Looking, Season 2, Episode 1, “Looking for the Promised Land”
Sunday, January 11, 2015, 10:00 PM (EST), HBO Some TV series like to pause from the weekly stress and drama of its central storylines by allowing its characters to venture outside of the confines of familiar settings. The premiere of the second season of Looking, titled “Looking for the Promised Land,” pauses from its San Francisco backdrop to explore a more natural setting. Although the narrative construction and cinematographic experimentation of “Looking for the Promised Land” show complexity and nuance, the end result is one of the weaker episodes of the series, thus far (in comparison to the brilliant stories and episodes of the first season).
While vacationing for the weekend (weekday? There aren’t really that many references to time in this episode), Dom (Murray Bartlett), Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), and Patrick (Jonathan Groff), take refuge in a cabin in the woods. Each character tries to escape, or explore, their present state: Patrick tries to seek shelter from his messy break-up with Richie (Raul Castillo), which serendipitously ended after Patrick secretly slept with Kevin (Russell Tovey); Agustin tries to escape his even messier break-up with Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) by wallowing in a sea of drunken hookups, drug-riddled dancing, and – according to Patrick – tear-filled masturbation; and Dom tries to define his relationship with Lynn (Scott Bakula) – who allowed the three to borrow his cabin – by exploring photo albums and other paraphernalia scattered about the cabin. The three spend their days indulging in Patrick’s nerdy endeavors, including looking at old trees and canoeing down rivers. Yet Dom and Agustin want to find better ways to spend their time (their boredom is exacerbated by long takes in which the camera awkwardly lingers on the characters doing menial things).
The first act of the episode is intentionally boring, yet my problem is that it ineffectively explores its space. Creater Michael Lannon and Executive Producer Andrew Haigh felt that “they always wanted the first episode to be away from San Francisco.” Yet compared to the wonderful fifth episode, “Looking for the Future,” of season 1 – or even compared to the sublime seventh episode, “Scroggin,” of the second season of the Australian series Please Like Me - “Looking for the Promised Land” uses its backdrop more as a happenstance confine rather than a liberating extension of the characters’ emotional states (the only caveat to my pretentious assessment is that of Dom, who explores the cabin as a relic of Lynn’s past relationships). This is no condemnation of the characters as unappealing or boring on their own terms, but it is a bit of a letdown as Andrew Haigh, who wrote and directed this episode, has done better work (Weekend, anyone?).
The second act fortunately picks up steam, but only by adding secondary characters into the mix. Eddie (Daniel Franzese), an energetic bear, and Doris (Lauren Weedman, always the comic relief) manage to ignite the plot by allowing the characters to ease up and take Molly. The newly formed quartet of Doris and the gays partake in a wilderness dance party, which is filled with glittering fairies, hairy bears, and chiseled adonises. Patrick’s experience with Molly informs most of the cinematography of the dance party, which segues to a slow motion sequence of characters dancing, dry humping, and feeling up everything in sight. The surreal, if not austere, sequence then abruptly segues to each character indulging in one way or another: Patrick calls Kevin, who comes up for a shag in the wilderness (the two have yet to define their relationship to one another); Agustin skinny dips and self-deprecates with Eddie, whose plus sign tattoo is an indication of his HIV status; and Dom hooks up with a cute stranger, who mistakes a picture of Lynn for a picture of Dom’s father (Dom corrects him and lets him know that Lynn is fine with Dom fooling around).
The residue of the night leads the trio – the M.I.A. Doris was last spotted topless on a jet ski – to ruminate on their nightly transgressions and triumphs. Patrick finally reveals to his friends his illicit relationship with Kevin, who is still in a relationship with Jon. The three briefly pause from the afterglow of their drug-induced night, while the camera awkwardly pans up to the morning sky before cutting to the credits (played against “This Is the Day” by The The).
My problems with the episode deal more with execution than conception. The ideas behind the episode are intriguing, but the episode left me somewhat cold (except for the various sex scenes, which had an opposite effect). Haigh had a great opportunity to strip his characters of all their baggage and have them exist on their own in a foreign setting, but he relied heavily on the narrative crutch that dominated each episode of the first season (three individual narrative arcs explored through parallel editing). Don’t get me wrong, it is a good episode, but it is not a great one. It is hopefully just a temporary pause before the series returns to its brilliance.