“Which One of You is the Unicorn?”* On the Ecstasy and Agony of Representation in the BBC show Trigonometry
Whatever algorithm dictates our cultural consumption ensured that I couldn’t avoid BBC ‘throuple’ drama Trigonometry (BBC iPlayer) for very long. Friends messaged me. Articles climbed up my social feeds. The iPlayer homepage placed it centre screen. It was begging to be watched. And yet I resisted.
When you’re told repeatedly that something is ‘made for you,’ there can be a special sort of anxiety about watching. When you’re queer- and in an alternative relationship set up- you long for balanced and sensitive representation. But when it finally comes along I find myself cringe-watching through my fingers.
Everybody wants to see themselves on screen. No one likes hearing a recording of their own voice. We’re contradictory creatures.
So it was with great trepidation that I sat down to watch Trigonometry. As someone who, with their partner, has dated ‘unicorns’ (of any gender) for years now, I was planning to write an article about what the show gets right and wrong. But what’s a unicorn, I hear you ask? (Although probably not, given you’re here reading this.) Well, as one of the characters says, “It’s the third party that makes it…you know…a party.”
The series follows Kieran and Gemma, a couple in their mid thirties who are forced to take on a lodger to make ends meet. The woman who takes the room is Ray, an Anglo-french ex-Olympic synchronised swimmer who is recovering from a traumatic injury in the pool. You know, like so many of our flatmates are. And before you can say ‘please don’t touch the thermostat’ the new roomies are squeezing past each other in narrow stairways, sensuously filling kettles and accidentally revealing their genitals to each other.
It’d almost be sexy if a drama about sharing a domestic environment COULD EVER BE SEXY AGAIN following the corona lockdown. Instead, it’s likely to be highly triggering for a nation already driven mad by the sound of their housemates blinking.
Watching Kieran, Gemma and Ray roll around and giggle whilst sharing a cramped London flat now seems about as realistic as a Marvel movie. These are the times we live in. Now please, for the love of god, chew quieter!
But to be fair, if you had to isolate with anyone, these three don’t seem too bad. Kieran is a heroic paramedic and ex-soldier with a sensitive side to boot (he has panic attacks).
Gemma runs a socially-conscious pasta making school-come-cafe-come-implausibly-fireplaced-restaurant.
And Ray…well she’s just the right side of the manic-pixie-dreamgirl archetype to be believable AND goofy. I could almost imagine rolling around on the floor with them. You know, if the world wasn’t ending.
And honestly, watching the first episode was one of the more joyful experiences I’ve had with television in a long time. Gemma and Kieran’s relationship was sweet and sour and non-patriarchal. Gemma’s queerness was handled with a light touch. I recognised the London they lived in, with it’s drag nights and housing estates and gentrified cafes. Plus the chemistry between the three leads seemed real and romantic.
When the episode culminates with the three of them drunkenly dancing at a glitter-filled drag cabaret show it almost made my heart burst with pride and with longing. When the MC spots Gemma, Ray and Kieran from the stage and asks which one of them is ‘the unicorn’ I practically squealed.
I saw in that scene the countless nights I had spent in identical surroundings, with brilliant people, doing stupid glorious things. I saw something represented beautifully that I had never seen represented before.
It’s the sort of scene you want to send to your friends and say, ‘Watch! This is what I’ve been banging on about. This is what it feels like!”
Seek it out. It’s an amazing first episode.
In some respects, it’s a shame there are seven more. With each one I watched, the further it drifted from the show I hoped it would be, the more my criticisms kept coming.
For example, it turns out that for a show about a throuple, Trigonometry is squeamish about threesomes.
To an extent, I sympathise. I think there is always something cringing about depicting the build up to a ménage-a-trois. (See! It’s even cringing in French!) The soft music, the pouring of wine, the lingering glances…come on guys! Get it over with! I’m dying here.
Trigonometry drags out this most fragile of romantic transactions for FOUR WHOLE EPISODES. It’s agony. And then, when they finally do the deed, WE DON’T GET TO SEE IT. We get hazy, Hollywood soft focus flashbacks. This is a show that has previously given us frank and awkward depictions of sex-a-deux. But when it comes to making the titular triangle, the camera pans away. Talk about edging…
Plus, when they finally all sleep together, they behave as if the world is ending. They mope, they moan, they leave for Norway, they become an air steward (because…reasons.) They’re infuriating. They’re entirely humourless for, like, two whole hours of television.
That’s the thing. Trigonometry isn’t a funny show. It has maybe one laugh per episode. A friend of mine described it as living up to its title by being confusing and dull. Real life throuples are so much funnier. It’s even a funny word. ‘Throuple.’ How can a show about group sex and portmanteaus be so po-faced? That’s not representative! That’s not my experience!
And there’s the rub. Because no television show can- or should- live up to the weight of expectation I had placed on it. The idea of Trigonometry had made me nervous because I had both wanted to see myself and been scared of what it would show. I had wanted it to succeed but been desperate to dismantle it for the smallest mistake. And what constituted a mistake? A deviation from my experience? A plot twist I didn’t agree with? An unsympathetic character? I was too invested.
This was the first time I’d seen this type of story on screen, and there was just too much I wanted it to do. Nothing can live up to those expectations.
One work of art can never speak for anything but one experience of the world. It can never speak for a group entirely, let alone for intersecting groups and communities that blend and compliment and compete in confusing and messy and wonderful ways.
That is why there can never be too much queer art.
We need more and more and more until the burden of representing a whole community is lifted from the shoulders of a single story. The more queer stories there are, the more we allow queer stories to breathe. To be what they are, not what we hope they will be.
But until I can dance under glitter again with the people I care about most, I might just rewatch that first episode. It really is rather good.
Watch Episode 1 of Trigonometry on BBC iPlayer here
*Note from the Editor: The writer uses ‘unicorn’ to describe consenting scenarios in threesome and throuple environments. In many cases ‘unicorn’ has been used negatively in the past which we don’t condone, but we appreciate how language is different contextually and in this article it’s apparent that everyone is having a great time.”
Joe von Malachowski
UNICORN Staff Writer | He / Him
Joe is a staff writer for UNICORN, a reader for the Hampstead Theatre, and a playwright. He works at various cultural institutions to pay the bills, notably the Almeida Theatre and the National Portrait Gallery. He was educated at the University of Manchester and Central School of Speech and Drama.