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Is There Too Much Pressure for Gay TV Shows to Succeed?

Russell T Davies 'Cucumber' and 'Banana' could be an example of how the gay community will berate a TV show for not representing us well enough, before that show's cancelled and we're left with no representation at all.

by Chris Mandle
04 March 2015, 6:00am

A press image for 'Cucumber', 'Banana' and 'Tofu'

At the start of 2015, you couldn't move for giant cucumbers, bananas and lumps of tofu. They were splayed across pastel-lit ads on buses, in newspapers and on TV, signalling the return of Russell T Davies to UK telly with his new shows Cucumber, Banana and Tofu.

Having created Queer as Folk 16 years prior, Davies' comeback was exciting. QAF was (and still kind of is) praised for being sharp, uncompromisingly honest and appropriately stubborn. Even straight people know it did huge things for the representation of gay characters on TV, so anticipation was high for his three-pronged resurgence.

Cucumber has taken quite a while to perk up, but last week it finally hit its mark. The sixth episode of the season, it was a horrific, brutal hour where one of the main characters was excruciatingly smashed in the head with a golf club. To call the episode poignant would be an understatement; it was a carefully crafted 60 minutes celebrating love and life, mourning loss and embellishing a central construct that all gay men can relate to: being out and being gay can be incredibly dangerous. Every day.

The sudden praise for the show following this episode is at odds with the underwhelming response it received over the course of its first few weeks, and for a while now I've been interested in how the pressure for Cucumber and Banana to work might inadvertently be letting LGBT viewers down – wondering what the impact an unsuccessful show might have on a community further down the line.

Because they're so scarce, there's pressure for gay audiences to engage with LGBT shows on a level that just doesn't exist for heteronormative programmes and their fans. There's no casual watching, it seems: you're either an advocate or indifferent.

We want to see ourselves, and we want to see something new. We want something relatable, but something aspirational. We want our lives to look cinematic, escapist, gorgeously shot, but we want a show that admits gay life can be as mundane as anyone else's. It's a lot to incorporate.

The trailer for 'Cucumber', 'Banana', 'Tofu'

Admittedly, we've come a long way; Orange Is the New Black, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Game of Thrones are just three shows that have introduced characters with complex sexualities – but these characters still exist within the framework of typically straight environments.

So why are the shows focused specifically on gay lives doing such an underwhelming job of speaking to gay people?

In the US, HBO has Looking, which follows the lives of gay men in San Francisco. The first season was solid, and though it played things pretty safe it was a show finding its feet, something even more crucial to a show's success when there are hardly many case studies into how to make a successful, interesting gay TV show. Now in its second season, Looking has worked hard to address any creases in its early run; it's cast a more diverse pool of characters (in terms of race, body shape and sassiness), there's more confident storytelling and they've chucked in some pretty steamy sex scenes. So far, so enjoyable.

The reception to Cucumber and Banana has been mixed, but when you strip away the giddy antics you can't deny there's something interesting lurking underneath. Last week's episode was tense, and the final moments resting on a dying man who strayed too far into the hands of a dangerous stranger were chilling. However, scrolling through Twitter during the show, you'd be forgiven for thinking the audience was watching an endless loop of that infuriating spinning wheel that pops up every time YouTube decides not to load a video.

Part of the problem, I think, is that people expect a show to be too many things, and it gets pulled into too many directions, therefore achieving nothing specific. Some viewers balk at the sight of

An image from the trailer for 'Cucumber', 'Banana', 'Tofu' (Screen shot via)

Cucumber's gay men conforming to stereotypes, while others find it a shame that gay men have to be "straightened" out to make them appeal to non-gay viewers. That the idea of dialling back "gay traits" is no better than gay men having to blend in while going out in public. This is a chance for people to experience our culture; it's not about us figuring out how to placate non-LGBT audiences and make sure they "get us". The onus is on them.

I called up Boyd Hilton, TV and reviews editor at Heat Magazine, who writes smart words about TV and culture. I wanted to know what he thought of the show and if the lack of shows for LGBT audiences were piling pressure on Cucumber to work.

"I think it's important people realise this is a self-contained drama, telling a specific story about specific characters," he said. "It's not trying to 'represent' a group of people, but it does address many issues that rarely, if ever, get discussed on TV – like sex, and the shame of not conforming to stereotypes of sexual roles."

Boyd said he thought the complaints about the lack of relatability weren't fair, and if other shows aren't held up to severe scrutiny there's not a strong argument for doing the same to this one.

"[It's] a negative reaction based on the absence of stories about gay people on TV," he said. "It's not this show's fault that there aren't gay lives depicted on screen every week."

My initial worry was that, if the show was being poorly received and the support it required started to wane, its inevitable cancellation would be the fault of an LGBT community that had given up on it too early. It would be us shooting ourselves in the foot.

Trailer for HBO's 'Looking'

In 2010, BBC3 commissioned Lip Service, a show about lesbian women in Glasgow, and it felt like a bold (and well overdue) move. However, support wasn't strong enough and it was cancelled after two seasons. The L Word fared slightly better, earning cult status globally, which felt like a hugely significant step in including more diverse representations of women on TV. Sadly, it too only lasted a few years.

"It was exciting to have a mainstream-ish TV programme about lesbians, because there weren't any," Hannah Jane Parkinson, a journalist at the Guardian, told me. "I'd hoped that this would represent me – or at least present day lesbianism. But in the end I was disappointed with it because it was quite cliched; the script was awful and the story lines were kinda poor. I think LGBT-focused shows are judged by much higher standards. There are loads of shows with bad scripts and badly written characters that go on for years and years."

Social media has definitely affected the way people engage with shows. When you've got Twitter on your phone, even staying in like a loser feels like a community experience, hurling snarky comments into people's timelines and making sure your opinion is highlighted in the most lurid shade possible. But Boyd thinks this might be part of the problem with shows being poorly perceived by mass audiences.

"I think there's an issue with the way the Netflix/Twitter generation watch and critique TV. If any episode isn't entirely to their tastes, they kick off on social media, and a perception forms that suddenly these shows are rubbish," he said.

I spoke to a public relations expert who has a background in TV and entertainment. He told me (anonymously) that shows don't get renewed, or cancelled, on ratings alone, and we were lucky to have a more lax approach to making good entertainment.

"[US broadcasters] have to tell their advertisers in January what their schedule will be like for the 26 weeks from September, so it's pretty cutthroat. In the UK we're more like, 'Remember that show that did alright last year? Let's maybe bring it back at some undetermined point in the next 18 months,'" he told me. "I imagine Channel 4 are happy with Cucumber's ratings. They're getting a lot of engagement with 4OD and catch-up from the looks of things."

Logo via Wikipedia.

The success of online shows backs this up. Orange Is the New Black was bold, immersive and hugely diverse – but would it work as weekly instalments on national TV? It's worth pointing out, too, that critical darling Breaking Bad aired on 5USA in its early days, but was pulled because nobody watched it. It was Netflix that immortalised it as a phenomenon.

See also: Transparent, Amazon's original drama about a retired professor transitioning from male to female. Last month, it became the first ever show from a streaming service to win a Golden Globe (for Best Televised Drama), while lead Jeffrey Tambor beat Ricky Gervais, William H Macy and Louis CK to win the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series.

Transparent is an incredibly powerful piece of television, and like OITNB it exists on its own viewing spectrum, outside of regular TV scheduling – and so its victory in big award ceremonies feels even more deserving.

So should you support a show you don't like? I think so. Gay characters being on TV in their own right is still, sadly, groundbreaking stuff.

Soon, there might be more shows featuring the lives of LGBT characters, meaning people can be as choosy as they like. But right now, I'd rather have imperfect gay characters on my screen than no gay characters at all. Russell T Davies has suggested Cucumber won't return for a second season, but hopefully the show's most engaging moments will inspire people to commission more bold, engaging LGBT telly in the years to come.

It's about fucking time, isn't it?

@chris_mandle

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