“We should have a proper fuck one of these days,” Leigh says to his budding boyfriend Henry one night. “I don’t even know what you’re like. Are you Ross or Rachel?” Somebody watches Looking! An homage to the other show about gay men on TV is always welcome—and surprising; whoda thunk such a small show would have concrete evidence of influence already?—but it also has the effect of bringing Looking and Cucumber into comparison, which I’ve been resisting. Despite sharing a central character motivated (or unmotivated) by fear, the stories of Cucumber and Looking don’t have a lot in common. Looking is a romance and a somewhat more traditional coming of age. Cucumber is a stranger, spikier story that isn’t so easily wrapped in a bow, but the trunk of the tree has to do with Henry’s fear of sex. Television has plenty sexless middle-aged gay men. Cucumber’s just the first show to take that chastity seriously, and it still manages its fair share of sex scenes to distinguish the show’s values from those of its censor-friendly protagonist.
The shows share a seemingly casual approach to storytelling. Cucumber only has eight episodes and it doesn’t seem like it’s in much of a hurry for Henry to get his life together or hit rock bottom or both. Lance and Daniel move at a similarly slow clip, and the show meanders down what seem like side streets, such as what Dean calls Henry’s porn empire. And speaking of Dean, he and Freddie sure get a lot of attention with stories that don’t seem to be going anywhere specific. But where Looking is a quieter show about more everyday struggles (love, work, which enema to buy), Cucumber seems to wander but zooms through its scenes. I don’t think Looking ever passed the time with a montage. Cucumber and Banana seem to do it twice a week each. Television physics: The higher the concept, the more energy.
But a leisurely pace gave Looking a rare sensitivity. It built moments of intense emotion out of the everyday lives of its characters. There was meaning in the shape of it, in the blocking and angles and and duration. And in the look and feel, the color and the light carefully setting a mood. When people say a TV show is cinematic, they often just mean it’s beautiful. When I say Looking is cinematic, I mean it’s expressed by its visuals. It’s beautiful, sure, and not in the common way of just pointing a high-def camera at a passable tableau, but rather unified, meaningful, restrained and accordingly potent. The shots and images and cuts aren’t just tools for storytelling. They are the storytelling.
Cucumber is more of a writer’s show. That kind of dichotomy (writer’s vs. director’s medium) gets thrown around willy-nilly too, but the general meaning should be clear. Cucumber—not the script and not the performances but the whole kit and caboodle—comes across as an interestingly written serial. Suspense comes from its monologues, tragedy from the things the characters can’t say, even sexting plays out as words on-screen. But it’s formally shallow. It’s very generally stylized. It doesn’t come to life in the same way as Looking.
How much that matters is a judgment call. Television isn’t a movie. A show like this is a movie serial. On the one hand, it’s being told with a camera and the world as its stage, so it’s aiming for a movie quality, but on the other, a weekly schedule understandably demands a lot more attention to the interlocking scripts. Besides, human faces and bodies playing out different scenarios is the main draw anyway, whether the writing or the directing is privileged (not that either of those fields is strictly defined or distinct from crafting the performances). There are all kinds of different ways to be a great TV show, not just the low-key mood mastery of Looking.
It’s just that Cucumber makes me laugh and it makes me squirm and it doesn’t really get me very choked up or invested in any character’s story. The shock moments are what hit me. That pan across Henry’s underage Youtube models to Cleo saying, “Hello, boys. Nervous?” got a chuckle. Poor Henry and poorer Lance getting coffee and being utterly unable to tell each other, the person who knows them and has loved them and hurt them for years, what they want, well, it registers on an intellectual level more than an emotional one. And I’d locate the source of that response in its failure to come to life cinematically.
That said, some of those side streets are starting to make sense. Henry’s “Porn Empire” isn’t just an excuse to get a middle-aged gay man’s take on youthful (specifically, Adam Whitaker and his peers are only borderline millennials and probably have more in common with whatever we’re calling the next generation as a cohort than with the kids who remember Alta Vista and Tripod) sexual libertinism, whether straight boys looking to capitalize and exploit a gay market or curious boys looking for an excuse to experiment. When Adam tells Henry that he’s “mucking about” with a buddy, Henry just deflates. Adam doesn’t get it, but Henry’s envious and resentful and eventually genuinely happy for Adam. It’s a play on the mix of emotions in Daniel, but we’ll get there.
However, Cleo demonstrates that Henry’s Youtube venture is another in a long line of chain reactions he thoughtlessly sets off that wind up hurting other people in his vicinity. There’s an abstract principled argument here, but Cleo doesn’t need it. Henry’s game of Nervous, where boys touch each other around their private parts until one of them gets too nervous to continue, has already led to schoolboys reaching up girls’ skirts and asking, “Are you nervous?” One of those girls is Cleo’s 12-year-old daughter, who is already plucking her pubic hair and texting photo updates to boys. Henry may not be directly or solely responsible, but the point is he doesn’t see the consequences of his actions.
From there we get two “real life” games of nervous, when Henry skips a date with Leigh on the day that they were finally gonna have a “proper fuck” to spend time with a drunk and celebratory Freddie in his bedroom and Lance invites Daniel over for a date that Daniel doesn’t know is a date. Both had me shouting at the screen. Just go to Leigh, Henry! Can’t you do anything right? Freddie mostly toys with Henry, swapping sex stories, rubbing Henry’s leg with his foot, showing off his growing bulge, but he’s clearly enjoying the company. Then he dismisses Henry, and Henry checks his phone and deletes his texts from Leigh. This situation was far from irreparable, but it must be a heavy burden from Henry’s side, even though it’s Henry’s fault. Now there are two men to whom he feels like he owes sex.
Daniel’s the one who’s toying with Lance, and at this point, it’s impossible to get inside Lance’s infatuated little head and see things through his heart-eyes. He says it himself: Daniel’s insane. That’s not exactly the word I would use, but his hot-cold routine is aggressive. If you don’t get the implications of comparing people to insects you need to watch more Star Trek. The hostility on Daniel’s face as he jacks off for Lance is unacceptable given the context. Ultimately Daniel’s a very different animal from repressed Henry or the curious kids. And then Daniel finishes and raises up his hands in victory, back to his boyish silliness. The speed with which he switches between his two faces is creepy. Yes, I’m nervous. On the way out he says he wants to do it again, and stupid, lovesick Lance can’t even see that he needs to set some rules, to stand up for himself. Doesn’t he remember the last relationship he was in where his needs were trampled?
In fact, Lance does remember that decade of repression. At their coffee date at the end, Lance directly connects his present state of ignorant bliss to Henry. Lance hasn’t felt this level of infatuation, that adrenaline that comes with love, in years. He’s another of Henry’s chain reactions. Hopefully he’s the big one, the one that Henry can take responsibility for and set right by the end of the season, for his own sake as much as Lance’s. But neither Henry nor Lance can bring himself to say he wants to try again. At least not yet.
As Cleo says to Henry in a model kiss-off scene, “You’re chucking everything away. Do not lose me. Now get out.” Maybe an official break-up with Lance is what he needs to shock him awake.
- Henry: “I’m penniless.” Cliff: “I work with the penniless. You are nowhere near. Sell your car.” It’s a good week for a good, friendly bullshit-calling.
- Lance admires a picture of Cliff’s butt at work with his friend Veronica. “Why do men do that? What do they get out of it? I’ll tell you one thing, Ronnie. Gay men do not moon.” Hmm, thoughts?
- Henry throws a temper tantrum for Freddie’s parents, but Freddie’s dad gets the best line. “Do you have any idea what you look like?”
- Cleo tells a story about how her daughter and her friends would spend years talking about how they would never let a boy tell them what to do. And then puberty came along. “All of a sudden a boy can walk into the room and they become slaves. On the spot.” Henry and Lance are feeling a bit of that themselves.
- I’m gonna miss Dean the most when this is over. He whines and he can be a drag, but Fisayo Akinade lights up the screen every time. He also gets some good lines. “A naked barbecue. It’s asking for trouble.”
Banana, “Episode 5”: Josh and Sophie
Josh’s infatuation with Freddie is just as misguided as Henry’s, or as Lance’s crush on Daniel. He sits there being talked about, being watched, being laughed at. All because he actually liked the boy he hooked up with last night. And that boy happens to be Freddie, who has apparently decided not to go through with his relationship from last week, which might be an indication of Freddie’s willingness to settle down with anyone. Josh is apart from Freddie for the rest of the episode, but he wants to see him again so badly it hurts. All he can think about is the new boy he likes, and we all know he’s only going to get crushed by that crush by the end.
Conversely, Banana doesn’t sympathize at all with Marc, the groom spurned on his wedding day because his fiancée’s best friend, Josh, inspires her not to settle. Marc’s comedy is broad and boring. He’s made out to be a total dupe for being nice to Josh. He’s told point-blank that he’s not good enough for the woman who said yes to his proposal, partly because he’s wearing a kilt on his wedding day. And at the end when his would-be wife drives off, he starts crying with the jokiest cry-face since maybe Dawson, presented in slow motion, the better to preserve his humiliation. There’s a surprising failure of empathy there given the treatment of even characters like Sunil on Cucumber or the husband of the woman Scottie’s stalking on Banana. All kinds of people are worth understanding and feeling for. Just not Marc.
But Josh is a Freddie-like asshole in his own life, and Banana has fun with it. He’s careless with his inattention, brusqueness, and meddling. He’s vindicated, though. Everything isn’t going to be hunky-dory now, but Sophie really didn’t want to spend her life with Marc after all, and it takes Josh to get her to realize it. Josh is a bit of a dick, but sometimes that’s useful.
Despite the overdone, overdramatic cliché of the runaway bride, the episode is actually pretty small, and the little intricacies and details rescue it from the nagging bits of Banana silliness. When Josh shows Sophie a picture of Freddie, she asks, “Why are his eyes shut?” and he poorly covers. But why would you think his eyes are closed? It doesn’t take a law degree to understand when he took that picture. It’s a weird way of introducing the fact that Josh is head over heels, which we already know, and that he seems to be repeating a pattern, which she establishes so much better with the almost throwaway bit of banter, “Do you actually know this one?”
Banana and Cucumber are packed with lonely lovesick queers, but Josh is the first millennial to make a thing of it. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s easy to be a little gay boy now. Easier than it was.’” But it’s not easy for him. Josh spent 17 years in the closet because of a bully who’s friendly with Sophie now. It feels like betrayal to him, but she says people grow up. That’s what the episode’s all about, accepting that our values change over time and counting on the important relationships to be elastic. Take Josh’s reaction to the story about one of their friends going into a bar with one black guy and walking out with another who she thought was the same guy. Josh thinks that story is racist now, but he used to find it funny. Or consider how Sophie once wanted the conventional life—as Josh puts it, “Marc, marriage, mortgage, maternity”—but now realizes she does want something different.
The cut from the carefree driving montage to Josh and Sophie, she in a wedding dress and he in a suit, sitting in a parking lot eating hamburgers—actually that does sound pretty good, but the romance of the drive is gone. Like the episode about Helen, this is an episode about strengthening an existing relationship that’s not as tight as it once was. Josh and Sophie used to be incredibly close, but he had to get out of town to the Queer As Folk city and she wanted to settle down, and they started to drift, not even visiting each other. They each make a point about how things haven’t changed that much—he’s at university, not out of the country; she’s getting married, not joining a convent—but they really emphasize the opposite. Sophie getting married is a gigantic relationship-changer for Josh, and he’s the one who abandoned her in the first place.
Now they’ll be single in the city together, and it’s the most exciting ending of the series so far. Thanks to the tonal mixture—wistfulness more than melancholy, assholery instead of self-destruction, topped with plenty of levity—and the fantastic rapport between the actors, Luke Newberry and Chloe Harris, this is the first Banana episode that I’m disappointed isn’t a full series. Television could use a millennial Manchester Will & Grace.
- “Episode 5” is written by Matthew Barry and directed by Luke Snellin. After all that about what’s cinematic, the scene in Sophie’s bedroom is exactly what I’m talking about. It starts with them lying in bed facing us. Then she turns away from us and toward him. When she sits up, starting to get upset, her wedding dress haunts the shot. When he gets up, he’s backed by that yellow curtain, and she’s backed by the muted green wall, her hair hanging just so you get the feeling she’d brush it aside if she weren’t so distraught.
- Weird that Henry’s there for Josh and Freddie’s goodbye kiss (and good for Josh!) since he was off to the shower already in the counterpart scene in Cucumber.
- In their first scene together, Sophie says, “You’re so gay,” so much I couldn’t tell if he was openly gay or if she was making fun of him.
- Love according to Sophie: Not wanting the guy to leave after sex.
- The friends try to defend the non-racism of the story about the interchangable black men. The storyteller says Emily, who’s black, doesn’t think it’s racist. Josh responds, “Then Emily hasn’t thought about it enough.”
- The ending is the usual smash cut, this one after the release of the runaway bride montage and the comedown of the burgers. Sophie realizes she doesn’t have a plan. “How are we gonna manage? Is it single or double bed in your room?” Josh looks at her and says with no attempt to soften, “You’re not staying with me.” Credits.