June Thomas: Bryan, thanks for joining me to discuss Russell T. Davies’ intersecting series Cucumber and Banana, which just ended their eight-episode runs on Logo. We don’t usually do this kind of post-mortem, but I was so blown away by these shows—so in awe of them, really—that I wanted to give them a proper send off. So, I guess my hard-hitting first question is: Best shows ever, or just best shows of the 21st century?
J. Bryan Lowder: June, I’m not sure I can answer that question, at least not under those terms. I am similarly dumbfounded by the excellence of these shows (or as I prefer to think of it, the narrative universe that Davies manifested between them), but I honestly cannot think of another show to compare them to—to my mind, they are a truly singular work of art, both of the “gay” sort and more generally. So, best shows? I guess. Certainly the first television art that I have been consistently delighted and moved by and just genuinely excited for in some time.
Thomas: Agreed. When I recommend TV shows, I usually have to make some kind of disclaimer, the equivalent of winking, to let people know that it’s a particular kind of humor, for instance (as with Vicious), or that it’s a drama that’s not to be taken altogether seriously (like, I don’t know, the late, lamented only by me Franklin & Bash), but with CucBan, I feel no such need. These were works of genius that worked as both politics (especially in Cucumber), in that they said profound things about “our” community and our place in other communities, and as art, in that they were consistently beautiful. Most episodes of Banana felt moving and completely fresh. The story of Scotty’s love for an older woman she didn’t know was just breathtaking. There, as in a lot of the episodes, I thought it was heading in a familiar direction, and then it suddenly zagged and took me somewhere I’d never been before.
Lowder: You’ve hit on a key quality there—I am still trying to sort out how Davies and his team managed to take themes and scenarios that are deeply familiar to me as an urban gay man (I’m thinking in particular about Cucumber’s main storyline here) and yet render them—or maybe even better, gently and cleverly light them—in ways that revealed completely novel stories and fresh emotional texture. One example of this among many is the way Grindr (or something like it) becomes an incredibly potent narrative force across the episodes: Think of the psychological detail and intense desire contained in Lance’s texts to Daniel or, in episode 7 of Banana, the way the possibility of a hookup (made physical in Aiden’s phone on the table) wields so much gravity during his bittersweet post-threesome day-long date with nerdy boy Frank. Indeed, in Henry, Freddie, and Dean’s grand chase of Aiden’s profile in the paired Cucumber episode, Grindr functions as both fodder for madcap comedy and poignant revelation: These men will go to great lengths to track down a trick, when what they really need (right then, at least) is to connect with the guys who are only a foot or two away.
And the truth is, sex apps and digital connections do impact the structure of modern gay life in profound ways—but I have not seen an artist channel that emerging truth with such deft poetry until this.
Thomas: Since you called out Banana Episode 7—the story of Aiden and Frank’s post-threesome day date—let’s consider it for a moment longer. It squeezed so much into 22 minutes: the “way we hook up now” stuff that you mentioned; sexual tension; some cute graphic elements that made the men’s interaction more profound when it reminded us that we’re constantly surrounded by people on Day 1, Day 14, or Day 14,000 of their relationships; some truth-telling when hot Aiden tells homely Frank that he shouldn’t guilt-trip him because “I only want to shag guys I actually fancy”; and then a final twist when we saw Frank give another non-hot guy the insta-brushoff. So: humor, a few flashes of hot bedroom action, a reminder of how many different types of people make up “gay” or even “young, white gay,” and a political message. Yet in the first few minutes, I just figured, “Oh, this is a story about looksism.” It was that, but then there was so much more.
Lowder: Yeah, I often found myself realizing that while a given episode or plot point was “about” an “issue,” I never felt like I was watching a PSA. So “looksism” in Aiden’s tale or “intergenerational connection” in Henry’s flat, sure, but these were always approached in a way that felt appropriately messy and open-ended—and thus, real.
Thomas: But we’re gushing. You told me you had some quibbles. Let’s get them out there so that we don’t look like total fangirls.
Lowder: I did wonder if the show’s tendency toward the fantastical, perhaps even magical realism, ever struck you as going a bit too far, especially in the later episodes of Cucumber. I am of two minds. On the one hand, I generally found this tonal choice thrilling and part of what made the shows feel aesthetically gay to me. We have a history of connection to genres like melodrama and the musical, and I’m beginning to feel that for a gay work of art to feel real, it must actually indulge in a touch of the surreal. (The comparison to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America here is unavoidable.) On the other, this sort of thing must be handled carefully lest it risk tipping over into the absurd. The moment that gave me the most pause in this regard was Lance’s visitation by the lesbian ghost figure in the Manchester gayborhood, who warned him that he’d “taken a wrong turn.” Part of me was genuinely chilled by this—only the most callow queer can move through the world, and especially certain gay spaces, in 2015 and not feel haunted by our ancestors. I feel this way regularly walking down Christopher Street. But then, just typing the phrase “lesbian ghost figure” makes me cringe a little. What do you make of that moment, and of this approach in general?
Thomas: That didn’t really bother me. That episode was so extraordinary—truly one of the most amazing hours of television I can remember watching—and that was just one more magical element, because what is showing us a man’s life in 44 minutes in a way that makes us feel we know that person deeply if not magical? Maybe it’s that I’m closer to Lance and Henry’s age than to yours, but even though I am a hardline materialist and not at all prone to woo-woo, I’m ready to believe that at key points in life, there’s a teeny, tiny possibility of supernatural intervention. I also didn’t see that woman as a lesbian—I thought of her as one of the straight women that populate places like Manchester’s Canal Street. (Someone who in the worldview of your recent piece “What Was Gay?” is culturally gay but sexually straight.) But she was a ghost of sorts—from Queer as Folk. Denise Black, the actress who played the “ghost” was Vince’s mum in RTD’s big gay breakthrough. In fact, when I consulted IMDB to confirm that, I saw that both characters were named Hazel, so I reckon she was an actual visitation from that earlier story. That made it feel like a completing of the circle to me. (Black’s presence was also a bit of a meta-reference to the Mancunian mise-en-scène. Like Julie Hesmondhalgh, who played Henry’s sister Cleo, Black spent years in the cast of Coronation Street, the soap that represents the North for a lot of Brits.)
Lowder: Ah! That’s a great connection. And yes, now that you say it, I think you are right that she was more mother to all the lost boys than lesbian. I guess maybe my anxiety about the magical elements stems from the fact that I worry that straight viewers just might not get their situation in gay cultural history. Emily Nussbaum’s review of the shows in the New Yorker was largely positive, but she did seem somewhat baffled by those aspects, and I know that critics in the U.K. found them off-putting. But ultimately I guess I shouldn’t care—the fantasy worked well for me 95 percent of the time.
Since you brought up my big gay piece, you know I was constantly thinking about queer family while watching this, especially once Henry creates his short-lived collective in the last two episodes. As much as I wept for the tragic aspects of these shows, I found myself just as moist from the profound joy expressed in those scenes. I think Davies has really achieved something here in both articulating a distinctly gay male experience of the world, one full of cucumbers and cruising, and placing that in the context of all these other experiences (lesbian, bi, trans, whatever) and arguing that they can get along together to a degree—at least until the gay assholes start making the lezzie jokes. I guess what I’m asking, June, is if you want to move in with me?
Thomas: I’m packing my stuff as I type! For me, the days of the collective were the most fantastical—in that they were profoundly to be desired but also not very believable. My favorite minute of the entire 12 hours (eight hours of Cucumber, four hours of Banana) was at the end of Cucumber 7 when everyone repaired to Henry’s house for some wild, ecstatic dancing. That’s our people’s traditional response to pain—but the bar always closes, and I was glad that the “we can all live together (but no Welsh)” fantasy was short-lived. Henry was grieving, and he needed his Sister Sledge “We Are Family” moment, but that doesn’t last forever.
I was also glad that it was a closed-ended series, which allowed Davies to wrap everything up. The quick flash-forward in time at the end allowed us to check in with Freddie, still pretty, still untouchable, still not healed from the damage Christopher inflicted. I appreciated that unresolved pain. Like Henry, Freddie isn’t likable, but I feel I understand him.
Lowder: You know, at first I questioned the choppiness of the finale episode, with all the jumps forward. But in the end I think I agree—as Cleo said, grief takes a long time to process, and it has a way of surprising you at weird moments. It was worthwhile to follow Henry a bit longer to see that play out. I will say that I got a touch tired of his “was it my fault?” back and forth—it really wasn’t—but I generally appreciated the opportunity to deal with Lance’s loss and Henry’s maturing for a more extended time than other shows might have granted.
On that latter issue, I love the idea that even after all this, Henry is only beginning to come to terms with his sexuality. If I left these shows with anything, it’s with some assurance that just because we are finally getting certain rights and some of our bosses are afraid of the LGBTQ employee organization, that doesn’t mean everything is sorted. Being queer still means you move through the world in a different way and with different kinds of baggage. Sometimes, that will mean we need to struggle to overcome the trauma of difference to become healthier people. Other times, we can embrace the pleasure of difference, difference that allows us to experience the grocery store as a wonderland of firm produce. The point is, difference exists, and we will be dealing with it for some time to come, perhaps forever. I hope more artists will embrace that fact, as Davies has done so admirably here.