It's no secret that Looking—HBO's half-hour comedy/drama about a trio of gay male friends in San Francisco—is boring. The show's been widely identified as such since its 2014 premiere. "In Looking, gay men get to be boring on TV at last," wrote Gawker's Rich Juzwiak, giving a grudging nod to the progress that's allowed gay TV characters out of the colorful-sidekick ghetto. Slate's J. Bryan Lowder could find no such silver lining: "Looking is so boring, so utterly flat in terms of narrative or characterization, so in need of occasional pauses in which to perform a few jumping jacks to bring one's heart rate up to resting, that I would opt out entirely if we gay men—or at least gay male culture critics—weren't contractually obliged to watch."
So we all keep watching, in hopes of witnessing something (besides Russell Tovey's exemplary derriere) that justifies keeping our eyes open. In last week's show—the seventh episode of season two—we finally got it, thanks to the center-stage placement of a key supporting character, played by actor Lauren Weedman, whose intricately brilliant performance schooled the world in what this show could be. It was the opposite of boring. It was thrilling.
Before plunging into the redemptive brilliance of Weedman and what it means for Looking's reputation as a snoozefest, allow me to venture back to the time before the boringness of Looking was a cultural given, when the prospect of an HBO show about contemporary gay life sparkled promisingly on the horizon. The key source of these promising sparkles: Andrew Haigh, the British filmmaker whose beautifully low-key gay film Weekend—about two strangers who get to know each other physically and spiritually over the course of a you-know-what—won raves from audiences and critics in 2011. When Haigh signed on as one of Looking's executive producers, as well as the show's primary writer and director, expectations were high that the rich naturalism Haigh brought forth in Weekend would be within the reach of Looking, which expanded the perfect containment of Haigh's film (two guys, one weekend) to an open-ended series following three gay friends going about their lives in San Francisco.
When Looking arrived on HBO in 2014, the influence of Weekend was apparent, primarily in the visual style of the series, with its plain, everyday scenes shot in naturally occurring light, and its focus on those small, found moments that capture rich bits of life. Such moments are essential to films that hope to divine their plots from mundane human minutiae, and Weekend was flush with them, thanks in part to Haigh's rigging of his static setup with naturally combustible characters—one a lackadaisically closeted gay man, the other a political queer who's unafraid of his own anger. With rock and flint provided, sparks flew, but not on Looking, which swapped Weekend's sharp sexual duo for a sludgy group of friends seemingly bound only by their relatively harmonious boringness. If Weekend is a game of chess, where every move communicates something substantial, Looking is a game of checkers, where things move over here and over there and it doesn't really mean anything and eventually your cousins go home.
Making the vacuity at the center of Looking even more of a drag is the wealth of fascinating life crowding the margins of the show. There's Raúl Castillo's Richie, the Mexican American barber and on-again/off-again love interest, who's lit up several episodes with his sharp eye for the caginess of the central characters and his own complicated moral code. There's Scott Bakula's Lynn, an elder-statesman gay whose survival of the AIDS years made him a love-every-moment optimist capable of infuriating levels of detachment. Finally, there's Lauren Weedman's Doris, the lifelong best friend (and former girlfriend) of one of Looking's central gays, and the breakout star of the show.
Things didn't start out particularly promising for Weedman on Looking. She spent the first season fleshing out her central-casting "fag hag" character with a prickly brilliance, but most of her time on-screen involved making wryly inappropriate jokes and asking one of the boring gays, "Are you really okay?"
But everything changed in last week's episode, which was titled "Looking for a Plot." (Jokes, write thyselves.) The episode begins in the same dull universe in which we've always been inexplicably trapped, with the gays and Doris at brunch, where one of the central gays is lazily wallowing in some arbitrary something or other while the other gays nod or something. Then Doris's phone rings, and she reacts to her phone ringing, and the camera doesn't pull away like it normally does when supporting characters stumble into rich territory—it stays right there, with the rest of the episode following Doris's story. The result is not only the best episode of Looking by several hundred miles, but one of the best performances I've seen on TV in years.
That Weedman is a ridiculously gifted performer is old news in Seattle, where she spent the 1990s honing her masterful solo performance skills. Her specialty was the one-sided conversation, Bob Newhart–style, with Weedman locked in dialogue with an invisible other made real by Weedman's intricate engagement and eye for revelatory detail. After her breakout show Homecoming scored an off-Broadway run, Weedman found herself working as a correspondent on The Daily Show—an ill-fitting job that Weedman autopsies in her 2007 essay collection A Woman Trapped in a Woman's Body, writing about watching herself actively repel Jon Stewart with her weird, twitchy, inappropriately jokey demeanor.
But one human's trash is another human's treasure, and Weedman's weird, twitchy, inappropriately jokey demeanor eventually found a happy home on Looking, where she routinely livened up proceedings as best she could until last week's episode gave her a chance to soar in full.
For example, that buzzing cell phone, which instigates the journey out of the boring old Looking world, throws Weedman's Doris into a small flurry of behaviors that pack more emotion and action into 30 seconds than seems to have existed in the rest of Looking's episodes combined. It's a flash of complicated human life of an entirely different grade than what's typically found on the show, and, in a rare turn for Looking, the plot later contextualizes this behavior. (Doris is the daughter of an alcoholic, and she goes somewhere very specific in her mind during times of crisis.)
"Looking for a Plot" isn't perfect, with many of the standard annoyances still in play. (Inexplicably, an unaffiliated central gay tags along on Doris's journey, filling the spaces between Weedman's dynamic scenes with arbitrary wallowing.) Still, the episode provides the richest glimpses yet of the deepest relationship on the show, that between Doris and her gay BFF Dom, which is captured in the type of tiny found moments in such short supply elsewhere in the show. (Just like the opener, her final scene is a killer.)
Will Looking's writers learn any lasting lessons from the Doris episode, which simultaneously threw the show's shortcomings into high relief while showcasing a functional solution? I can only hope. Whatever the case, three cheers for Lauren Weedman for working a television miracle. Give her a spin-off. If Rhoda can do it, so can Doris.