Queerness on TV is now old enough to become nostalgia fodder. Will & Grace returned last fall nearly 20 years after its original launch to much fanfare. A reboot of The L Word with a new cast was announced shortly before that. But the return of Queer Eye — which originally ran for five seasons on Bravo and resumes making over straight guys on Netflix, starting Wednesday — feels less like revisiting old friends than letting our culture regress to an era we’d moved beyond.
During its initial run, I was a huge fan of Queer Eye — and no wonder. It’s a straight woman’s fantasy, that a quintet of talented metrosexuals (aka the “Fab Five”) have nothing better to do but transform my schlubby partner into a clean-shaven, suit-wearing, spiffily polished version of himself, complete with newfound cooking skills and a professionally designed apartment. (Each of the queer guys had his own area of expertise, ranging from grooming to food and wine to “culture.”) But Queer Eye rightly drew criticism for the implications that gay men are all mincingly fabulous — and just as egregiously, that queer individuals are benign, asexual elves whose purpose in life (or TV) is to facilitate heterosexual romance.
With one major exception, the new Queer Eye dismisses these objections. The reboot does boast a few smart updates: The new cast is more diverse, as are the straight men they revamp. The mood is slightly more personal: They freely refer to their husbands or children — and occasionally, their struggles reconciling their gayness with their black, South Asian or religious backgrounds. A move from New York to Atlanta as the series headquarters means forging connections with a Trump supporter, a devout churchgoer and a self-described “redneck” — representatives of groups that might benefit from more exposure to gay people and that liberals might automatically stereotype as homophobic. Otherwise, the show’s sturdy formula is remarkably consistent, down to the slightly budget look and broadcast-friendly 45-minute runtime. I felt myself seduced once again by the spectacle of male makeovers, even while tut-tutting at the show politically.
It helps enormously that the Queer Eye producers have chosen deeply sympathetic subjects for the makeovers. If no one in the new Fab Five stands out like original fan faves Carson Kressley or Jai Rodriguez (save grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness for his obnoxious attempts to become a meme), the straight guys are surprisingly memorable. With his wild-man beard and too-short shorts, the first episode’s 57-year-old divorcee Tom silently screams for help each time he says about himself, “You can’t fix ugly.”
The confidence boost after a week of fashion and cooking lessons is just as heartwarming with 30-ish Neal, an Indian-American app developer who bonds with Pakistani-Scottish fashion guru Tan France over demanding South Asian moms. (It’s a new America.) Thankfully, the compulsory heteronormativity of Queer Eye’s original run has relented somewhat. Both Neal and twentysomething Remy, who’s still mourning the (unrelated) deaths of his father and his grandmother, are out to impress not potential lady friends, but their fretful and loving mothers.
But the season highlight — and the episode that would satisfy even the show’s most vociferous critics — is the episode where the gay men makeover another gay man. The semi-closeted A.J., a civil engineer, voices his fears of appearing “feminine,” especially at work, and the Fab Five eventually help him realize that those anxieties keep him from allowing himself to relax into his truest self. (The example of shy, nerdy A.J. also allows the series to acknowledge that not all queer men are outgoing, telegenic aesthetes.) The brief, never-combative political discussions throughout the season are highly uneven, but A.J.’s heart-to-heart with African-American culture maven/unofficial therapist Karamo Brown about the difficulties of coming out in the religious black South are utterly moving. Even more compelling is the deeply human scene when A.J. finally comes out to his stepmother, his beloved father’s widow. That extended moment already feels like one of the best TV scenes of the year.
That Netflix has chosen to reboot Queer Eye as one of its very few reality offerings may prove a canny move. Based on how many straight women I personally know who’ve binged seasons of Say Yes to the Dress on the site, Netflix would be wise to consider finally building up its original programming in this arena. Compared to genuinely radical queer series like RuPaul’s Drag Race, American Gods, Orange Is the New Black and Sense8, Queer Eye feels like an antique — the kind you find charming but maybe too embarrassing to display in your house. But save for the A.J. episode, Queer Eye would fit right in with the empty-calorie, but regrettably delectable, junk that Netflix stocks in bunker amounts.
Cast: Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Jonathan Van Ness, Antoni Porowski
Creator: David Collins
Premieres: Wednesday (Netflix)