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The problem with comparing erections to food is one is meant to be destroyed. You slice up a cucumber, as in the title card of Cucumber. You manually flay a hard banana. You bite off a hunk and gnash it into paste. I don’t know what people do with tofu, but I hear it’s good fried. So as middle-aged Henry walks through a supermarket checking out the produce and explaining with faint wonder (in voiceover) that actual scientists spent a decade settling on a scale for erection hardness based on cucumber, banana, and tofu—imagine the research!—every hard cock in his fantasy is met with castration. Henry Best is depressed.

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The first words out of his mouth (as opposed to in his head): “I hate gay men.” He ogles young, fit men with images of cucumber and banana, but when he catches himself in a mirror, he flashes to tofu. When his boyfriend of nine years, Lance, tries to hold his hand on their way to meet their gay friends, Henry breaks it off. The camera pulls back from a rowdy conversation to show Henry and his friend Cliff taking a smoke break with a more downbeat mood. Henry admits that he’s settled down now. How’s the sex? The question catches Henry off-guard, and he winces slightly. As Franklin plays him, Henry is completely transparent about his pretenses, and whenever he’s called on them, he freezes, but the light goes from his eyes. He’s so scared. He tells Cliff, “It’s fine.” Cliff realizes Henry and Lance still haven’t done it. Henry insists, “We’re fine.” Please don’t drink every time Henry says something depressing.

On the way home, Henry riles everyone up with a projected fantasy about Ryan Reynolds jacking off. The story ends with Henry teasing out every last word: “And then… Ryan… Reynolds… comes.” The camera slows to a halt, too, passing over the guys’ faces and landing on Lance, who wishes he were alone with his boyfriend right now. In the cab ride home, Henry moves his hand up Lance’s thigh. But as soon as they walk through the door of their place, it’s the same as Henry seeing himself. Tofu. They retire to separate rooms to masturbate (somewhat covertly, but I think each knows what the other is up to)—Henry to porn, and Lance to Hollyoaks—and then they join each other in bed.

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The next day, the young guy at the office handing out mail shows Henry his cock cage. He has to wear it for two weeks, and if he starts to get hard it will hurt. But after two weeks, the guy with the key will take it off. “Apparently you explode.” That’s kind of how Henry works. He idly sets these fires, and eventually something explodes. Later he gets so distracted by a tangle of conversations—Henry and his sister Cleo, she and her kids, Henry and a co-worker named Sunil—that he gives Sunil an essay he wrote for his master’s program, which Sunil wants to use for comparison for his own master’s program. But Henry’s upset with himself for forking over the essay, and while venting to another co-worker, he gets the ball rolling on a process that results in Sunil’s expulsion from his master’s program, probable firing, and apparent arrest, all unbeknownst to Henry because he’s getting ready for a date night with his long-term partner he doesn’t even want to go on.

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The club brings out another element of Henry’s state of mind. As he stands there alone looking over a sea of young guys dancing and kissing, the bright purple spotlight focusing on a couple making out, it’s hard not to realize this is Henry’s whole life. Not to get morbid about it, but Hannibal Lecter would ask, “How do we first begin to covet?” Henry watches. He wants. He wishes. But he does nothing. Cliff tells him, “You always did that. Never had affairs, just obsessions.” He stares at men at the supermarket. He waits on the equivalent of a park bench (in reference to a story Cliff told him about the lengths he went to to see a guy he liked as a teenager) hoping to see a young, aloof cucumber-provoking idol named Freddie who lives with Dean. He gets off on the lurid details of Dean and Freddie’s sex lives, how easy and free it is for them. He imagines what it’s like when Ryan Reynolds’ masturbates. He watches porn. Lance’s TV fantasy is no different, the TV being a mass instrument of desire. Both of them get excited by men they run into the day of their date night, but Henry can barely say two words to Freddie. By contrast, Lance does chat up the guy that catches his eye. (That guy’s name is Daniel, by the way, and he’s playing some serious attraction-repulsion game, except he also compares gay men to insects, so make of that what you will.) And what happens when a neighbor gives him the friendliest, most open-minded “My kids can see you masturbating in your office” conversation in history? He bottles up.

All of this—Henry’s sexlessness, his emotional arson, and his desperate desire—builds to a date night with Lance where Lance proposes. Henry laughs at him. And then he tells a sympathetic story about how he never had marriage available to him and he made peace with that, and he still can’t see it as an option. That’s important. Henry’s ennui is different from that of every other middle-aged white person on TV. Henry doesn’t have a family, he seems cool with his job, and he didn’t stop having sex. He’s never had sex. (Maybe.) And he’s never had marriage as an option either.

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Lance interrupts. “And then you met me.” Henry says, “So?” Tofu. There’s no cut to tofu, but this is the most tofu moment that ever squelched on-screen.

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Lance has had it, so he forces Henry’s hand. Of course Henry has to agree to a three-way with some younger guy. Who would say no? He doesn’t, but he’s so afraid that he exaggerates how comical the premise is. He gives the vocal version of sweating bullets. But Lance bumps into a guy who needs a place to stay that night, and before you know it, Francesco, the third wheel, is falling asleep in George and Martha’s bedroom. Henry breaks. He thought this was a game of chicken, but it’s not. Lance has all the appropriate permissions, so he’s going to get his.

There’s a shot that captures Lance’s choice with Francesco on the bed and Henry practically crying outside in the hallway. Lance goes toward Henry, but only to shut the door on him. Henry forces his way back inside, but the sight of Lance going down on another man sends Henry into a daze. He walks outside, spots a police car, and reports an intruder. It’s a perfectly Henry moment. It’s thoughtless and entitled and results in not just Francesco getting arrested but Lance, too. It’s also a punchline: Yada yada yada, Henry got out of date night.

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Only this time there are consequences for Henry. Every sequence in the episode is designed like it’s the main attraction—you could see the entire show in the supermarket or the phone call montage or Henry getting ready for date night as chickens come (to someone else’s) home to roost—and the ending is just as splashy in only a couple lines. Henry wakes up Dean and Freddie and offers to help them with their housing situation if he can stay with them. Smash cut to credits. The shock is funny, but the scene is also sad and troubling and even a little promising. Henry’s escaping, but is he escaping consequences or a bad match? Is living with young libertines just a fantasy, or could it help him work through his issues? Is he just spreading the fallout? We’ll find out later. The premiere is a smart, deft character study, and it just sets things in motion. Cucumber takes after Henry that way.

Stray observations:

  • Every episode of Cucumber is written by Russell T. Davies, who created Queer As Folk, also about gay men in Manchester, one of whom worked in a supermarket. What’s more, the guys in Queer As Folk (not Charlie Hunnam, but the others) would be about how old Henry and Lance are now. “Episode 1” is directed by David Evans.
  • Cucumber and Banana were originally broadcast, in the UK, in widescreen. Like, Cinemascope-ratio widescreen. I’m not sure why Logo presents them cropped, but I suspect it has to do with not having an HD channel. At any rate, here are two pictures that illustrate the difference. Sometimes Cucumber and Banana really take advantage of that horizontal. Logo turns a group circle into a little curve, and the crop goes right through one actor’s face.
  • Is it traditional, when shopping for produce, to rub giant, steroid-enhanced cucumbers up and down and then slap them in your palm like a police baton?
  • Just to be clear, by saying Henry has never had sex, that’s Lance’s shorthand for anal sex. In the words of Jack Donaghy, they do, of course… pleasure one another.
  • Henry tells Lance, “I don’t even like you particularly. You’re just someone to watch TV with so I don’t have to go out.” At first it’s kind of affectionate. At first.
  • I love the bit where the guys see a good-looking bartender and immediately hop on Grindr which leads them to his Tumblr which leads them to a video of him masturbating. Henry feigns disinterest. “The modern world has left me behind.” Lance replies, “The world wasn’t built by kids. It was us. We did this.”
  • Raymond, one of the gay friends, says, “You know the worst thing about growing old? Your spunk. How it goes sort of yellow like it’s all congealed.” I’m still laughing about that. “Oh my god, have I curdled?” Apparently his spunk is funny because there’s blood in it. To give you a sense of Cucumber’s tonal deftness.
  • “I just wanted to say, I hope you don’t mind, Henry, but when you masturbate in that top room, we can see through the blind. It creates a sort of silhouette. I mean, I don’t mind, but it’s the kids.” Henry’s mortified. He can only muster, “Okay.” “If you had a thicker fabric?” “Yeah.” “Don’t want to stop the fun. Bob said you’re regular as clockwork.”
  • Two generational differences. Dean tells Henry, “Like Freddie said, it’s easy to just have sex.” Easier for Dean and Freddie than Henry and Lance, but then again Lance was doing okay. Second, Henry’s astonished at the space Dean and Freddie got for so cheap. “Four hundred quid is nothing.” “It’s not if you haven’t got it.”
  • Dean: “The biggest problem is I can’t use iTunes without a billing address, but they won’t even recognize this place.”

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Banana “Episode 1”: Dean

Dean is the perfect subject for the first episode of Banana, a half-hour overlapping anthology sister show to Cucumber, because Dean is a liar. Banana is all about perspective. So on Cucumber, the story about Dean and Freddie hooking up plays as a fantasy. Dean only gives Henry the suggestion, and Henry fills in the details about these two virile young men and their fulfilling sex lives. But on Banana, we come to find out that their hook-up wasn’t fulfilling at all. In fact, it’s one in a pattern of Dean’s sexual encounters that end prematurely. And it’s one in a pattern of stories he’s exaggerated. Already Russell T. Davies is using one little moment to separately illuminate Henry on Cucumber and Dean on Banana.

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Because the stories of these first two episodes overlap, both ending with Henry showing up at Dean and Freddie’s flat, a symbol like Dean’s cock cage can resonate more with Henry than Dean himself. In Cucumber, it’s a full-blown symbol. In Banana, Dean gets his friend at work, a young lesbian named Scotty, to saw it off so that he can go hook up with a dreamboat. There’s no repression here. There’s also no discipline.

And more obviously, with the two shows airing together on a weekly schedule, there’s a natural opportunity for parallels. Henry and Dean both have very simple tasks, and neither are mentally able to accomplish them. For Dean that means getting 400 quid for rent (less than $600). He tells Henry his parents kicked him out for being gay. He tells Freddie he was physically ejected from his home. Henry’s awestruck by the millennials, so he’s credulous. Freddie, whose expression is a perpetual sigh, doesn’t have that problem. “Is any of this true?” Dean protests, “He threw me out.” Freddie asks, “Did he, though?”

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A home visit sells Dean out, to us if nobody else. His dad’s not dead. His parents are proud of him. They want him to know he and any potential significant others are welcome at their home. His mom even asks about the flat and then if he needs any money. But Dean just can’t bring himself to ask his parents for the relatively small amount of money he needs for rent. And the episode isn’t very forthcoming as to why. At best it suggests Dean is too flighty. He abandons work for a fling with a Grindr profile he’s been dreaming about. Geordie Man’s not a bad reason to weasel out of the cock cage ordeal, but it doesn’t speak well for his commitment that he can’t even go through with that. All through tea with his family, he’s on his phone making plans with another Grindr torso. Sexting across the table from his parents ties into his defensiveness about his sexuality, which probably isn’t helped by his inability to last long. But why can’t he ask his parents for money? Because, as Freddie says, he’s a child? Even a child knows how to take advantage of opportunities. But Dean keeps trying to pay rent with his Get Out Of Jail Free card, and nobody’s having it.

Luckily Henry’s about to show up at his door asking to stay with him, only this time we see the scene from inside the flat. “If I do all that for you, can I stay?” That’s the end of Cucumber, but Banana continues with Dean’s answer: “Can you lend me 400 quid?” “Yes.” “Can you give me 400 quid?” “Yes.” He turns around and points in Freddie’s face. “Ha!”

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Cucumber strikes a smart balance between the weight of Henry’s life and the liveliness all around him, but Banana is a carnival. It opens with two musical sequences. First Dean escapes Freddie’s nagging by putting on his headphones and walking down the street to Slow Club’s “Suffering You, Suffering Me.” Fisayo Akinade bounces everywhere he goes, except when he races down the street to Geordie Man. That sequence is set to The Shoes’ “Time To Dance,” and when Dean gets to the hotel, the music briefly gives way to the lobby’s piano muzak before picking back up again as Dean picks up his pace. Dean’s bold yellow hoodie is a bubbly contrast to Henry’s purple paisley. When Henry’s friends check out Grindr, it stays on the phone, but Dean’s chats pop up on-screen. And where sex is angry and sad and pathetic on Cucumber, it’s almost entirely comic relief on Banana. Comic relief that comes with some sadness—poor Dean!—but feeling sorry for Dean isn’t the first priority when he’s comically trying to get Geordie Man off, the two of them just standing there uncomfortably, the music replaced by the squeak of hands, Dean repeatedly looking up at the guy all nervous.

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And, unlike Cucumber, everything works out in the end. In the short-term anyway. There are bigger problems in Dean’s life than his situational poverty. Hopefully Banana, or at least Cucumber, isn’t done with him quite yet.

Stray observvations:

  • “Episode 1” is written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Lewis Arnold.
  • On the bus, Dean spots a hottie and fantasizes an entire act of Up starring the two of them. When we cut back to the bus, he gives such a fantastic smile you could almost picture that entire montage even if we hadn’t seen it. Like Henry, he’s a dreamer, but dreams don’t replace real life for Dean.
  • Turns out Henry isn’t the only one at work that got to see Dean’s cock cage. Freddie tells him if he charged everyone, he’d have rent money by now.
  • Less than a minute into his hook-up with Geordie Man, it’s over. Dean doesn’t miss a beat. “That was nice.” After a bit he says, “Happens to everyone,” which is typically something other people say to let you off the hook, not something you say about yourself, but he’s right. He’s not always so winning—he’s a huge brat at home—but it’s nice to have a smiley chatterbox playing opposite Henry.
  • Henry reminisces about his days living in a flat. “We’d shag anything that moved.” Really? So did his problems start with Lance? (Lance called him a virgin, by the way, but he may have just been trying to get a rise out of him.) Henry continues, “I miss being dirty.” Dean says, “Doesn’t suit you.” “Doesn’t it?” “No.”
  • Some wisdom from Freddie: “When real things really happen to real-life people there’s always a car or a dog or a hat or… something that doesn’t fit.”
  • I also love how Freddie ends that scene. “Anyway, I tried.” He’s certainly done his part to try to save the flat. He doesn’t seem to care about much of anything, but apparently he wouldn’t feel right about giving up on the flat without giving Dean one last go about his parents.
  • If you’re interested, the third series in the Cucumber-Banana line-up is a webseries called Tofu, a talk show where producers ask the actors from the show and just men (and women) on the street, so to speak, questions about sex and sexuality.

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