As a gay man, I’m constantly searching for pop culture that entertainingly represents me. I’m also interested in the vexing issues of media representations. A combination of desires that creates a double-edged sword.
Last year I thought I’d found a fascinating discussion of (American) gay male representation in HBO’s Looking. Indeed, I was much rewarded when its second season tackled its die–hard critics head on and crafted a wonderful meditation on gay male intimacy, on the possibility of building a lasting bond with someone yet constantly asking: at what expense? Is finding that special someone really worth closing yourself off from the diverse world outside? Well, at least that’s what I found so touching about that last episode, which featured the most bizarre Gays Wide Shut party I ever did see.
But, what to do now that HBO has cancelled Andrew Haigh & Michael Lannan’s series?
If you’re looking for stories by and about gay men, you need to look a tad far away from US network and even cable offerings. Yes, ABC’s #TGIT Lineup has a solidly diverse slate, and hilarious gay characters seem to be a staple of successful comedies (see The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Girls, Brooklyn 99).
But a whole show devoted entirely to our diverse gay male experience? Enter stage right: Russell T. Davies’ new series Cucumber.
The show, which recently wrapped up its first season on Channel 4 in the UK and premieres April 13th on Logo TV, centers on Henry (Vincent Franklin), a middle-aged gay man who sees sex everywhere: a hilarious intro sequence from the pilot has him perusing men in a supermarket and ranking them according to the male erection study that gives the show its name: an erection can be divided into a hardness scale consisting of tofu, peeled banana, banana and, of course, cucumber. (Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk, also has two accompanying shows titled Banana and Tofu which take place in the same universe, making it an odd erection-themed trilogy of sorts).
Henry’s life at home with his partner of nine years (Cyril Nri as Lance) has predictably if disappointingly turned stale. The first episode, which works as a comedic farce involving a colleague of Henry’s, a borrowed paper presumed to be used to plagiarize, and an eventual suicide, is merely a sideshow for the meatier (though no less farcical) central storyline which finds Henry leaving Lance on a whim right after the latter proposes, embarking on a quest for (as he later in the season puts it) “one! more! cock!” Rather ironic given that the main argument that leads to Henry’s departure is the fact that the two have never had anal sex in all their years together.
Yes, the lead of the show is, for all intents and purposes (though he would never agree to said description): a gay virgin.
That Henry moves into an abandoned loft with two adorably gorgeous young men he knows from his office allows Cucumber creator Davies a chance to expand his roster of characters and stage a melancholy examination of aging within a community that continues to value youth and vivacity. It’s a fresh twist on the fish out of water story, though as the show goes on, it’s clear Davies has bigger fish to fry. The interactions between Henry and this younger generation (also embodied by Henry’s nephew, Adam, a brazen high-schooler unbeholden to sexual labels or boundaries) are the most affecting and point to a type of diversity that is not often represented on television. How refreshing and bold to see a show stage a cross-generational conversation about the ways being gay and even thinking about that moniker (perhaps no longer a liberating word but a limiting label) have been profoundly changing in the decades since gay liberation was at the forefront of identity politics.
The show is at times bittersweet (it is, in many ways, a story of falling out of love as well as an affectingly humorous take on sex past middle age); at other times hard it’s to swallow (its sixth episode is particularly brutal as it gives us a strobe-light-like summation of Lance’s life, from his troubled childhood to his complicated relationship with his father, from his relationship with an AIDS-stricken man to his current relationship with Henry). But when it reaches that sweet spot between second hand embarrassment and razor-sharp critique, like when Henry is caught red-handed by his sister after becoming a kingpin of underage homoerotic online videos featuring his nephew, the show is like nothing else on television: a frank and funny show about sex, one willing to unabashedly embrace flirting, foreplay and fucking as intrinsic to the gay male experience yet never subservient to it.
Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that it carefully caters to its gay audience’s carnal cravings even as it constantly makes us question them: Fisayo Akinade and Freddie Fox, who play Henry’s roommates Dean and Freddie, spend a good amount of the show in just their undies, becoming a constant source of denied temptation to Henry and ourselves alike.
Manuel Betancourt Manuel is a recently minted literature & film PhD student who is fascinated with exploring the LGBT experience as it is reflected and refracted in contemporary popular culture. You can find his academically-tinged thoughts over at mbetancourt.com. Feel free to follow his bite-sized musings on Twitter and his selfies on Instagram.