Please Note: The screen shots accompanying this review come from the DVD edition of Looking: The Complete First Season.
The TV Series:
Where does finding a meaningful relationship stand, when it all comes down to making yourself look good on hookup apps and OKCupid profiles? That's the crux of Looking, HBO's disarmingly low-key, enjoyable gay-buddy series. As with a lot of LGBT-oriented shows, Looking bends over backwards to present a realistic view of modern gay life, even as its desperate-to-please-everybody philosophy leaves it feeling a little vague and empty. As HBO preps the second season for broadcast in January 2015, Looking's 8-episode first season has been released on Blu Ray in a brief yet satisfying two-disc set.
In the atmospherically lensed world of Looking, three good friends in the super-permissive yet evolving city of San Francisco find their own lives in a state of flux. The lead character, 29-year old Colorado transplant and videogame designer Patrick (Jonathan Groff, Glee), attempts to navigate the dating pool after a broken-off engagement. Patrick's roommate, scruffy 31 year-old artist Augustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), confronts his own immaturity by agreeing to move in with his boyfriend, Frank (O. T. Fagbenle). Patrick and Augustin's mustachioed older friend Dom (Murray Bartlett) seems to epitomize the old San Francisco ways with his constant casual hookups and frequent trips to bathhouses, but he too yearns for stability and eventually fulfilling his dream of running his own restaurant. As the season unfolds, the socially awkward Patrick is attracted to a flirty Latino (not his usual type) on the BART train. That infatuation develops into a full-on relationship with Richie (Raul Castillo), a sweet, unpretentious barber whose lack of ambition drives a wedge between the two. Sparks also develop between Patrick and Kevin (Russell Tovey), his boss at the software company, which is unfortunate since he's already involved with Richie.
Despite being narrowly centered on mostly well-to-do young men, Looking is lavished with plenty of love and care from its creator, Andrew Haigh. Haigh, the British director who garnered acclaim for his feature film debut Weekend in 2011, has a gift for portraying natural, casual sounding conversations that accurately capture the way gay men behave around each other. For the most part, it's intelligently done and snarky without delving into the obnoxious, although there are some mistakes. I suppose the lead characters would be considered endearingly neurotic, while the chemistry between Groff, Alvarez and Bartlett makes it worth watching from episode to episode. They can definitely pull off the casual conversation, while being attractive enough for the sex scenes to have some real heat (although they're surprisingly tame, with zero full-frontal nudity). Strangely, the minor character of Dom gets the most satisfying storyline this season, a salvo in a show that seems way too preoccupied with dating, sex and relationships (maybe it's their way of avoiding the fact that gay guys are often as boring as straights). Like the others, Dom has his fair share of man-problems (the reappearance of a formerly meth-addicted ex who ditched Dom as soon as he recovered). Yet, he's also given some nice, substantial interplay with his entrepreneurial benefactor, Lynn (played by Scott Bakula), and a great confidant in his sardonic gal friend Doris (Lauren Weedman).
If I had a single, giant-sized complaint about Looking's first year, it would be over the constant attention paid to dorky, tactless Patrick and Groff's off-key, puppy doggish interpretation of him. To be fair to Groff, however, this is not a complex character - not yet. Richie seemed way out of his league, and the flirtation with Kevin was ludicrous. A lyrical episode focusing solely on Patrick and Richie's date around San Francisco was seen as a highlight by fans, although the lack of Augustin and Dom made it wispy in my eyes. By the yardstick of fantastic gay male television characters, I hold Michael C. Hall's David Fisher from Six Feet Under as the gold standard, but it's telling that there hasn't been any excellent, multi-layered gay men (or lesbians) seen on the airwaves since that show left us in 2005. In spite of the progress they've made, television people still need to learn that sex and relationships no longer have to be the driving force behind gay and lesbian characters. Until we have the standard-issue police procedural or detective drama where the lead character just happens to be gay, however, I'll be content with the understated likes of Looking.
Mostly shot outdoors or in naturally-lit settings, Looking's photography has an appealing softness which is duly reflected in the 16:9 transfer on this two-disc set. Each half-hour installment in this eight-episode run is spaciously spread over two discs, so there weren't any issues with faulty compression. Picture quality is pleasant all around, with solid dark levels and vivid, digital sweetening color (scenes are usually given a honey-amber glow). For this Blu Ray edition, I didn't notice an appreciable difference in picture fidelity from HBO's separate DVD edition (also a two-disc set).
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes accompanying these episodes are nicely crafted with pristine dialogue kept in the center, while sound effects and music are used in a non-showy way. They have a wide dynamic range without sounding distorted or needing to adjust the volume controls. Alternate audio is also provided in French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0, while subtitles are included in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
Audio Commentaries are included on six of the eight episodes with series creator Andrew Haigh joined by Groff and other cast and crew members. The tracks aren't particularly in-depth, although it's obvious from the speakers' conviviality that it was a pleasant show to work on. As with other HBO releases, previews for other HBO shows auto-play upon insertion of the first disc. An Ultraviolet digital download code is also provided.
If it's not quite Mr. Right, HBO's Looking will suffice as Mr. Right Now. The first season of this chronicle of three gay friends' adventures in San Francisco was somewhat problematic (Jonathan Groff's dorky lead, for instance), but mostly it scored with subtle, addictive drama, sharp dialogue and interesting characters. For future seasons, hopefully series creator will get these guys off their butts and doing stuff instead of just fretting over sex and relationships. Recommended.