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Let’s talk about sex, specifically the Erection Hardness Score developed by the European Association of Urology, which classifies the stages of the male erection over four levels: tofu, peeled banana, banana and cucumber. It was from these designations that writer Russell T. Davies — best known for his tenure as showrunner on the new Doctor Who — got the titles of his very compelling (and very uneven) new pair of TV shows.
Both Cucumber and Banana (as well as the companion documentary web series Tofu) are something of a homecoming for Davies, returning him to the Manchester locales and frank LGBT content of his groundbreaking 2000 series Queer as Folk. Cucumber is the mother ship: an hourlong, eight-episode tale about middle-aged insurance salesman Henry Best (Vincent Franklin), whose life implodes after he refuses to marry his partner of nine years, Lance (Cyril Nri).
The duo have been having trouble for a while. Superficially, it’s all about Henry’s yearslong refusal to have anal sex with Lance — a ribald, ridiculous situation from which Davies, who wrote every installment, gets plenty of comic mileage. But in reality, the couple’s stresses go much deeper. Toward the end of the two episodes sent out for review, Henry has fully unburdened himself to Lance via an equally hilarious and pathetic monologue revolving around his desire for “cock” — a euphemistic way of addressing the midlife crisis that’s tearing him apart.
When Henry reaches his lowest point, he ends up crashing at a squalid, but sprawling, flat rented by a group of much-younger work colleagues, Dean Monroe (Fisayo Akinade) and Freddie Baxter (Freddie Fox). They’re supporting players in his life but are much more prominent in Cucumber’s sister series, Banana, a half-hour, eight-episode anthology (three of which are written by Davies) following the adventures of several of Manchester’s younger queer residents.
A number of characters on Cucumber show up on Banana and vice versa, and this allows for some clever alternate perspectives on situations — such as Dean’s strange adventures with a chastity belt — that occur on both shows. Moreover, it gives a sense of human sprawl to the heightened, black-comic world that Davies has created. Cucumber’s first episode alone is filled with soap -operatic incident (a fight, a breakup, a suicide) that’s initially off-putting in its aggressiveness. Yet as Henry’s world expands, and as it becomes clear that his myopic perspective doesn’t exclusively define the intertwining narrative, it’s easy to get drawn in.
Davies is best at capturing the easy camaraderie that develops among friends and lovers. When his characters are called upon simply to converse with each other — as in an early scene on Cucumber in which Henry, Lance and their pals both lament and celebrate the vagaries of middle age — the results are often pithy and profound. He’s on less sure footing with some of the more drastic shifts in tone in each series, as when Lance vengefully forces Henry into a threesome and the situation quickly escalates from slapstick to violence. (It also doesn’t help that Logo, the network airing Cucumber and Banana in America, is required to drop out all the curse words and blur all the nudity — an unfortunate, censorious defanging of the material.)
There’s nothing wrong with the complacency-upending discomfort Davies is going for, but it frequently feels shrill and ill-thought-out. When the tonal clash does work, however, there’s real power to it. Episode two of Banana is especially good in this regard, following Dean and Freddie’s friend Vivienne (Letitia Wright) as she stalks an older woman she’s fallen for. For the first half of the episode, Davies keeps us in Vivienne’s elated perspective, drunk on the euphoria of an illegal pursuit. Then her victim confronts her, and the two women are forced to find some heartbreaking common ground between them. It’s a beautiful piece of work — and hopefully representative of where both series will ultimately go — toward the sublime rather than the strident.
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