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Op-ed: Why Looking Is Now a Show Worth Watching

Op-ed: Why Looking Is Now a Show Worth Watching

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Contrasting with the sleepy start of its first season, the HBO drama kicks off season 2 with sex, scandal, and issues that strike at the heart of what it means to be queer in America.

Looking-x633Someone at Looking has been taking notes.

The second season of the HBO drama, which follows a group of gay friends navigating life and love in San Francisco, took off from the Golden Gates running. The premiere alone featured depictions and discussions of outdoor sex, substance abuse, adultery, open relationships, and HIV.

It's fast, fun, fearsome, and a far cry from the beginning of its first season, which once upon a time was criticized for its slow pace and the audience's initial inability to connect with its characters. Hot-button issues like HIV and trans rights, which have been at the forefront of discussion among LGBT people in the real world, were fairly absent from the plot.

But the winds have changed.

The second season pilot opens with three of the male leads, friends Patrick (Jonathan Groff), Dom (Murray Bartlett), and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), escaping to the great outdoors for a weekend retreat.

It's shortly revealed that the men have some need for escape. After his breakup with Richie (Raul Castillo), Patrick has become the other man by continuing an affair with his boss (Russell Tovey), who is in a long-distance relationship. Since the shattering end of his own relationship last season, Agustin has been in a downward spiral, self-medicating his depression with drugs and alcohol. Dom, who borrowed the cabin keys from his older partner Lynn (Scott Bakula), is still struggling to find the finances to back his restaurant business. A sobering trip to the great outdoors (hugging trees and locked liquor cabinets), seems just what the doctor ordered, reasons Patrick.

However, reality catches up with the men with the arrival of Doris (Lauren Weedman, fabulous), the firecracker female friend of the trio, who breaks open the liquor cabinet and a Pandora's box. "So you guys thought you were going to have your little sausage party without me," she quips, a cocktail in hand.

Later, on a midnight hike, the group encounters a man dressed as a fairy, who hands a glowstick to Patrick and points the way to a rave in the middle of the forest. Molly is imbibed, dancing begins, and by the end of the night, the three men are paired off with different partners: Agustin bonds with an HIV-positive bear and LGBT youth counselor (Daniel Franzese) in a nude swim, and Dom goes down on a hunk back in the cabin, revealing his relationship is open. Eerily, a photo album filled with pictures of Lynn and his former partner, who died of an AIDS-related illness, lies on the bedside table.

And Patrick, following his initial attempt to embrace nature and hug trees, finds himself pressed against one by the man he had been running from. It's a far cry from the timid young man who shied away from a sexual encounter in a public park last season.

If this season of Looking has a lesson thus far, it seems to be that life and its messiness are inescapable. Those we love have a way of turning up, as do the things we wish would stay lost.

Similarly, the show, which evaded LGBT politics in its first season to focus on character and relationship development, has widened its window to include these issues. Looking is no public service announcement, but by giving its characters a chance to explore the world faced by everyday gay men -- which, yes, does occasionally include raves, risky sex, bears, counselors, open relationships, and STD tests -- the show has taken on a heightened relevance, and not just in the queer community.

Like in the real world, each action has its rewards and consequences. In the second episode, Patrick's anxiety toward his complicity in the moral wrong of infidelity manifests as a fear of having contracted HIV. He obsesses over Google images of rashes, comparing them to one that has appeared on his upper body. He fears to get tested, and when he does, he confesses to the health care professional that his sex acts have not always been 100 percent safe. He has never asked his partner about his status, he admits.

The scene is both humorous and stress-inducing, and one of many authentic moments that will hit home for viewers. After all, what nonvirgin hasn't had a moment like this -- a fear of the costs of our actions; that sex, in exchange for its pleasures, must have its consequences? That we haven't been honest enough with our partners in love, as well as ourselves?

There is a lot of sex this season in Looking, which should please its gay audience. But more than carnal pleasures, the show's characters are chewing on meatier material as they continue their quest for love and purpose. And that's something worth watching.

DANIEL REYNOLDS is The Advocate's editorial assistant. Follow him on Twitter @dnlreynolds.

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