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Review: Cucumber, Banana and Tofu

Russell T. Davies may be particularly famous for his revival of Dr. Who and spell as showrunner from 2005 to 2010, but before then, he made the shortlived series Queer as Folk, chronicling the lives of the gay community in Manchester. He’s returned to that theme with a recently concluded interlinked series: Cucumber, Banana, and Tofu. The three programmes explore sex, sexuality, and queer life from a variety of angles and perspectives, bringing a new and dynamic approach to the handling of these issues on television.

Each is named for one of the stages of an erection as described in a urological study, according to Davies, who apparently got the inspiration for the project that way. The idea of a triptych of connected but distinct set pieces proved to be a concept interesting enough to draw the attention of Channel 4, especially with Davies at the helm, and he plunged into the project with gusto.

One thing that’s remarkable across the board with all three programmes is the commitment to diversity. Davies clearly iterated to both the network and the public that he was invested in diverse, complicated depictions of the queer community, rather than a one-dimensional look. In a strikingly self-aware comment, he said that ‘if you’re white, middle class, and everything else, you will see the world through that lens and make everything like yourself.’ The showrunner took steps to think outside his own experience. Like the depressingly few numbers of showrunners, directors, and casting producers who actually think about these issues, he considered age, race, and other factors in casting and depictions alike, and he was committed to as much authenticity as possible—in Banana, for example, he consciously sought out queer writers.

The decision to commit to diverse casting and depictions sets a clear challenge to other programmes in the U.K. as well as abroad, since the series is beginning to attract attention as it’s syndicated elsewhere. While it won’t mark the turning point in television towards true celebration of human diversity, it’s a positive step in the right direction.

In Cucumber, eight episodes explore the life of Henry, an older gay man in Manchester exploring his sexuality after the culmination of a frustrating relationship. The programme opens with a struggling sexless relationship in which both partners both seem unwilling to pull the plug, until a triggering moment sends them spinning off in different directions and Henry plunges into a new world filled with very different people than he’s accustomed to as he begins interacting with queer youth and a completely different community.

One of the most intriguining things about Cucumber is that it explores the experiences of an older generation of gay men who didn’t live with widespread cultural awareness and acceptance. They are perhaps the last generation with the acute memory and knowledge of being closeted and hiding themselves from their communities, followed by firsthand experience with the slow public transition for the gay community between being hidden and being out. Documenting and exploring this history is critical in a world where many queer youth aren’t familiar with it and also don’t understand its legacy—for those who have seen the queer community out and proud their entire lives, and who were supported upon coming out, never questioning whether they should come out at all, this experience may be alien and bizarre, but it was very much the reality for older gays and lesbians.

Banana takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum with a series of vignettes helmed by and featuring young queer talent. Davies sought out a series of writers for the project and effectively set them loose on it, inviting them to create a series of standalone stories about the young queer experience. While there is some crossover between the two programmes, they’re designed to work independently. The generational differences can be stark, but also illuminating. Just as Cucumber tells a story that’s important for youth to see, Banana tells a story that’s important for elders to see in order to understand the perspective of a young generation.

One of the most remarkable things about Banana is the appearance of Bethany Black in the role of Helen, marking the first casting of a transgender actress in a transgender role on U.K. television. Davies was extremely insistent that a trans woman be found to play the role, something Black supported after being brought on board. She pointed to Dallas Buyers Club as a stark example of a cis man playing a trans woman and the troubling nature of Hollywood casting. As with the overall diversity of the series, the casting decision showed that authenticity and diversity are not only possible, but imperative.

Tofu, an online documentary series designed to supplement the scripted programmes, takes on modern sexual attitudes. It includes interviews with some of the actors from Cucumber and Banana as well as members of the public. Anyone interested in the subject was invited to participate by way of a series of auditions in which prospective participants could send in short videos, and the series explored the spectrum of human sexual diversity as well as attitudes and experiences about sexuality.

In Tofu, viewers have a chance to see that the issues explored in Cucumber and Banana are not just scripted drama or explorational theorising, but things and experiences that actually occur in real life. The result is a striking and dynamic series that generates food for thought and invites the viewer to evaluate personal perspectives on sex, gender, and sexuality.

All three entries in this interconnected set bring something different but equally important to the table; as with Queer as Folk, they’re pushing at the boundaries of queer storytelling and queer narratives and forcing the hands of other creators and showrunners. One thing is for certain: These programmes will force other creators to up their game, and that’s a very good thing.

Photo by Stacy Spensley, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license