03/14/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Limits of Looking

Now that the first season of HBO's Looking has come to an end, it is worth reflecting on the series' achievements, and lamenting some of its shortcomings.

Much has been written about the "butch" qualities of the series' protagonists: here are three gay men who dress not in flashy pinks and purples but in "drab" colors, in blues and blacks and browns. But what about their cultural tastes, which hew closely to the dogmatically queeny? Looking unquestioningly accepts the greatness, and also the gay "relevance," of The Golden Girls. For the central characters, it's a touchstone, offering a shorthand, salty-sweet means of communicating the importance of friendship. For Looking itself, the Golden Girls theme song, which Patrick (Jonathan Groff) quotes during the opening episode, provides the perfect musical sendoff: revived for the finale, it brings the series full circle. But it's also obvious, a reflection of a hyper-familiar facet of gay fandom.

More exciting, to my mind, is Looking's casual, almost offhand shout-out to Holly Hunter, which indirectly positions Hunter's film The Piano as a camp classic -- a filmic favorite of a certain generation of movie-minded gay men, for whom Hunter's earnest, Oscar-baiting performance as a mute feminist has provided inspiration of a special, cynical sort. I'm certainly not denying the authenticity of Looking's gay-specific relationship to The Golden Girls; after all, who hasn't encountered a Blanche-obsessed gay man? I'm simply saying that it's stale. Far fresher is the bit about The Piano, in which Patrick, perplexed at the sudden muteness of his friend Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), makes clear that Holly Hunter is, for gay millennials, as much of an icon as Sophia Petrillo: in 1993, many a gay youth must have quoted Anna Paquin's chattering character, or mimicked the mute fury of Hunter's protagonist. Why else would the line "I am quite the town freak, which satisfies" have replaced "No wire hangers!" at so many of today's gay bars (and, for that matter, on so many Grindr profiles)? When it comes to exploring the pop sensibilities of gay men of a certain age and income bracket, Looking gets a lot right.

When it comes to addressing race, the series leaves a lot to be desired. While it's a relief to see that Richie's Mexican identity doesn't entail an oppressive machismo, and that his "street pride" doesn't prevent him from bottoming with Patrick, there's something unsettling about the way he giddily references Patrick's "WASP" trappings, because it reflects the show's structuring bias: among the trio of protagonists, Patrick and Dom are as white as they come, down to their "dreamy," advantage-conferring blue eyes and blindness to their own privileges, while Agustín, who identifies as Cuban-American (albeit halfheartedly), emerges as almost equally white-bread. When he cynically critiques his boyfriend's blackness, and when that very same boyfriend, Frank, rightly refers to Agustín as a "bored rich kid," it's clear just how closely Agustín identifies with the entitlements of Patrick and Dom, two white guys who shiver at the thought of crossing class, racial and generational boundaries.

By far, Looking's most compelling characters are Frank (played by the Nigerian-British actor, writer and director O.T. Fagbenle) and Richie (played by Raúl Castillo), but both have limited screen time, owing to the series' focus on the trials and tribulations of its central trio of boring, indecisive gay men. (Alas, Looking is a three-hander rather than a bona fide ensemble affair.) When Fagbenle's Frank finally denounces the insufferable Agustín, he breathes eloquent, principled life into a series that is otherwise lacking in conflict -- political or otherwise. (Patrick's quarrels with his wealthy, imperious mother don't count; it's hard to work up much affection for a character who remains, whether deliberately or inadvertently, so beholden to "WASP" constipation; that he fights it, tepidly, only makes him more appalling, as he should have long since learned that wanting to please Mommie Dearest doesn't make for a very exciting sex life.) Castillo's Richie is revelatory, as sweet and appealing as Patrick claims, but I wish he didn't confess, in the series finale, that he has "issues" with his own Mexican background -- a confession that signals a degree of self-loathing that, in addition to being completely offensive, comes across as a stock emotion in a show so devoted to broad identity categories.

In Looking, to be gay is to be desirable; to be wealthy is to worry about whether that wealth is "showing"; to be over 40 is to experience a crisis of conscience about the chasm between one-night stands and "real" relationships. For Frank and Richie, however, to be a part of this rarefied world is to see it for what it is: a playground dominated by "bored rich kids," some of them Silicon Valley types, others devoted to high-end, niche cuisine. Frank and Richie are forced to exist just beyond the boundaries of this world, both by Looking's three protagonists and by the series itself. I'd rather be with the angry outliers, at the center of their striking and underrepresented experiences.