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Queer Eye Is Back

A reboot season of the makeover show is now on Netflix. But has it changed enough to say anything new?

Carin Baer/Netflix

All Things (Just Keep Getting Better). That song was less a refrain than a threat. It rang out in the opening-credit sequence as five men walked through a world of brightly colored cutout shapes. Here they come over the horizon to reformat your life like the defective little thumb drive it is. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ran for five seasons, between 2002 and 2007. Nicknamed the Fab Five, its presenters—therapists? counselors? life stylists?—walked into the worlds of straight men and tore them apart.

Take a schlumpy straight guy in New York who hasn’t let his friends into his apartment in 25 years; he pushes people away and doesn’t take care of himself. This was just the kind of man that Queer Eye helped. (The name was shortened in 2003.) Over a single day, the Fab Five would zero-in on different aspects of his life—those grown moldy with lack of love. The original team comprised Ted Allen, a bespectacled food and wine adviser; Kyan Douglas, a handsome “grooming guru”; Thom Filicia, an interior designer; Jai Rodriguez, a culture and relationships expert; and Carson Kressley, a blonde and toothy stylist who now appears on Drag Race and is probably the only one you remember. All were white, besides Rodriguez.

The saddest episodes featured men who were a little older, usually single. Maybe they let their home or appearance go because their wife died, or they’d gotten divorced, or there were otherwise no people in whom they could trust to care for them. American masculinity has a big hole in it, Queer Eye showed, and it manifests in a neglect that leads to squalor, loneliness, and rage. In episode seven of season two, for example, we meet a man in his late sixties with a thick New York accent. The Fab Five blow into his house and literally rip fixtures from the ceiling.

Watching a tidal wave of queer critique destroy a masculine space was always the best part of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, even when you knew you should feel bad. Those scenes ran on an emotional tension between laughter and tears. The Fab Five were heartless in a way that catered perfectly to 1990s homophobic stereotypes but was also genuinely funny. “He nursed his wife for three years,” Carson read aloud in the car over to the man’s house. “Yaaaay,” they deadpan, applauding. The man drinks instant coffee, so they teach him to use a French press. From inside the man’s closet, Carson yells, “Everybody look! John’s got a kilt!” They redecorate the man’s house in the most hideous way imaginable, complete with tacky photographs of the New York skyline all across one living-room wall.

Straight men are, the old chestnut goes, bad at expressing themselves. So after receiving the kind of support and attention that the Fab Five offered after years of emotional detachment, the episodes would often end with the subject choking back sobs, totally unable to express their feelings. “What’s going through your head right now?” Jai asks. John cannot speak, only cry.

The faces that I have seen pulled when I tell their owner that Queer Eye is being rebooted on Netflix in 2018 have all been alike. It’s a combination of disbelief and revulsion and a laugh. So much of the old Queer Eye feels bizarre from this distance. There’s no biological difference in the eyeballs of queer men, nor do we any longer confine queer people on television to the role of bitchy stylist. What was it that culture could just not get over about white gay men in the 1990s and 2000s? It was the gayness of Sex and the City, it was dehumanizing—a funny and competent and wise but emotionally uncomplicated man there to support, to make jokes, and to laugh at jokes, but never to feel too much.

That typology was homophobic, of course—the kind of simplistic understanding that sees gay marriage as the logical end to all queer oppression—and it also centered on white, wealthy, and masculine gayness. We have come so far as a culture from that manifestation of the queer on our television screens. So why bring back this TV show, which had at the core of both its premise and execution a totally outdated vision of what “queer” means?

The new season is set in Georgia, of all states. And its stars are new, too. The five men each have a slightly different style (all seem to present as cis). The cast is now three-fifths white, instead of four-fifths. Much about the show remains the same, from the All Things (Just Keep Getting Better) theme song, to the structure of the makeover, to the familiar signs of straight-male depression: an unkempt home, a lack of care for the lonely self.

But the concept of the “queer eye” itself has changed. This team is less of a bloc than the old one, each working his own different look and life story. Their focus is more on emotional support than on disdain, though of course they still go into the closets and scream.

In recognition of the new politicization of the queer in culture over the last ten years, Queer Eye has become overtly political. The results of this engagement are a little uneven. In one episode, a straight white gentleman asks one of the Fab Five who the “wife” in his marriage is. They don’t let him get away with it, and they even go a little way toward explaining that there are different ways to have agency in a relationship, but they don’t actually say that this is a homophobic and inappropriate question.

The cop episode is deeply uncomfortable in other ways. He has a Trump/Pence sign in his garage and a MAGA hat in the closet. One of his cop buddies pulls the Fab Five over at the start of the episode, while Kamaro Brown (the culture coach and only black cast member) is driving. Brown feels horrified by the encounter, and it leads to a fairly sophisticated conversation later about Black Lives Matter and policing, while he and the cop are stuck in traffic. It’s excruciating to watch, especially because the incident is so obviously staged. There’s no way that it was the cop’s fault alone that the stunt was pulled. The episode was produced for that conflict to happen. Yes, the white cop ends up crying a little, and the world has been left a marginally better place than it was before. But I’m not sure that Queer Eye has quite the production values for supposedly “authentic” interactions of that kind to come off as anything other than uncanny.

But of real emotional value, this season has great gobbets. In the season’s best episodes, the team work with a young civil engineer named A.J. Despite truly good looks, a hot body, great friends, and a hot boyfriend, A.J. is straight-acting at work and with his family out of fear of rejection. The mentorship that the team offer in this show goes all the way up to Kamaro sitting A.J. down and telling him that he is “the epitome of what it is to be a strong, beautiful, black gay man.” (Antoni, meanwhile, has just finished teaching him how to grill vegetables). A.J. cries, I cried. It was a beautiful moment to watch, a privilege to witness.

The return of Queer Eye feels like nothing less than a referendum. In the simplest possible terms, Netflix is asking whether the entertainment value of gay men onscreen can become something positive rather than negative. That is a political-cultural question, but of course it becomes a commercial question, too. The new series is full of fraught and odd moments facilitated by its intense orchestration and outdated format. But the work done to transcend those trappings here is immense, and Queer Eye delivers an answer to that referendum that none of us were expecting.