TV review

What Makes ‘Cucumber’ Such a Good Gay Feel-Bad Drama?

The Daily Beast

April 13, 2015

For anyone who found the ill-fated HBO drama Looking slow, or boring (hands up: me season one, less so season two), Cucumber passes at a rate of knots. If you tune into its season premiere tonight (Monday) on Logo, you will not be bored, far from it. You will be out of breath.

But just like Looking, the viewer response to this gay-themed drama was mixed when it was shown in Britain earlier this year.

Just as with Looking, the characters were deemed unsympathetic and unwatchable. For others, the drama was inconsistent and tonally weird. Why have audiences apparently fallen out of love with gay-themed TV drama?

Cucumber—and a companion show, Banana (both named after the scale used to measure the hardness of an erection)—are the creation of Russell T. Davies, creator of the original British Queer as Folk, the drama that energetically redefined gay representation on TV. Davies had also overseen the brilliant updating of Doctor Who.

Critical expectation was high for Cucumber, but watching the first two episodes you can see that those expecting a Queer As Folk 2 are going to be radically disappointed.

The breakneck pace is the same, the snappy dialogue, the polemical monologues that no-one would say but which are wonderfully crafted nonetheless.

The central couple of Cucumber, Henry (Vincent Franklin) and Lance (Cyril Nri), are settled in the suburbs. They’ve been together for years, and yet their relationship is seemingly splintered irrevocably in mere moments.

They seem alright in the pub with their mates—the talk is campy, and cellphone apps are wielded to check on the sexual status of their cute barman. It’s a deceptively light-hearted introduction.

The slalom to disaster begins when Lance suggests they get married. Henry doesn’t want to. Lance is devastated. Off they go to a gay club in the worst kind of moods, Lance furiously suggesting they find someone for a threesome—but he is less horny, and more wounded and rejected. Whatever point he wants to make it is destructive, and Henry knows it.

That threesome goes hideously off the tracks, and the couple break up. Lance, Henry says, is too safe for him. He wants one last hurrah, one last chance to get some “cock,” even though—as it is revealed—he has never had penetrative sex. This in itself is radical for a gay drama: anal sex is a taken-for-granted gay sexual act, but not in Cucumber.

Henry goes off to live in the loft apartment of some young gays who work in his office, mailboy Dean (Fisayo Akinade) and food server Freddie (Freddie Fox).

A clash of ages, gay cultures, and sexual tension unfolds, complicated by the oddly menacing presence of a sexy, supposedly straight co-worker of Lance’s, Daniel (James Murray), who seems to be disgusted with homosexuality, and also turned on by it.

The problem with Cucumber for some seems to be that it doesn’t know if it wants to be breezy or deep, and falters between the two. Should it channel the depths of Henry’s “shame,” as Lance puts it, or keep putting him in absurd situations with his new young, flibbertigibbet flatmates. Well, it does both—and demands the viewer follow and empathize with someone who is not that likable. Audacious writing, for sure, but that is what Davies does.

Both Looking and Cucumber strike an uneasy chord because they ask hard, gnarly questions: they’re about gay discontent at a time when the prevailing social winds—marriage equality, growing acceptance—seem to blow in another direction.

Looking, Cucumber, and Banana interrogate the intricacies of relationships, alongside and also outside the dayglo highs of big-city clubbing and horny muscle boys. All three dramas may ask those questions in different paces and registers, but they hold the same get-real mirror up to their core audience, and that can be a tough watch.

Davies himself said he was a fan of Looking. “It was a subtle piece of work, and I think, frankly, now that it’s over I can just be blunt and say that went over people’s heads,” he told Think Progress. “And if you didn’t get it, you’re a bit dumb. Because it was really subtle, really beautiful, really cleverly written, and seriously, I would suggest that if you didn’t get it, take a deep breath, go back and watch it again.”

In Cucumber, Henry and Lance are middle aged, and not with six-packs—they’re unhappy, searching, and only in appearance settled. And Henry is someone who is very difficult to root for: he consistently does the worst, most selfish thing, shown most plainly in the first episode in the suicide of a co-worker.

Henry doesn’t care, and doesn’t know what he wants, and he is prepared to destroy the best thing in his life—his relationship—to find out. He spits at Lance that he will put their relationship at maximum risk, because he can, because he knows Lance will always be there waiting for him.

Two episodes in, and I don’t dislike Cucumber as much as some viewers (a friend said it had a decidedly lukewarm response when it was shown to a special audience of LGBT media types in New York last week).

But, bravely, Cucumber breaks many rules of gay drama: no hero to root for, non-conventionally attractive leads, a story that ranges this way and that, and despite its speed and explicit sex talk, an insistent concentration on the blurred forces at the heart of intimacy and desire—given a colorful, pop sheen for sure, but barely disguised.

Davies told Think Progress of the foundation of the drama: “It isn’t just about the politics, it isn’t just about the laws, it isn’t about the state passing legislation that allows us to do something in public. It’s about life; it’s about who we are. So, I think one thing that comes out of Cucumber and Banana, which between them, do explore different generations, is that no one is perfectly happy, and never will be. And that’s where drama is always at it’s richest, I think.”

This is Davies’ Queer as Folk generation grown up: more out than ever before, but unhappy and questioning. Looking was slower, but delivered a similar downbeat gay self-assessment.

The drama has some flaws. Henry and Lance’s relationship is over before it has begun for the viewer, and so why should you care about them when their status as a couple has been barely established? It is Lance who guides us the most with the pain he is feeling. Henry really never seems that present or invested in it.

Freddie is supposed to be angelic and dangerous, but Fox doesn’t possess that edgy charisma to carry the part off. He wafts around, part dissolute late-teen dandy, part underwear model. A totally unscientific poll of gay friends reveals zero “phwaoor” impact.

The drama is beached between knockabout comedy and serious drama, uncomfortably so–but it remains compelling as it tries the viewer’s traditional, in-built laziness. It doesn’t connect the dots, so much as scatter them. Depending on your patience, that is either winning or a fail.

The more fluent show is Banana, which focuses on the younger members of the cast. Akinade is such a brilliant performer, and Davies gives his character Dean a super, wrong-footing, expectation-defying backstory.

As cocky and confident as Dean seems—off he trots to Grindr hook-ups, he’s always ready for a flirty putdown to horny, frustrated Henry—Dean wants love, real intimacy.

We see that at one hook-up, which ends—umm—peremptorily where Dean wants to stay and talk to the hot guy he made out with, who in turn just wants him out of the room. More intriguingly, Dean says he has escaped a homophobic family, but when we follow him in a visit home, his parents are delightful and open-hearted.

The second episode focuses on the improbable crush of young lesbian ‘Scotty’ (Letitia Wright) on a woman she sees at a supermarket checkout. This—unlike the bloated and crazy criss-crossing tones and directions of Cucumber—is a tight, moving half-hour of drama, reminiscent of Queer as Folk at its most sparky and profound, mixing in age, race, love, obsession, and passion in a perfect half hour.

Cucumber and Banana will come and go quickly—there are no plans, Davies has said, for second seasons of either. He is now working on The Boys, an HIV and AIDS drama set in 80s Britain.

And so, after Cucumber and Banana, there will be no singularly gay-themed drama playing on our screens. Perhaps its moment has passed, or perhaps the questioning stories being told by Looking and Cucumber don’t match the audience’s desire for sex, and shock. But what these dramas show is a continued need for it.

Yes, LGBT characters are in the mainstream now, but at what depth are their stories being told? In Cucumber and Banana, Davies tells different truths to the Modern Family-ish happy gay sitcom parents out there, and the horny hunks who crop up in mainstream drama.

Some showrunners—Shonda Rhimes particularly, and Lee Daniels and Danny Sharp with Empire—are creating rounded gay characters, with sex lives, in primetime.

But with characters like Henry and Lance, Cucumber and Banana show how, on a gay-themed show itself, more complex portrayals can be constructed, with surprising sharpness and subtle calibration. Less sugar, more unpredictable spice. Warn your tastebuds, and you may be pleasantly surprised.