The latest old show to be resurrected for a new generation is Bravo’s Emmy-winning “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” later, and currently, just “Queer Eye.” The series took off from the premise that (some) gay men might have something to teach (certain) straight people about self-presentation and self-understanding, and that the world would be better for watching this happen. Netflix is behind the new season, whose eight episodes began streaming Wednesday, all at once.
“Queer Eye” emerged in a golden age, or glut, of makeover shows; it arrived in 2003, the same year as TLC’s “What Not to Wear” – the other best such program, for my money – which followed a similar narrative to similar philosophical ends. Unlike ABC’s surface-obsessed “Extreme Makeover,” which threw plastic surgery into the mix, the upgrades were relatively modest and the thrust educational; the message was that you are already the person you need to be, once you get out of your own way – “all things just keep getting better,” in the words of the series’ theme.
Or as grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness tells one subject, “We fixed you topically and we fixed this house, but the essence of who you are really didn’t need a whole lot of fixing – you just need to dust your shoulder off and make sure you moisturize right before you go to your big meeting, sonny.”
Here is how it works: A person, stuck in a rut or facing a challenge, is chosen for a makeover. In come the Fab Five, each with his specialty: clothing, food, decor, grooming and (the most variable of categories) culture. They invade the subject’s living space, wreaking havoc like a bigger Marx Brothers. By the end of the show – the original took place in a day, or “a day”; the new show over a week – they have transformed their target outside and in.
The subject then hosts an event – a party, a date – highlights of which the team watches on video back in their loft headquarters. There is laughter, there are (especially in the reboot) tears. Some of that laughter and some of those tears were, I don’t mind saying, mine.
Every episode has its theme. There is the wedding do-over, the lonely older person looking for love, a fireman raising money to train more firemen, the father of six working two jobs, and young men who need to grow up (one, an aspiring comic, still lives in a room next to his parents; another sleeps in his mother’s preserved old room, in the house he inherited from his grandmother).
And there is something the old show never tackled, a semi-closeted gay African American who regrets never having come out to his father, fears coming out to his stepmother and lives in a sort of dull camouflage, “self-conscious of looking gay or looking like people can tell my preference just by my clothes.” “You’re literally hitting home with me,” says culture adviser Karamo Brown, who also bears the distinction of having been reality TV’s first out gay black man (“The Real World,” 2004).
As a fan of the Bravo series, I approached the reboot with trepidation. The original cast – Carson Kressley, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Jai Rodriguez and Ted Allen, who have stayed more and/or less in the public eye since the show went off the air in 2007 – had a special combination of personalities and talents that added up to a greater whole, like the Beatles, whose “Fab Four” moniker was borrowed for their collective nickname, the Fab Five.
Of course, you can’t take four people, give them instruments and haircuts and say, “These are the Beatles now.” The new crew is, on the whole, not as droll as the original – Van Ness, who stars in the Funny or Die comedy recap series “Gay of Thrones,” is the designated Kressley, the chatterbox joker – but they are full of life and ideas, of fun and feelings, which they are ready to discuss.
Indeed, the Netflix “Queer Eye” has been arranged to provide moments of revelation and education for the Fab Five as well; their own feelings and back stories have been stirred into the mix. As before, some of the best scenes take place in transit, as the week’s subject and one or two of the team just talk, as they travel to or return from checking out clothes, buying a mattress or trimming a beard.
It is one thing to become a phenomenon unexpectedly, because what you do strikes a nerve, and another trying to repeat a phenomenon. In a way, the new “Queer Eye” is about the old “Queer Eye” and its incidental real-world effects – bringing a marginalized community into the mainstream, educating the straight world and providing models for LGBTQ people, including some members of the current cast. There is a lot of explicit stating of themes left implicit in the old show.
But “Queer Eye” 2018 has been made for a different moment, when advances have been made and ground lost. Some new cast members have husbands and children; there is an African American Fab member in Brown; fashion adviser Tan France is half-Pakistani. (Food person Antoni Porowski and designer Bobby Berk, whose brand may be familiar to you, round out the cast.) At the same time, in the wider world, a megaphone has been handed to those eager to re-marginalize the marginalized. Putting the new series in Georgia, in cosmopolitan Atlanta and in conservative small towns, lets conversations happen. Some cast members have their own, not necessarily pleasant, small town histories.
All bends toward love in the end – so many hugs! Come for the serial reveals, stay for the life lessons. (Don’t judge a book by its cover. Pick up your room.) Or come for the lessons and stay for the reveals. It works either way.
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