In Defense Of Looking’s Queer Firebrand Who Drinks To “Forget How Dull We’ve Become”
There’s a scene in Looking: The Movie in which Patrick, the show’s charmingly milquetoast protagonist, confronts his former lover Richie’s current boyfriend about his ceaseless criticism of other gay guys. It happens toward the very end of the film, which wraps up the loose ends leftover when HBO canceled the series at the end of its second season: Patrick (Jonathan Groff) has just given a toast at a gay couple’s wedding reception at a gay bar. Brady, a journalist, makes no secret of his disapproval. He’s openly hostile to the idea of gay men buying into such a heteronormative institution, and throughout Patrick’s speech there are shots of Brady rolling his eyes.
“I want to get super drunk so I can forget about how dull we’ve all become,” he announces with cartoonish disdain later, echoing one of the biggest complaints about Looking. Already pretty sauced, he gets belligerent, accusing Patrick of being femme-phobic, calling him a shitty gay, and reminding him of the fact that he thought Patrick and his ex Kevin (Russell Tovey) were “everything that’s wrong with the gay community.” The fight escalates from there the way you’d expect a fight between two drunk gay dudes would when there’s more brewing under the surface than what either of them are actually saying.
It’s essentially the film’s climax, the moment when Patrick finally stands up for himself, and the catalyst for the show’s happy ending. It also plays as creators Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan’s final reckoning with their critics, and as such it feels like the entire series’ final flameout. More than just a defense of the show’s anodyne gay-next-door characters, this confrontation feels a bit like a fuck-you to a perspective that resists the respectable, gender-normative, “post-gay” image of LGBT people promoted by organizations like the affluent-white-male-dominated Human Rights Campaign. As Looking’s most obvious embodiment of that resistance, that discomfort, Brady takes the brunt of what feels like Haigh and Lannan’s backlash in this finale. He, as a character, and we as an audience, deserve better than this.
Since he was introduced in Season 2, Brady (Chris Perfetti) has always played a bit of a duel role. On the one hand he was one of many complications that kept Patrick and Richie (Raúl Castillo) apart. But he was also an aggressive and occasionally abrasive mouthpiece for a particular queer perspective on certain queer issues. “If there’s a pill that prevents HIV, everyone should take it,” he insists during a Season 2 conversation about the controversy surrounding PrEP. “In the same way that birth control liberates women, PrEP can liberate gay men.”
As a character, Brady could be strident, and his certainty about his views put him at odds with Patrick, whose general uncertainty reflected Looking’s languorous atmosphere. But the show undercut that certainty by making Brady kind of a sloppy drunk. “I’m gonna take back all the shit I said about you guys,” he tells Patrick and Kevin in a later episode after getting wasted at a party. That shit includes the bit about the couple representing everything that’s wrong with the gay community. It isn’t made clear what Brady’s problem with Patrick and Kevin was — beyond the vague sense that it probably had something to do with Patrick’s history with Richie — and I think that ambiguity may have something to do with the fact that Looking’s creators never quite grasped what their critics found objectionable about the show.
“Brady thinks there’s only one way to be gay and that way is his way,” Patrick tells the group in the midst of that final fight scene in the movie. That Haigh and Lannan could include that line considering that their show was only ever concerned with a very specific type of gay guy is pretty ironic. It’s a gross oversimplification of many gay critics’ ambivalence about the series. Slate editor J. Bryan Lowder may have put it best in his review of the show’s first season: “[Looking] may represent the greatest victory to date of those who strive not for the tolerance of queerness in straight society, but for its gradual erasure as we all slide toward some bland cultural mean. Beneath the modern platitudes like love whoever you want and all families are beautiful, there’s a quiet, insidious demand that you blend in as quickly as possible. Don’t harp on the struggles of coming out beyond gay meccas, don’t complain about rampant homophobia and increasing gender policing, don’t lament the ongoing health crisis in your community—that stuff is too old-fashioned, too dramatic. Because some gay people can get married now, we’re past all that.” It’s as if Haigh and Lannan heard these kinds of criticisms and took them as an attack on the sort of “boring” gay men their characters represented.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Looking suffered in part from being one of the only shows about gay men on television. It was burdened with the systemic underrepresentation of queer lives on screen. It’s unfair to expect one gay show to be all gay things for all gay people, and there’s nothing wrong with specificity in storytelling. Lannan and Haigh did their best to tell an emotionally authentic, affecting story from the perspective of a particular sort of gay man. Whether or not that made for TV that people actually wanted to watch, it’s still commendable.
But I can’t help but think that Looking would have been a better show if they had done more with Brady than make him a scapegoat for their seeming frustration and resentment of their critics. Certainly it could have been less boring if Lannan and Haigh had allowed him to push back against Patrick’s (often less-than-credible) naivety, his rosy, romantic view of monogamy, his wholesale disengagement from queer politics.
No one is saying that gay men like Patrick shouldn’t be represented on TV — except maybe for Patrick himself in his hyperbolic attack against Brady. But we need characters like Brady to push back against Patrick and Dom and Augusin’s live-and-let-live complacency, especially after North Carolina’s HB2, and the “religious freedom” laws that are enshrining LGBT discrimination across the country; especially after the massacre in Orlando, and in light of the Republican party’s mind-bogglingly homophobic party platform and the fact that without comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation it remains legal to deny LGBT people employment and housing across the country. We need a character like Brady to bring these issues up without being dismissed as a drunk hothead.
“I love it when gays argue with other gays about being gay,” straight BFF Doris (Lauren Weedman) quips, dismissing Patrick and Brady’s final confrontation with the maddening combination of clarity and cluelessness that only an outsider’s perspective can bring to a conversation like this one. She’s right; it’s a crazy conversation to have, as are most conversations about identity politics. But it’s a conversation the gay community, such as it is, needs to have. And it’s one that needs to be taken more seriously than the makers of Looking seem willing to.