Though the most I could ever muster for Looking, HBO’s recently canceled show about a handful of uninteresting gay guys in San Francisco, was a grudging tolerance, I’ll agree with its mourners on one point: Patrick and company’s departure leaves television lacking a committed gay show, and, worse, may discourage executives from finding a replacement. Lucky for us, however, the Brits might have already created the rebound we need in Cucumber and its companion show Banana, which sashay across the pond to Logo on Monday following RuPaul’s Drag Race. Having seen the first two episodes of each, I feel confident to say that, taken together, the series are as insightful about modern gay life (albeit in Manchester, England) as Looking tried to be, but with an important difference—they also happen to be consistently surprising and entertaining.
This rare combination of smarts and sparkle has long been a hallmark of creator Russell T. Davies’ work—which includes the original U.K. Queer as Folk and his wildly popular reboot of the Doctor Who franchise—and they imbue this new interrelated programming venture with the makings of excellence. Indeed, if the remainder of the shows bear out the promise of their opening, we could be looking at the first truly great queer shows of the “equality era.”
Cucumber (as an hour-long dramedy, the more substantial of the two) follows the midlife crisis of Henry, an 46-year-old insurance manager who’s launched on a somewhat fantastic journey of self-discovery after rejecting his longtime boyfriend’s proposal of marriage and, later, a doomed compensatory threesome, all in the first episode. The half-hour Banana then zooms in, portrait-style, on the lives of the younger queers with whom Henry becomes involved, its narrative approach tacking toward the impressionistic. The difference in tone mirrors the naming of the shows, which is based on a scale of erection hardness: Cucumber is pointed and rigid and a bit manic, while Banana, though still arousing, gives a little in terms of intensity.
Tone is only one of the many ways in which Cucumber and Banana complement each other. For one thing, there’s the visceral satisfaction of getting a look into the lives of “minor” characters that most other shows deny. There’s also an enlivening touch of surrealism shared between the series, such as when Henry indulges in a dark fantasy about all the couples around him in the grocery store coming to blows after peeking at each other’s smartphones or when Dean, a romantic 19-year-old gay man who becomes Henry’s flatmate, cruises a handsome stranger on the bus and spins out an entire relationship that ends with the guy’s dying from some tragic malady in Dean’s arms. Most felicitous, though, is the way in which Banana saves Cucumber from being another series about a well-off white gay man. Due to the British context, multiculturalism comes naturally to both shows, but it’s worth noting that the first two episodes of Banana focus on queer people of color (Dean and a lesbian, Scotty, respectively) from different class backgrounds. Davies has been explicit about his commitment to diversity, telling Outward’s June Thomas that “TV in particular is responsible for reminding us that the world is not just composed of people exactly like ourselves and that everyone’s got a story to tell.”
These are all good things, but Cucumber/Banana is most exciting for the queer stories—stories that pick up on underexplored gay “issues” in organic and engaging ways—it has chosen to tell. Chief among these (so far) is the theme of gay aging and intergenerational relating embodied in Henry’s arc. His crumbling relationship with his boyfriend of nine years, Lance, over sexual incompatibility (Henry won’t do anal) and general mistrust offer one poignant vision of what can happen when gays get older; but so, too, does the excitement, both sexual and social, he finds in connecting with a younger queer generation that came of age in a world entirely changed since his own youth. Russell clearly has a vision of multi-generational queer kinship in mind—indeed, Dean at one point describes an assemblage of queer people of various ages and races as his “real family”—and, given that American television tends to buy into the youth cult as much as gay culture does, it’s a pleasure to see it explored on screen.
But the benefit of mixing older queers with younger ones on television isn’t just a question of basic representation; it also allows for a bit of subtle meditation on what the political and legal progress of recent years really means for the gay experience. Cucumber and Banana combine to suggest that a lot of the problems that we assumed “equality” would solve have a way of hanging around—perhaps in modified forms, but there all the same. For Henry, the right to wed feels more like an imposition than a blessing; and in any case, equality in the eyes of the state has done little to alleviate his sexual shame (even as his abstract obsession with “cock” rages on). Likewise, Dean’s relationship to his biological family offers a modern twist on the fear of rejection that has been a definitional part of the queer experience for so long, while Scotty’s story shows a parent’s acceptance doesn’t necessarily make you well-adjusted. Davies gets at all this when he says, “You’ve got equality. You can get married. The law’s on your side. That doesn’t make you happy. … I wanted to show that young, gay people are beleaguered by problems. They’re just as fantastically, hilariously full of problems as they’ve ever been.”
Debates over gay representation often return to the question of “realness,” of a desire for images and portrayals that show our lives as they really are. Looking achieved this for a few, as did Will & Grace or Queer As Folk for others before them. But I have a feeling that Cucumber and Banana are going to speak to many more people. Davies’ investment in diversity—especially in terms of age—and his nuanced rendering of the awkward interface between broad historical changes and quotidian experience are enough to guarantee that. But he has also managed to create a pair of “gay shows” that can own that name without feeling it as a limitation. Gayness here is worked seamlessly into the everyday lives of the characters as a sort of invisible field that they’re always moving through, even if they only pay direct attention to it from time to time—a sudden beep from a hookup app that you forgot to turn off. While not all the situations or decisions Henry and Dean and the others face are directly (or wholly) defined by their sexual or gender identities, their lives are always recognizably queer. That feels real to me—or at least as real as fiction can get.