Friday, 13 March 2015

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu - Series Review

How do you end a series? In fact, how do you begin a series? How do you create a plot, and maintain it, and keep it exciting, and yet feature within that the reason why you are writing?

Those are the questions I came to Cucumber with. Those are the questions that approach me every time I try and write a script. So, how did Russell T Davies answer them? And how just was his latest "gay" drama?

I could spend several paragraphs rallying against the terminology that it is a "gay" drama. It's not. It's just a drama. It focusses on a gay man, and his long-term boyfriend. Cool. So how was it as a whole? Well. Up and down. Very up and down. I don't think it had the best of starts, as a series, although in hindsight, it did set out what would happen very well. It was the beginning of the end, as it were. Except - there is no end. The end comes in Episode Six - that is the end of a series, right there. But it's not the end of this series, and quite right too. Because we needed the reaction to Lance's death, we needed to see the aftermath. So maybe the series should have ended at the close of Episode Seven. Is the final conversation between Henry and Freddie the way to end the series?

For this series, probably yes. From what I can gather from interviews (and the marvellous 'The Writer's Tale'), the initial plan for the series could have gone:

Long term boyfriends split (inc. swimming reference) after a night falls apart > probably threw in Freddie around here and the 'dream flat' (which is an idea I love) > one man's death after a terrible night out > "Being Gay".

Please contact me Russell T Davies and correct that if need be.

So, that provides stepping stones. Flesh out other ideas, throw in Hazel (yay!) and there you are. A series. An ending that had been in his mind for ten years. It says everything about the series - in fact, it says everything about the series on a deeper level, and a level that the series has only brief alluded to. It's a comment about sexuality - not just sex. Henry's wish to not have penetrative sex is, for me, the complete opposite to Davies' other trope of 'all gay men have sex lots'. My first watch of Queer as Folk (I've watched it since and I do love it) was quite critical. It was showing gay men having sex, like their life pivoted around that. I'm sure for some gay men it's true. I'm sure for some straight men it's true. But it can't be for everyone. Nor can Henry's situation. So what about the people who just don't like sex? What about the people who save sex for committed relationships? I know Davies made it clear that he couldn't and didn't want to represent EVERYTHING and EVERY POSSIBILITY - but it seems to me that he is, overall, still presenting extremes.

This continues into other characters. Freddie, for example. Freddie is very clearly bisexual (not that the word 'bisexual' is ever used in relation to him), and yet called gay by Henry. It's tiny, but it's an issue. I know that people are wanting bi-visibility on TV - and I feel that this had the opportunity. It's the biggest drama for the LGBT+ community in years (at least, that's my judgement from what I've read on the internet). It's also a big drama for those who aren't gay. It's a landmark. It's Russell T Davies. This had the chance to do something and it did not.

But - is that a good thing? If Russell T Davies told me that he used the word 'gay' for Freddie because Henry was 'old fashioned', I might concede. (Although bisexuality being 'modern' is equally irritating.) If he told me that he wasn't bothered about using the labels correctly - that would be a problem - if he said he felt that the labels didn't matter - that would be different. Is this making the point that the labels don't matter? Well. If it is, it probably needs to be a bit more obvious about it.

Yet - despite all of these complains - there are some very interesting conversations about bisexuality (and not just in terms of sex) in Episode Four. And it's funny. Cucumber is funny, all the way through, and that's one of its highlights. I'm getting overly political - and I tried not to turn this into a sexuality rant. Davies has fallen into tropes and extremes. This has happened. But. Is the drama good aside from that?

This is another up and down. It's hit and miss. Overall, I think, a hit. For Episode Six alone. Episode Six is worthy TV in its own right, regardless of the series that happens around it. Episode Four, the date nights, is also amazing TV. Superb stories. Episode One is a bit of a miss - I didn't feel it introduced things very well, and it was an odd mix of comedy and dark drama to the point that I felt slightly confused or bewildered by it. It was TOO much.

Yet of course, this sets the tone perfectly for the later episodes. That IS the tone. Comedy, and drama, and the drama veers into the dark and steers into the light. At the heart, it's Henry's attempt to win Freddie, the mostly-bisexual flatmate. And they have some lovely moments, all of the flatmates do. There are some wonderful scenes. And these wonderful scenes spread across to other moments and characters too. Any scene with Cleo in is pretty awesome, and her confrontation of Henry (the one where she smashes the mugs and says her daughter is "raw down there") is stunning drama. The scenes with Henry/Lance in the cafe, Henry/Freddie in another cafe, Henry/Veronica at his house, and others. The series takes great delight in pausing, for a long time, on one scene, and one conversation, in one place - and more drama needs to do this. It works brilliantly, and Davies handles character and dialogue as well as I'd expected him to.

And despite my moaning above, I'm neglecting the fact that it is a series about sex. If you want a series about the nuances of sexuality, Bob & Rose (also by Davies) is definitely a good place to start. This is not that series, and it has a different aim. To boil down all the issues about sex to sexuality is a move that I feel should have been explored more - to drop it in the last line feels like it has much more potential. But for this series, talking frankly about sex is the right thing to do. It does it all the time and it does it, for the most part, really well. What I think is missing from TV is a drama looking head on at sexuality, not just sex, but that is not Cucumber, and it was never really meant to be.

I love Davies' writing because there's always an element of something else in it - something just outside of reality, something slightly more exciting than it. Everything is heightened. Canal Street is always glittering (and this is something deliberate). In the first episode of Banana, Dean runs off to meet his Grindr match. Do people run, anywhere, ever? Not really. But the fact he runs is great. It shows an energy, and Davies' scripts have an energy that real life is often missing. He also shows the mundane day-to-day workplace, and the scenes with Lance at the Aquarium in Episode One are very dull and overly factual (a similar thing could be said of Henry at HC Clements). But on the most part, there is energy and there are extremes. So maybe those extremes I mentioned above deserve a place here. It's all part of the colourful world Davies creates - the world which uses music wonderfully and, more often than not, finishes with a song. (Although the mini-poem at the ending of the last episode of Banana maybe took this a step too far.) It's drama that really does take you away from where you are.

This follows in the creation of the dream flat and, in the last episode, the LGBT (and others) Collective at Henry's house. Everything is perfect, set up just as you might dream it. In the case of the Collective, this is disturbed very deliberately by reality. The series becomes very real in the last episode, treating dreams as just that. The dream flat, which, again, Davies admits to be idyllic and perhaps not realistic, is a great way of getting the characters to interact and to develop. It's not only a perfect dramatic technique, but it's great for the audience, creating a safe haven for them as well as the characters.

Will I miss Cucumber? Definitely. It's been great and definitely something look forward to every week. There aren't enough dramas that I look forward to every week, and that address interesting issues (even if not all of them) as Cucumber does. It's definitely right to end it after Series One though. It's a complete story, and one that I don't think could have ended any other way.

So what about Banana? That's also been brilliant. I've loved it. The 23 minute stories have been so interesting and well crafted. I felt Episode Four (Helen's story) didn't quite live up to the potential it had, and what felt like never-ending scenes on social media dragged the story down to what felt like a standard story/social commentary. Charlie Covell, who wrote Episode Four, redeemed herself with writing and acting in Episode Six, which was a highlight of the series. Beautiful storytelling. Episode Two remains a highlight - the story of a young girl's love for an older woman was written so so so well, and I could enthuse about it forever. Episode Eight was probably the only other misfire for me. It had its moments but it did seem tagged onto the end of a series that was very sure of what it was. All of the Banana stories are worth a watch though. They're so lovely and such interesting studies of character, and they do contain some of the finest writing from TV in recent years.

And as for Tofu... I don't feel it reached its potential. It could have been SO interesting and informative, but instead, every time it begins to tell interesting stories, it falls short, and ends. They're too short to address anything in-depth. That means sometimes I feel that they ended without really saying anything worth watching, and sometimes they ended when I would have been interested to hear more anyway. But there have been some really interesting stories within it, and if you've got some time to kill, it  might be worth a watch. I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it though.

Cucumber and Banana though are must watch. They are a landmark for TV, and although the tropes do feel extreme and some things do stray into feeling even outdated, they are enjoyable dramas, containing (mostly) very fine writing indeed.

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