On Wednesday, Netflix begins streaming a new iteration of the Queer Eye franchise. EW’s TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich watched the first few episodes to find out if the mid-2000s makeover show still resonates in 2018. Then they tried not to cry while they talked about the show.
KRISTEN: When Netflix announced it was bringing back Queer Eye, I’ll admit my eyes rolled. Another reboot? And Queer Eye? That show was groundbreaking when it premiered 15 years ago — but seeing gay men interacting with their fellow human beings is (thankfully) no longer as much of a novelty as it once was. I scoffed at the new show’s self-important, somewhat hair-splitting tagline: “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance.” What could the Fab Five Version 2.0 (Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness, and Tan France) possibly show us that we haven’t seen before?
Well Darren, I stand before you completely and gratefully humbled, because boy was I wrong. The new Queer Eye is as joyful, positive, moving, and funny as the original — but it also feels bigger, more emotionally ambitious. By moving the show’s setting from New York City to America (specifically, for season 1, communities in and around Georgia), Netflix has found a way to make the show relevant again. It was one thing to watch “liberal coastal elites” get schooled in the arts of hair pomade and homemade crostini by a passel of homosexual men — but seeing a good ol’ country boy from Georgia embrace (literally and figuratively) these five queer guys does the soul good, especially in these divided times.
DARREN: I’m hesitant to attribute medicinal qualities to any TV show. (Great TV doesn’t need to be good for you.) But I do think watching the original Queer Eye made me a better person. I was a straight guy from suburbia, and Queer Eye for a Straight Guy was a channel-surfing revelation. It’s a savvy setup: It was a personal makeover show and a home makeover show, built on a mix of lifestyle empowerment (We Can Make You Better!) and Simon Cowell-ish full-frontal critique (We’re Throwing Out All Your Awful Clothes!) But I was struck by how the series could cheerfully celebrate and complicate the orientation identities in the title. The Fab Five were openly gay aspirational figures. (The vision I have in my head of “urban sophisticate” will always look a bit like Ted Allen.) And the conversations they were having with contestants felt aspirational, too — a model for larger conversations about sexual identity that very few people in my blinkered teenaged orbit were having.
So like you, Kristen, I’m struck by the emotional ambition of the Netflix reboot, the openhearted willingness to dig into the undercurrents swirling beneath the makeovers. The first two contestants, Tom and Neal, are very different men: A thrice-divorced white jorts-wearing grandfather and an app-designing thirtysomething Indian American entrepreneur. But there’s a common theme of closing themselves off, from the world and (maybe) themselves. The new Fab Five don’t just teach these guys about floral prints and avocados. They hug them towards self-acceptance—which I think is also what The Leftovers was about? “They were so open with me,” concludes Tom,”And I was open with them.” I cried happy tears! Were there moments in the opening episodes that stuck out to you as especially moving or surprising, Kristen? And how do you think the new crew stacks up to the original Fab Five?
KRISTEN: It’s a good thing that living in New York has inured me to the shame of crying in public, because I teared up many times during the first two episodes. The moment that might have moved me the most was a simple exchange between country boy Tom, design expert Bobby, and grooming guru Jonathan. Learning that Bobby is married, Tom asks, “Are you the husband or the wife?” There’s a beat of awkward tension, and then Jonathan jumps in with a cheery, “Let’s unpack that!” In his gentle, hippy-dippy way, Jonathan patiently schools Tom about the increasing obsolescence of traditional gender roles: Whether you’re hetero or gay, male or female, a “sun” or a “moon,” there is “gorgeous strength” in every point on the identity spectrum. In the Queer Eye universe, no one is seen as being beyond repair — whether we’re talking about their hideously filthy man-cave or their moral character. The Fab Five truly treat people the way they want to be treated, with patience, understanding, and a daily dose of moisturizer.
Jonathan is definitely the Carson Kressley of the bunch (meaning, he’s the most “flamboyant” member of the Fab Five), and for that reason I’m a little embarrassed to tell you he’s my favorite new Queer Eye by far. (A plea to producers: Much like coriander, Jonathan will be most effective when used in small doses.) Overall Netflix has assembled a good group — and boy, Antoni the food expert is dreamy — but I do think the weak link once again is the “culture” expert. Karamo (who came from the MTV reality sweatshop) is perfectly pleasant, but he’s not bringing much to the literal or figurative table; asking someone “What do you like about yourself?” does not a guru make. Who are your favorites, Darren?
DARREN: Clear evidence that the reboot is onto something: My tied-for-first favorite Fab Fivers are completely different from yours, Kristen! I love how fashion guru Tan toes the line between cheerleading and truthbombing. And designer Bobby is the new crew’s stealth ninja. More than just decluttering, he’s trying to express some key element of his charge’s personality, like when he takes a few items from self-declared redneck cop Cory’s messy man-cave and spreads them throughout his house.
Karamo’s got the toughest job, because “culture” is less tangible than hipster haircuts and bespoke suits. But Karamo’s also at the center of the most intriguing sequence in the first few episodes. On the way to meet Cory, the Fab Five gets pulled over. Karamo is driving, and the white cop/black driver tension is treated seriously—until it’s a gag. The cop is actually Cory’s friend; this whole incident was a planned “moment.” It’s a lame stunt, I think, but also a prologue. Later, Karamo and Cory have a conversation about Black Lives Matter and police shootings, trying to find some commonality. I guess there’s a Very Special Episode overlay to all this, but the conversation does feel special, an attempt toward connection in divided times.
My quibbles are minor. The interstitial segments of the Fab Five dancing in a white void give me bad flashbacks to the “I’ll Be There For You” music video, and feel leftover from Queer Eye’s original incarnation in a world with commercial breaks. I love the fizzy, lighthearted spirit but hope it doesn’t start to feel synthetic. (Let’s not soundtrack every Important Conversation with “Important Conversation” musical cues, producers.) Are there any elements in the reboot that didn’t work for you, Kristen?
KRISTEN: Completely agree with your quibbles. I’m also not loving the tinny remix of the the theme song, which sounds less life-affirming for some reason. But honestly, everything else about the new Queer Eye is working for me. They didn’t fiddle with the format — which means we still get the delightful “spy cam” segment at the end, where the Fab Five watch their student debut his new look for friends and family — and you’re definitely guaranteed a happy cry with every episode. Just as it did in 2003, Queer Eye has once again met this country at its point of need, and, God willing, it just might make all of us a little bit better.
DARREN: At the end of the Cory episode, some special guests arrive for the “Spy Cam” segment. It’s a crew of Cory’s NASCAR-loving pals, who do their own Talladega-style makeover on the Fab Five. Together they watch Cory’s progress. Onscreen, Cory shows his mom a gift from the Fab Five. It’s a blanket made out of Cory’s dad’s shirts—a way to honor his late father’s legacy, but also a new tradition, something to hand down to the next generation. (Those shirts aren’t just collecting dust in the closet anymore!) You feel that personal history has been honored and evolved.
Cory cries, his mom cries, Karano cries, Cory’s cop pal cries; I cried, damn it! “We can be transformed,” Cory concludes at the end of his episode. Queer Eye‘s sunny optimism captures the joy of that transformation. Also, we can always use more avocado.