It’s not hard to reimagine Brooklyn as a landscape built upon the acidic bons mots of the once hopelessly romantic and currently just hopeless. But that’s slightly reductive as a description of The Outs, the web series created by star/writer/director Adam Goldman. When it debuted in 2012, Goldman’s sour style of humor would set the groundwork for shows like Hulu’s Difficult People and HBO’s Looking, imbuing the concise, serialized 12-20 minute episodes of The Outs with an unusually potent brand of comedy, heavily informed by the characters’ self-loathing. Through its protagonists—Mitchell (Goldman), his ex-boyfriend Jack (Hunter Canning), and Mitchell’s best friend Oona (Sasha Winters, who also wrote the first season with Goldman)—the show reestablishes Brooklyn as a landscape not merely constructed out of cynicism, but with depth, humor, and melancholy.
After three years, The Outs returned for a second season last Wednesday, this time not merely as an independent Kickstarter-funded project, but as a Vimeo Original. If the first season of The Outs was about the origins of doubt and its intersection with mistrust and heartbreak, its second season is intent on examining what’s happened to our understanding of love and relationships (within a gay context) since 2013, and what those things mean now. It’s not as trite as it sounds. In the first season, Goldman demonstrated the strength of his writing, his ability to interweave verbally athletic jabs and a sense of authentic emotion, and here he wittily observes the contemporary uses of cynicism, within a broader survey of gay male identity.
“I want to think we understand each other on some fundamental level,” Mitchell says of gay people in general, and of his annoying gay co-worker “Garbage Sneezer” in particular. The first season of The Outs looked closely at Adam’s implicit desire for this kind of understanding, and his inability to find it. This may be due in part to the degree to which gay identity continues to shift and evolve, particularly within the media, and especially after the proliferation of dating apps. While LGBTQ people, as societal “Others,” have gradually been accepted or assimilated into the mainstream, Mitchell still feels adrift, even uncertain to what degree he can really identify with other gay people. With the rapid evolution of public gay identity, Mitchell either can’t keep up or has no desire to meet mainstream expectations. In a Sondheimian way, The Outs pinpoints queer ambivalence.
This season of The Outs doubles down on the strange relationship between public gay persona and personal identity. Mitchell quips about the secret gay agency that runs social media marketing for companies, keying into this idea of how gayness has been assimilated into straight culture: as the arbiter of wit, and not much else. It’s arguably ironic that such wit exactly is Mitchell’s crutch; but his astringent quippiness is transparently reflective of himself and his own personal ambivalence. While The Outs never wants to be pointedly political, this kind of duality is present through the series—is arguably its hallmark—and it’s is crucial to some of the most interesting gay-themed television and films, including the aforementioned Looking and Difficult People. Dating apps have less of an overt presence in the new episodes of The Outs in comparison to the first season (though Grindr is still implicitly here), but it’s clear that the show remains haunted by the imperfection of communication within its own social niche. For Mitchell, language, sharp and cutting, is a weapon whose uses are more sadomasochistic than he realizes.
Mitchell means well, but the armor that manifests as the show’s trademark absinthian comedy—one that all of the main cast wears—always ends up being a disservice. In the first episode of the new season, Mitchell’s relationship to unguarded intimacy continues to be fraught. When his new boyfriend, Rob, is tardy to dinner, it draws out a bitterness that is etched into Mitchell’s personality, even as he palpably desires real intimacy. So often, Mitchell seems to be pondering to what degree he can allow himself to be vulnerable. He can’t leave a voice message on Rob’s phone; he’s worried about bothering him. In the second episode, he’s tacit about asking Rob to move in, and though he and Jack are now friends, there’s still a modicum of tension between them. For all Rob’s efforts, he’s unable to really penetrate Mitchell’s hard exterior. Goldman’s face seems to be carved so as to always convey an undercurrent of sadness, which is why his line readings are so interesting. The acerbic witticisms project and perform confidence, but there’s a sadness and insecurity underneath.
While sarcasm is a primary distancing tool for Mitchell, it’s Oona’s route to success. “You’re getting paid to write!” Mitchell tells Oona upon her return to Brooklyn after a book tour. With a book capitalizing on her “bitchy” brand, Oona steps up as a character, and Winters’s arch affect becomes more flexible, allowing a sense of nuance into her character. She transcends a role that sometimes skirted caricature.
But perhaps the greatest success of The Outs this season is that it lets itself feel again, and even more. Jack’s negotiation through a long-distance relationship with Paul (Tommy Heleringer) is tender, carefully articulated, and exquisitely wrought. Heleringer, whose credits include Gayby and Goldman and DP/Co-Director Jay Gillespie’s other web series Whatever This Is., evokes Paul’s delicate sensitivity, and that he’s so forthright with his feelings and Jack is slightly less so is an interesting dynamic. The first episode infers that they’re open, and the confrontation regarding this situation is perhaps some of the best “television” writing I’ve seen in years. Goldman is above all attentive to what lies beneath exteriors and facades, and what role that plays in interpersonal relationships.
The Outs asserts itself as not only as one of the best series online, but perhaps one of today’s best serial dramedies, period. Goldman’s self-assured writing makes a good argument for him as an heir to Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach, particularly the latter, well-known for visions of metropolitan dominated by wit and undercut by melancholy-fueled misanthropy.