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Looking at Looking: Week Three

Ellen Cushing | February 5, 2014 | Story

This week's episode of Looking did something novel (though, this show being what it is, it did it under-the-radar): It devoted an entire episode to its characters' professional ambitions, and it did so with honesty that's rare on television, which generally tends to address work in simple, binary terms.

Likely for the sake of narrative simplicity, tv shows—especially in the half-hour format—have long separated work and home far more neatly than reality does. Procedural and workplace sitcoms scarcely give their characters a personal life and most relationship- and family-focused shows have never given much indication that their major players spend several hours a day outside the home. With this episode, Looking places itself within a tradition of great shows—Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire—that understand that professional success and failure is an integral part of how we understand our place in the world.

On this episode, each of the show's main characters was forced to reckon with their aspirations—and, much more interestingly, to come to grips with their own capacity for self-sabotage. Patrick's aw-shucks-y eagerness for male attention—especially as he's clearly still smarting from the back-to-back rejection received in the first two episodes—winds up alienating his new boss. After his ill-fated meeting with Ethan, Dom is taking stock of his professional life and clearly not liking what he finds—but his dream of opening a Portuguese chicken restaurant isn't well realized, either. (Possibly because the entire idea appears to have been devised over the course of a single Zumba class?) And Frank, in the shortest but probably the most compelling storyline of the episode, is coming to grips with the fact that, as he says, he's "an artist who makes no art" (though not before snipping at Frank and getting himself fired). These aren't just B-plot hijinx or benign workplace embarrassments of the kind that Hannah Horvath experiences on a near-daily basis—they're big, meaty questions of identity. Looking has always been about that search for identity, and it's always portrayed its characters as whole people for whom work, love, family, and sex aren't compartmentalized.

That's why, when Frank meets the sex worker at a coffee shop—a scene that could have easily devolved into broad comedy on practically any other show—the idea that he'd actually entertain an, uh, career change feels plausible and a little sad, rather than glib. It also lends Patrick's end-of-episode admission that he doesn't think either he or Frank is "very good at being who we think we are" some real heft. If a theme can be divined out of three episodes, Looking seems, thus far, to be fixated on all the many, messy ways self-image can collide with reality—how, for example, Patrick's attempts to present himself as smooth and sexually adventurous continually go awry, or how Frank and Agustin's conceptions of their relationship appear, at least right now, to be diverging; in that sense, this episode was a welcome deepening of these characters and their respective arcs.

That said, though: Maybe part of the reason the only workplace shows are about cops, emergency-room doctors, or Olivia Pope is that most jobs are pretty boring. I've generally objected to some critics' assertion that this is a boring show. There is, I think, a difference between understated and unimaginative, and Looking is firmly on the right side of that particular divide—but this week, I began to see, for the first time, where they're coming from. This is a problem Looking will, clearly need to solve—and probably sooner rather than later, seeing as its ratings are low even by HBO standards—and I feel assured that all this quiet, confident exposition will pay off at some point. But I'll be happy if we never see another lame video-game party again.

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