agustín needs a place to crash for the night. He’s also, by the way, the least ingratiating performer, in that he seems to acknowledge the camera the least. From the poker face to the way he moves, Daniel Franzese isn’t playing to us the way Lynn is. The effect is magnetic. Give me an Eddie episode! Fire everyone else!
In the middle is Kevin. He’s ordinarily a disappointing boyfriend for Patrick because he’s so busy being engaged to another man. But this week, he’s really trying. He has 28 whole hours to spare while John is in San Diego, and he’s dedicated them to his fling with Patrick. Patrick has plans though. “I can’t just drop everything whenever you’re free…and what if you change your plans at the last minute like when I was sitting at the Castro watching The Exorcist all by myself?” Kevin’s solution is to tag along, even in public, even with Patrick’s friends, although they’ll have to pretend to be just friends. What a gentleman.
At the rugby match, Kevin leads a chant for Dom, and eventually Dom turns around embarrassed. Patrick pretty much just sits there beaming at Kevin the whole time. He really doesn’t get sports. When the chant is over, Patrick grabs Kevin’s hand pulls him up the stairs. The next shot is at the top of the stands, and check out their demeanors: Patrick practically skips into frame, and Kevin saunters in all macho. Patrick tells him, “Everyone made out under the bleachers on Friday night except me.” And now it’s his turn. On another show, you might write it off as arrested development, the subject of approximately 69 percent of American television. But Looking, as emphasized by “Looking For Results,” has established a very specific motivation for scenes like this. First, that part of gay childhood has to do with missing out on everyday experiences like this, and second that making up for lost time is, well, hot (as opposed to pitiful). As soon as they start kissing, the crowd roars. In the background the rugby team shifts directions, running leftward (which reminds me of something Ebert once said about leftward pans going back into the past). “I think something just happened,” Patrick says. Indeed.
This leads to them running off to play house for a night. Kevin makes fun of Patrick’s self-help book (Finding The Boyfriend Within), Patrick insists they cuddle and take their time, and eventually they get into bed. Here’s where things get uncomfortable. The foreplay is fine, but it’s unspecific. It doesn’t quite feel like two real people in lust. What body parts do they love on the other? What Cosmo sex tip drives them wild? Is Kevin a biter? For contrast, think of Patrick and Richie: armpits, the rimming scene, the general body exploration. Here it’s just, in the words of Tobias Fünke, two kids playing grab-ass in the shower. So to speak. Anyway, Kevin grabs a condom—with his teeth, which qualifies for a little specificity—but he gives it to Patrick. “Your turn.” “But I’m fresh as a mountain spring,” Patrick jokingly protests, but he’s happy to top for a change. There might be more to Kevin’s choice, but in the context of the episode, it’s a gift. Kevin makes an effort to spend the day with Patrick and his friends, he doesn’t take Patrick’s opportunity to chicken out, and now this—he’s clearly using this weekend to make it up to Patrick, it being all the times he hasn’t come through like a real boyfriend.
The ending is the part that’s embarrassing. I mean, we all know professional actors are blessed with the world’s most histrionic orgasms. We’ve seen the Nymphomaniac poster. But Patrick looks like he’s passing a stone, Kevin has to shake it off, and both of them pant, “Fuck,” in turn. Granted that sex can be unflattering, this scene is so performative. Which is maybe the point. These two want so desperately to have a good test drive, and throw in the fact that two men in the same room can sometimes become an unspoken masculinity contest. (As Doris says about Dom after he gets tackled, stands up, and gives them a thumbs up, “Is he faking it ‘cause he has to look macho?”) At any rate, at least the scene features an economical, non-graphic demonstration of how bodies interlock without any softcore shimmer. Even the boring yellow lamplight reduces the romance.
Anyway, that’s the gist of the episode: Lots of lively details in some functional scenes. The episode hits three great ones right off the bat: a pan down to show Patrick grabbing Kevin’s ass at work, a cute moment where Kevin mouths something at Patrick, and most importantly the fact that Kevin is wearing a dog sweater to match Russell Tovey’s Instagram feed. Looking is great at the bubbly part of the evening. It’s when “Looking Top To Bottom” gets to the heavier part that things are less convincing. When Agustín visits Richie alone in his shop, Richie just keeps on doing some busy work like it’s an interview with the Law & Order detectives. At Dom’s place in the morning, Doris is on fire—admiring the size of Malik’s penis, walking in on Dom and Lynn, joining them in bed for a morning chat—but then there’s all that business between Dom and Lynn, particularly the mattress thing, which I emphasize for no other reason than the unbelievable physicality. And the episode ends with Kevin getting out of bed to call John. Patrick’s awake and hears him, but he doesn’t move. He just looks upset, and at the end he closes his eyes. The fantasy is ruined. It’s the first time this affair has felt as soapy as it is. I mean, season one is about a boy torn between his engaged boss and his working-class charmer. Looking has soap opera bones. But that story was a way to dig into the characters; it’s practically an expression of Patrick’s psychology. This affair storyline is fun while it’s romantic, but what is it revealing about the characters? That Patrick needs some self-esteem?
“Looking Top To Bottom” is directed by Ryan Fleck, his second episode after “Looking For $220/Hour” in season one. That’s the Folsom Street Fair episode in which Kevin mock dances to the beat of the street. These are probably the two most charming showcases of Russell Tovey, the ones where Patrick is really falling for Kevin. After telling Patrick about his upbringing at a bar, Kevin reminds Patrick he’s on a visa. “I’ve only got two more years left on it, so, uh, I better get married or else, back to Romford.” Tovey gives it such a spontaneous, flirty delivery that it confuses Patrick when he says, “Let’s do it.” “Do what?” “Go to the match.”
Visually “Looking Top To Bottom” is the usual. People say everything looks good nowadays, and it’s not true—shows like Looking (and Hannibal and The Knick) demonstrate how a stylist can make all those pixels matter rather than simply take up space—but Looking does have a solid visual foundation to rest on: immersive cinematography, cool blue-green San Francisco with romantic jewel tone decoration, deep dark nights and colorful strings of lights. So “Looking Top To Bottom” does look “good.” It just never really distinguishes itself, which I hope doesn’t sound like “auteurism is magic” mumbo jumbo. But take that delirious dancing shot in the premiere. That single sequence defines the whole episode—its carefree sparkle and more freighted undercurrent, its musical flow, its ending out of time. There’s nothing like that here. In form and content, “Looking Top To Bottom” is less an individual piece than a chunk of the whole. Fortunately Looking has such a wealth of raw materials that’s hardly a deal-breaker.
- Richie asks Agustín why he was a dick at the picnic. “Is it because you’re in love with him?” “Who, Patrick? Haha, no, man. Ugh, gross. No offense.”
- The enema really brings out the humor. “Straight people never have to think about shooting water up their asses before having sex.” Also: “I have more of a self-cleaning oven.” And let’s not forget the sight gag of Patrick actually using the enema. “So, so sexy,” he tells nobody. (See, Eddie would never joke to the camera.)
- Surprising motif: Straight people having “gay” sex. Doris got rimmed, and according to Agustín, who is talking out his ass, straight people are having all kinds of anal sex. So…make of that what you will.
- Malik works for the mayor, or as Doris says, “It’s all politics all the time with this guy. It’s like dating Rachel Maddow.” And Malik won me over forever with the response, “Honestly, I get that a lot. People stop me on the street like, ‘Ain’t you that tall white lesbian with the big glasses?’”
- Interesting how nervous Kevin is to be spending the day playing Patrick’s boyfriend. They go to a bar to chat first, where they bond over a childhood love of making up board games. Patrick says, “I actually made this space game where you had to mine for uranium.” “You would mine for uranium?” “Yeah, right? Paging Dr. Freud.”
- Kevin’s the only one who understands rugby. [Correction: I misheard the line here.] He tells them the ball is out of the scrum, and Eddie turns to him and drawls, “You say words real pretty-like.” Later Agustín walks up to the urinal next to Eddie, and the first line of the scene is Eddie saying, “Too late,” as he zips up.