Side-Eye

‘Queer Eye’ for the Woke Guy: Netflix’s Reboot Struggles to Be Fabulous

Eleven years after the original Fab Five nudged a nation of straight guys into jeans that actually fit, a revival of the show seems an awkward fit for more ‘woke’ times.

Carin Baer/Netflix

There’s not a gay man over 30 who doesn’t have complicated feelings about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. So the Netflix reboot, streaming starting Wednesday, arrives with heavy baggage—and not of the designer kind that Carson Kressley may have picked out.

As cannily evocative of the original series as the Netflix revival is, there’s also a marked effort to, as was the case with the recent Will & Grace revival, ensure that these queer eyes are wide open to these woker times.

“For the Straight Guy” is excised from the title, for starters. The eyes may be queer, but they’re inclusive. “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance,” says new fashion expert Tan France. (And here this whole time you thought the fight was against baggy pants and bad grooming.)

Snark aside, there’s a broader cultural mission that is more explicitly detailed in this reboot than it ever was in the original. Reflecting reality TV’s dialed-up championing of altruisms and emotional pandering, platitudes abound here about how the Fab Five is “figuring out we’re all similar, instead of how different we all are,” as cutie food expert (and our favorite new host) Antoni Porowski says.

A better haircut and killer guacamole recipe are simply superficial means to loftier ends.

Every reboot competes against, and is maybe even constrained by, its predecessor’s legacy. When Queer Eye’s return was announced, viewers were wary of whether a new Fab Five could measure up to the indelible original cast, let alone make the case that, in the year 2018, there is redeeming value in a show in which a flamboyant gay man purrs innuendos at a schlubby straight guy while berating him for wearing jean shorts.

The Queer Eye reboot finds perhaps even more pathos than the original one. The transformation in the premiere episode is a heartwarming hoot. But with a cast of attention-seeking experts who too often steal focus from the proverbial mission at hand, it can be as exhausting and, at times, even as cringe-inducing as some have feared.

We remember how we felt when the original Bravo series was airing: excited, but conflicted. All these years later, we decided to revisit the first few episodes of the series ahead of watching the reboot. For the way the show has gotten lost in the think-piece weeds about its place in gay acceptance, gay visibility, and gay self-esteem, we discovered that what’s been overlooked is how simply entertaining the series was: breezy, feel-good fun. Plus, great tips about cuffing!

The show was important. Impeccably cast, the original Fab Five were hilarious, talented, and generous, so fabulous as to be fun and so caring as to be endearing. A fast-and-bright cultural phenomenon, they dispelled the idea that there was something scary about a gaggle of gay men—even if it didn’t exactly do well to bury the idea of the “other.”

At most, they helped move our culture toward tolerance. At the very least, they got American men into jeans that fit.

It was all so complicated. These were gay men who were respected for their expertise, but still tokenized, stereotyped, and often the butt of the joke.

That could have been viewed as a great thing: gay men encouraged and even celebrated for being unapologetic, and with healthy senses of humor about themselves. The Fab Five were proud and treated with dignity. In the year 2003, my god, it was powerful to see gay men on TV who were confident. And for viewers they were, at the very least, demystifying. It might have been the first introduction to gay people on a regular basis for many, even if it was just on TV. Are gay men an abomination? Maybe. But, hey, these guys sure are funny, too!

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Yet suffocating all that was the same old, debasing reduction: gay men as zoo exhibits and court jesters, flouncy guys whose interests are exclusively relegated to effeminate things like clothes and hair and operas and fine dining.

What struck us revisiting the first season is that, aside from obvious breakout star Kressley, the personalities were all pretty muted and down-to-earth. Our memory of the show has been warped by its reputation. I had prepared myself for a cacophony of men in assless chaps snapping their fingers and shouting “fierce” every three seconds; in reality, they were certainly quippy, but also just normal, competent guys.

The men in the reboot are appealingly well-intentioned, but hardly as calibrated. Fabio-maned grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness packs a personality as loud as his locks are long, and a craven desire to be the focus of any scene he’s in. While tame in comparison, his Fab cronies—Bobby Berk (design), Karamo Brown (culture), Antoni Porowski (food and wine), and Tan France (fashion)—strictly subscribe to the modern reality-TV idea that LOUDER! IS! BETTER!

It’s the rare instance of good TV that is also authentically human.

At some point, this grating big-ness became the default for anyone looking to make an impression on reality TV, but it generally has the effect of seeming artificial and hollow. It’s a shame, because the encounters the hosts have with the men whose lifestyles they’re meant to rehab are, once the hysteria settles, quite genuine. Beautiful, even.

The premiere focuses on Tom, a self-described “dumb old country boy from Kentucky.” He’s got a Duck Dynasty beard, wears jorts, and is ruled a “hot mess” by his daughter. He’s also got a great sense of humor—“I think I’m unlucky in love because I’m butt ugly”—and is endearingly enthusiastic about being made over by the Fab Five.

The mutual respect Tom and the Fab Five have for each other is immediately infectious. When the group is together, it’s over-stimulating gay bumper cars, with the five men jockeying for one-liners and attention. It’s when smaller groups break off to speak with Tom and get to the heart of his self-esteem issues that the show picks up.

To have your life positively changed by people you would never expect is an emotional thing, and you bet those moments tug at your heartstrings when you watch. It’s the rare instance of good TV that is also authentically human. That’s where this show works, and that has nothing to do with clichés or catchphrases, or even gayness.

In the 11 years since the original Queer Eye series, gay men have been emboldened to dial up their unabashed passion and enthusiasm for things that might be, reductively speaking, ruled as “gay,” be it fashion, pop divas, or yaas-ing in their own vernacular. But they’ve also finally been accepted on a spectrum that doesn’t merely exist from tapered to boot cut, but which spans the actual breadth of masculinity and sexual expression.

Much of the fretting surrounding a Queer Eye reboot centered on whether it would reflect that widening spectrum—Hey, maybe include an adventurous gay, or an overweight gay, or one who doesn’t know his Tom Ford from his Thom Browne—and it’s frustrating that this one doesn’t.

Yet, for all the strides made in the last decade, being out is still an inherently brave and political act. A show like Queer Eye, then, is still progressive—even in spite of the concerns about reviving a series that fostered stereotypes many ruled regressive.

Is it refreshing that this is a show with a full cast of gay leads existing outside a space of oppression? Or is it ignorant?

Rooted at the intersection of self-improvement TV and gay self-loathing, Queer Eye has always produced a traffic jam of complicated questions. The reboot, while successfully worthwhile, does little to answer any.