Bearded and balding, with the slight paunch of middle-aged managers and desk jockeys, Henry Best (Vincent Franklin) roams the aisles of his local grocery dreaming of more than dinner. In the opening minutes of “Cucumber,” as Henry details the inspiration for the series’ title—a study that divided erections by hardness into four categories, “tofu,” “peeled banana,” “banana,” and “cucumber”—he admires the fresh meat on display, too: cocks and asses squeezed into tight denim, muscular arms bared under the fluorescent lights. “Cucumber” and its half-hour counterpart, “Banana,” are, in this sense, exactly what the most vocal critics of “Looking” wanted, but as Truman Capote once quoted Saint Teresa of Avila, “more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
Last month, when HBO cancelled the series after the conclusion of its second season, the debate over “Looking”—long subject to forceful dissents from influential gay commentators, including Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder, Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak, and, on Twitter at least, the New York Times’ Josh Barro—reemerged in stark terms, as advocates (myself included) mourned its loss and critics danced on its grave. “Cucumber” and “Banana,” which premiered in the U.S. on Logo last night, thus enter an already bracing discussion about the problems and possibilities of LGBTQ representation on television, one only sharpened by the growing number of series that prominently feature complex LGBTQ characters: “Transparent” (Amazon), “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix), “Please Like Me” (Pivot), ” “American Horror Story” (FX), “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC), and “Empire” (FOX), to name but a few.
On the face of it, the aforementioned critics of “Looking” rely on the inarguable premise that the series is “boring”—inarguable in that such assertions are not, in fact, an argument, but rather a statement of opinion that precludes any attempt at rebuttal. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think “Looking” is “boring,” certainly not after the middle of the first season, but you can see how far this line of reasoning is likely to get us.) The real point of contention, however, is an ideological one, with critics positing “Looking” as a sadly conservative, heteronormative, whitewashed portrait of LGBTQ experience. Lowder’s extravagant claim that the series amounts to “cynical tokenism” and “gay minstrelsy” aside, his description of the series illustrates the general thrust:
By design, the show eschews elements that might be seen as artful or entertaining and instead depends on the peculiar idea that gay audiences should find ‘joy’ in watching gay characters move from one (maybe slightly stressful) quotidian situation to the next. ‘Looking’’s great joy, in other words, is little more than the pleasure of the selfie.
With its invocation of the selfie, this passage suggests the faint condescension of many such critiques—the implication is that fans are as narcissistically bland as the series. But far more misguided is the claim that “Looking” dispenses with the “artful” in favor of the “quotidian.” One need not possess any special expertise in the aesthetics of realism, from the postwar Italians to the Maysles brothers, to see that, “by design,” “Looking” in fact constructs intricate, meaningful compositions from the unmannered vernacular of the handheld, the fluid, the off-the-cuff.
As I’ve written for both TOH! and Slant Magazine, the delicate mirroring effect of sequences in “Looking for the Future” and “Looking for Truth,” or “Looking Down the Road” and “Looking for Home,” conveys the subtle evolution of Patrick’s (Jonathan Groff) relationships with Richie (Raúl Castillo) and Kevin (Russell Tovey), respectively, as sharply as any line of dialogue. In Golden Gate Park and the East Bay, on rooftops and below ground, the images that comprise “Looking” transform the quotidian into a poetic enterprise; particularly in the context of television, where the style of “Looking” stalwart Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend” remains quite rare, the series isn’t “boring.” It’s revelatory.
At first glance, then, the “smarts and sparkle” of “Cucumber” and “Banana” offer the slightly salacious “fun” that critics of “Looking” so desire, with bright splashes of yellow, pink, purple, and green, not to mention an admirably multicultural cast of characters—young and old, black and white, affluent and scraping by—that glory in the high kink of watersports, chastity belts, and, yes, detailed Ryan Reynolds fantasies. Yet both series are so insistent in their self-consciously spicy approach to sex that they come off, to use Henry’s term, as mere “gestures” at a more radical depiction of LGBTQ identity on television. In “Cucumber” and “Banana,” form doesn’t follow function so much as flood it with obnoxious fillips of style, as if subtlety’s suddenly gone out of fashion.
The more forthrightly comic “Banana” dances along on youthful optimism, each episode focused on a different character or characters, and the series premiere follows the irreverent, 19-year-old Dean (Fisayo Akinade) through a day of sexual fantasies—and more complicated sexual realities—with the same vigor as its delightful opening montage. By the time “The Coventry Carol” stirs on the soundtrack in the second episode, however, as Dean’s friend, Scotty (Letitia Wright), finds herself obsessed with a married woman, “Banana” evinces the same heavy hand that mars “Cucumber” from the start.
For the repressed, achingly horny Henry, who spends the series premiere of “Cucumber” destroying his career and his nine-year relationship with Lance (Cyril Nri) before bunking with Dean and his lithe, icy roommate, Freddie (Freddie Fox), not only narrates the series’ premise in the opening sequence, but also punctuates his longing with close attention to the wet slop of tofu and the thwack of cucumber against palm. These flickering allusions to the series’ conceit reflect an unsatisfying tendency to perform the ideological bona fides that “Looking” lacked, at least according to its critics, without ever quite inhabiting them. The surface of “Cucumber” may well be lively, even “fun,” but unlike “Looking” it’s ultimately as cold as Freddie posing in his skivvies with an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips—all look, no touch.
“Cucumber” and “Banana” air Mondays at 10pm on Logo.