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‘Cucumber’ and ‘Banana’ Take Sex Seriously

In praise of two weird, wonderful, and very gay British TV shows

Ringer illustration/Getty Images
Ringer illustration/Getty Images

Before you ask, yes, Cucumber and Banana are called that because: dicks.

More specifically, the sibling British series are called that because of a scale of how hard dicks can get, determined by scientists in Switzerland and laid out by Cucumber’s protagonist, a middle-aged gay man we meet in that terrifying moment of limbo before his life roller-coaster-drops into midlife crisis. Henry Best (Vincent Franklin) is prowling the supermarket — not the most original metaphor for the sexual, well, marketplace, but still an apt one. There are four notches on the scale, he says in voice-over as the scale comes to life. Tofu (the tofu lands on the counter with a wet, unappetizing slap). Peeled banana. Banana. And finally — the score swells into an a cappella symphony of zippers and palm slaps — cucumber.

Cucumber is Henry’s story; Banana is the story of his community, the gay scene in Manchester, England. The former is an hourlong drama that’s often brutally funny; the latter is a half-hour comedy that’s often wrenchingly emotional. The shows share both a setting and a creator, Russell T. Davies, with the 1999 series Queer As Folk, the groundbreaking series that was remade for North American television, as most groundbreaking British series inevitably are. (Davies wrote all of Cucumber’s eight episodes and three of Banana’s eight.) Along with the documentary web series Tofu, they premiered on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in January of last year. Three months later, they reaired with shamefully low numbers on Logo in the U.S. Now the shows lie in wait on Hulu for lucky subscribers to stumble on, possibly over a holiday weekend while refusing to go outside and/or watch something more current. (Me. The lucky subscriber is me.)

As that opening suggests, both these shows are extremely upfront about sex. So upfront, in fact, it’s almost hard for an American to take them seriously. The breakup of a nine-year relationship, which leaves Henry’s life in pieces, is triggered, in part, by his refusal to have penetrative sex with his boyfriend; at 46, he’s done everything but. Cucumber is so explicit about Henry’s hang-ups, so matter of fact, that it’s frankly baffling to a viewer raised on a steady diet of American puritanism. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it: trained by a lifetime’s worth of TV that treats sex as either nonexistent (remember when Modern Family had to make an entire Very Special Episode about its gay leads — gasp! — kissing?), a fantasy, or a joke, I kept waiting for the punch line.

There isn’t one — or there is, but Henry isn’t it. Davies’s handle on the comedy of sexual indignity makes Lena Dunham look like a Catholic schoolmarm, and he wastes no chance to use it. There’s a threesome that ends with Manchester’s finest dragging a naked man named Francesco through the streets. There are lengthy discussions of aging’s effects on cum and pubic hair, sometimes with hands-on demonstrations. There’s Henry’s new roommate in a questionably legal loft, who shows off his chastity belt to anyone who asks (and some who don’t).

But Cucumber ultimately takes Henry seriously, and it steadfastly tracks the ripple effect his unraveling has on those around him. His sister Cleo (Julie Hesmondhalgh) is a chipper voice of reason until his experimentation affects her family life and eventually inspires some of her own. His crush Freddie (Freddie Fox), a bisexual Adonis who’s every bit as cruel as his looks allow him to be, finds himself begrudgingly invested in Henry’s problems. His ex-partner Lance (Cyril Nri) distracts himself by flirting with a brusque, deeply closeted coworker. Everything comes to a head in the sixth episode, which compresses an entire life’s worth of milestones — growing up, coming out, living through the AIDS crisis, moving to the city, settling down — into a breathtaking hour that feels like an excerpt from the more anthological Banana.

Channel 4
Channel 4

Speaking of: Banana is meant as a companion to Cucumber, with every episode telling the self-contained story of a character whose life briefly intersects with Henry’s, sometimes even offscreen, in the preceding episode of Cucumber. It’s the same deeply humanistic premise of the web series turned HBO show High Maintenance: No matter how tangential someone’s connection to a story we’re already invested in, pull the loose string hard enough and you’ll find another story equally deserving of our attention. There’s a similar tonal flexibility to it, too. Some chapters are one-act tragedies, like the unlikely romance between two men on opposite ends on the hotness spectrum that’s over before it can even begin. And others, true to the name, are sweet palate cleansers after the intensity of Cucumber.

But the same template that works so well for stoners in Brooklyn takes on an extra political dimension when it’s transposed onto the raucous mosaic of gay life in Manchester. Many of Banana’s characters live in the same industrial apartment complex as Henry; they’re young, broke, and coming of age in a time when being out has never held so much possibility or confusion. Grindr figures prominently here. So does revenge porn, and online dating, and one-night stands, and full-on romance. It’s a wide-angle snapshot of a way of life, one that’s dizzyingly fragmented and yet still a cohesive whole. That community bleeds between the two series and, in the final episode of Cucumber, joyously and cathartically comes together in the face of tragedy, if only for a moment.

It’s hard to watch Cucumber and Banana and not compare them to Looking, Andrew Haigh’s HBO series (and now movie), whose second season improved but still fell short of its potential. Among other things, Looking was criticized for failing to capture the texture and depth of gay San Francisco; set in the historical epicenter of gayness in America, it chose to center on a gentrifying tech worker who lives in the Mission. Cucumber/Banana manages to have it both ways: It locks onto Henry while it emphasizes that he’s one of many searchers wandering Manchester’s canal. Sexuality, Davies knows, is as maddeningly complicated as it is studiously ignored. Cucumber/Banana has the courage to take it head-on.