19 May 2017

Russell T Davies: Still Television's Greatest Writer (Cucumber and Banana)

Obviously everyone can have different opinions about things, and I respect that. I think Thor 2 is the cinematic triumph of the age and you do not; you think Blake's 7 is well written, and I do not. So what? Tastes differ. One opinion I can never understand, though, is that Russell T Davies is not a great writer, nor even a good writer. His five-year run on Doctor Who (2005-10) is probably unparalleled for quality in the show's history, and that is a fact.

I will always be thankful for Doctor Who for introducing me to him as a writer. I went from Doctor Who to Davies's two television programmes featuring future Doctor Whos: Christopher Eccleston in The Second Coming (2003) and David Tennant in Casanova (2005), and then from there to his trailblazing LGBT work in Queer as Folk (1999-2000) and Bob & Rose (2001). I actually haven't gone further back than that, but someday I'm sure I'll watch The Grand (1997-98), Revelations (1994-95), Century Falls (1993), and Dark Season (1991). What I love about Davies is his ability to write characters, the way he writes people who feel completely and totally like they are real people, people who you love not despite their faults, nor even for their faults, but for the complete and total package of which their faults are an inseparable component. I know a lot of people didn't come around on Rose's mom Jackie until late in series 2 of Doctor Who with "Love & Monsters," but I enjoyed her from the very beginning of her first appearance in "Rose" when she demands Rose go to the council for compensation because she both felt very real to me and was very funny.

Bob & Rose is probably my favorite thing he's written. It's about a gay man who falls in love with a woman, and two things stick out at me about it-- one that is that I always tear up at the end of episode 4, when Penelope Wilton chains herself to a bus along with an entire crowd of demonstrators, and the other is that there's a character who makes a series of inarguably morally wrong decisions, and yet you completely understand her and even sympathize with her, like when a friend of yours does something boneheaded yet you love him anything.

Cucumber and Banana (both 2015) were Davies's return to mimetic television (i.e., not sci-fi/fantasy) following his runs on Doctor Who and its various spin-offs. If Queer as Folk, written when Davies was a young gay man, was about the experience of being young and gay, then Cucumber, written when Davies was a middle-aged gay man, is about the experience of being middle-aged and gay. Cucumber starts with a couple, Henry and Lance, who end up separating after an argument, and both wondering if they've wasted their lives with each other. Henry moves in with a bunch of twenty-somethings, pursuing something he will never let himself have, while Lance ends up going after a co-worker who insists he's straight, but keeps giving signals that he's interested in something more.

It's a weird show, to be honest, and it might be my least favorite thing that Davies has written. Which is not to say it's not well-written: it's as chockful of Davies's trademark attention to characterization and moments of humor as ever, and it actually has some genuinely great montages. But there are times it feels very aimless, and Henry is hard guy to like. I understood him, but I wasn't always rooting for him. Or rather, the things I was rooting for him to do were things I had no interest in him doing. The end of the show brought things into perspective, though, and I'd be curious to see how the revelations of the last conversation Henry has would impact my rewatching of the show-- while at the same time it feels like the Davies show I'm least likely to actually want to rewatch.

But still, some parts of it are so impressive: Henry's inadvertent creation of a "porn empire" that he both loves and despises, especially because of his discomfort about how the newest generation does not experience discomfort over being gay; or the part where Henry gets out of sex by inadvertently pretending he's just delaying sex to make the other guy want it more; or the sixth episode which is almost impossible to discuss if you're trying to be vaguely spoiler free (and I am); or a bit in episode 7 where three of the main characters drive around trying to triangulate the location of a Welshman based on distances given on Grindr, but end up trapped in a car in the middle of a rainstorm and sharing deeper parts of themselves for the first time ever (well, except for Dean, because there is no deepness to Dean).

Cucumber was accompanied by Banana an eight-episode anthology series whose episodes alternate with those of Cucumber (i.e., you watch Cucumber episode 1, then Banana episode 1, then Cucumber 2, then Banana 2, and so on). The main character of each episode of Banana is a side character of some varying level of importance in Cucumber. The main character of episode 1, for example is a main character in all of Cucumber, while the main character of episode 5 appears in only a single scene of Cucumber, and the main character of episode 4 hasn't even appeared in Cucumber at the time you see her in Banana. Davies himself writes episodes 1, 2, and 8, while the other ones are all by new, young, queer writers.

Like any anthology, Banana is highly variable, but when it's good, it's good. Davies's writing, for obvious reasons, tends to focus on white gay men, but Banana runs the whole gamut-- anything that involves queer relationships is essentially fair game. So we have stories about lesbians living with a romantic partner for the first time, and about a trans woman who has a well-meaning family she can't quite connect with post-transition, and about a gay guy who goes to the big city for university and disapproves of his best friend from back home's impending wedding, and about a woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder who can't have anything nice because she always fantasizes about things going wrong.

My favorites were 2, 4, and 6, but they're all good, and they're greater than the sum of their parts. Like one of the best things about Banana is that even though each episode of it stands alone (episode 4, the one about the trans woman, is well worth watching, for example), its diversity as a whole is one of its strengths. There is no single relationship narrative, or even queer romance narrative, and Banana captures so many different facets of human existence in eight 25-minute chunks. Watching it in alternation with Cucumber is fun, because when background characters have had an episode of Banana to themselves, their reappearances in Cucumber carry hidden depths. The fact that Davies used his current cachet to promote new queer voices seems amazingly admirable, too: I was particularly impressed with the work of Charlie Covell, who wrote episodes 4 and 6 and starred in episode 6. Hopefully she goes far as a writer and an actor, because she deserves too.

Oh, and the ending of episode 8 is just delightfully, darkly humorous. My wife and I were like, "Did they really???" And they did.

Cucumber was good, but it's definitely over-- when you get to the end, you know it's said everything it wanted to say. Banana, though... there deserves to be more Banana in the world, and hopefully some way is found to make it happen.

Bonus Link Section
I found the following particularly insightful when watching the show / writing this:
Each AV Club review has spoilers for the episode in question, and the Radio Times interview has big spoilers for the first five episodes specifically, so read cautiously if you're going to watch the shows. The overall reviews are pretty safe.

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