Netflix has introduced a new Fab Five for new times. Will all things just keep getting better?
For all of its problems, the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which aired on Bravo for five seasons from 2003 to 2007, knew exactly what it was. The formula is now familiar: a quintet of gay men with distinct specializations, the Fab Five, would descend from their loft on “Gay Street” to overhaul the lives and wardrobes of straight guys. They would dole out important lessons in self-care, like how to wear clothes that fit, cook with olive oil and use pomade.
The premise, while entertaining, had its detractors: many said it depended on a crude stereotype that gay men were hell-bent on shopping and giving makeovers. But in 2003, when less than half of Americans believed homosexual relationships should be legal, any merely positive depiction of a gay man on television was groundbreaking. Better yet, showing them as more adept at modern life than their straight counterparts—and having them lightly ridicule schlubby straight dudes for their bad taste—was a bitchy, good-humored “You know you love us!” to a deeply homophobic America.
In 2018, Netflix introduces a new Fab Five for a more tolerant era, one in which same-sex marriage is recognized as a constitutional right and 72 percent of Americans accept gay relationships. The new show, now just Queer Eye, focuses on a rift more complicated and acrimonious than the old gay-straight divide: that of blue and red America. “At a moment when America appears divided and the future seems uncertain, the show is back and ready to make history once more,” the press copy from Netflix reads.
The setting has been moved from New York City to Atlanta, Georgia, where the new Fab Five venture into territories that went overwhelmingly to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. There, they will teach small town police officers and firemen to make sangria and use essential oils rather than downtown musicians and junior executives. Netflix hopes well-meaning urban gay men can establish common ground in the heartland—a gamble that results in a heartfelt if not clunky new series.
But fear not: “Spray, delay, then walk away” is back.
The introductions of the premiere episode, given just as a remix of the original theme song “All Things (Just Keep Getting Better)” begins, present the jumbled new ethos of the series. The impeccably groomed new Fab Five appear on the screen, staged like documentary interviews rather than early-aughts reality TV confessionals. There are, in order of first appearance, Antoni Porowski (food and wine), Karamo Brown (culture), Jonathan Van Ness (grooming), Tan France (fashion) and Bobby Berk (design).
“The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance,” begins France. Then, Porowski introduces a second mission statement: “My goal is to figure out how we’re similar as opposed to how different we are,” hinting at broader implications than gay tolerance. “We all got to come together in a way where we can understand each other,” Brown adds.
The new Fab Five have not only been sent to Georgia as envoys of gay men. They represent, more broadly, all men living in liberal hubs like New York City and San Francisco. Late style and culture critic Glenn O’Brien, in his book How to Be a Man, muses that gay acceptance has led to the conjoining of queer and hetero cultures, at least in tolerant areas. Younger gay men appear more “straight” than ever, he says, and younger straight men less so.
“One of the unintended consequences of gay liberation was that acceptance seems to have toned down ‘la différence’ to the point that it has almost disappeared. Everybody dresses regular and talks regular. I think the cultural melding of the gay and straight is inevitable, and never will we see the polarization of gender mutants that we once had,” O’Brien writes, referring to the vanishing of “sissies” and “queens” from gay life. “The extremes seem doomed. But maybe along with straighter gays will come gayer straights.”
An outcome of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s popularity was the now-outdated pop culture figure of the “metrosexual,” a straight man who had adopted habits once deemed “gay,” like taking spin classes, visiting tanning salons and preparing crostini for dinner guests. Meanwhile as gay men were suddenly welcomed by society, they were less relegated to what O’Brien calls the gay “ghetto,” where drag culture and queen-speak once thrived. In 2018, splashing out on a designer belt or eye cream is no longer a cultural indicator of homosexuality, whereas in 2003 that would have earned a jeering “Hah, gay!”
Still, there are large swathes of the country that have yet to embrace a queer eye—the red states. These are the humble, meat-and-potatoes regions where homophobia still abounds, where Guy Fieri is more revered than the Dining section, and any mentioning of words like “Equinox” or “Margiela” elicits blank stares, or worse, outrage. As Middle America increasingly sees blue America as aloof and detached from working-class realities, the stylish self-presentation embraced by city dwellers can now be seen as a marker of the enemy. It is not only incumbent on the new Fab Five to promote gay values of self-care but also those of a new liberal manhood.
As the Fab Five venture deep into Trump’s America, clad in Wayfarer sunglasses and brightly colored bomber jackets, cynical viewers would be forgiven for shouting at the screen for the Fab Five to drive back to Atlanta.
Thankfully, producers threw the Fab Five a soft ball for their first mission—to make over a shy and kindly divorcee, “hillbilly Tom,” who ruefully claims, “You can’t fix ugly.” Once in Tom’s hometown Dallas, Georgia, the guys are able to provide some sensible pointers: Jonathan (grooming) teaches Tom to mask the red patches on his skin caused by lupus, and Antoni (food and wine) demonstrates how to prepare a margarita with actual limes rather than Mountain Dew. The result is a far more earnest and purposefully uplifting show—one that eschews the sort of acerbic asides dished out by Carson Kressley. The episode even manages a few tears, as a lonely man is shown care and compassion, but it lacks the biting sass of its predecessor.
This is not to the discredit of the new Fab Five, who are clearly delineated and would have surely come stocked with bitchy one-liners had producers allowed it. Antoni, the food and wine savant recommended to the show by Ted Allen, has the most natural star power. Ebullient grooming expert Jonathan, already known for his appearance in the Funny or Die web-series Gay of Thrones, is the clearest heir apparent to O.G. fan favorite Carson. Culture expert Karamo gives TEDx-worthy pep talks. Fashion authority Tan gets enough screen time but fails to leave a strong impression, while design expert Bobby is all but forgotten.
For all their fabulosity, the new Fab Five never condescend to their shabby protégés, who juggle multiple jobs and live many miles from tony groceries stocked with imported cheeses and wines. The word “Republican” is rarely mentioned, and show runners have ensured that these men are shown as decent folk with real problems rather than as country simpletons. More effort likely went into ensuring the Middle Americans were depicted respectably than any of the gay guys.
The earnest new tone strains when the show actually addresses—in ham-handed and anodyne attempts—divisive topics. In the third episode of the season, sure to be the most talked-about, the Fab Five are sent to make over small-town cop Cory. While driving through rural Georgia, the Fab Five are stopped by a stern-faced police officer, actually Cory’s friend pulling a prank. The cop asks Karamo, the driver and sole black man of the group, to step out from the vehicle. After panic sets in, the cop reveals the prank, but Karamo is nonetheless left rattled. Later during a staged exchange, he confronts Cory about his fears of police officers and Black Lives Matter, which results in the two shedding a few tears, hugging it out and agreeing, “Both sides need to talk more.”
The strongest episode of the season does not even involve a straight guy but rather a closeted gay man in Atlanta, AJ, who is unready to embrace his identity and what he sees as the vanity of gay culture. “I associate a lot of gay people with showing off their bodies and focusing hard on their looks. Those things don’t really matter to me,” AJ reveals to Tan and Antoni, inspiring Antoni to admit similar struggles. The Fab Five eventually nudge AJ to come out to his stepmother and embrace skinny jeans, but his episode reveals unease many in the gay community feel with its emphasis on appearances. This is perhaps why so many gay men groaned when they heard Queer Eye was being remade.
It is a common criticism queer voices have lobbied against mainstream gay culture. Psychologist Alan Downs, in his book The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, presents a cynical view of why gay men so disproportionately excel in style. Rather than it being the result of an inborn superior taste, Downs argues that this is the outcome of lifelong attempts to escape the feelings of shame and inadequacy gay men felt as children, what he calls “compensating for shame.” Beneath many outwardly beautiful and successful gay men are deprived psyches desperate for approval.
“If you’re ‘out,’ you no longer harbor that ‘dirty little secret’ about yourself, but you likely do continue to hide your true self behind the beauty you manufacture. And nobody knows how to create style more than gay men,” Downs writes. “We decorate the world. We decorate our lives. We decorate our bodies. And we do it all in an effort to hide our real selves from the world. Gay men are the worldwide experts on style, fashion, etiquette, bodybuilding, art, and design. […] If this weren’t so, there would be few tuning in to the hit television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
Gay or straight, men will inevitably feel compelled to improve themselves. “All human beings have a commonality, more so than anyone thinks,” design expert Bobby says in a monologue delivered at the end of the first episode. “It doesn’t matter if it’s gay or straight, the common thread that holds every human together is that we just want to be loved.” It is just that gay men are shown far less of it, and they will develop unique skillsets to attain it.
This unpleasant truth of gay life is perhaps how the new Queer Eye, which incorporates more of the personal stories of the Fab Five, manages its pathos. That gay men would share the lessons they learned from the closet—not only with fellow gay men but also straight men—should prove healing to queer viewers. That their unique sense of suffering could in the end be directed at helping people, even those unfamiliar with their struggles, is a powerful, and empowering, notion.
But the new Fab Five have stepped into a climate of disdain, one in which a mass-produced red baseball cap has become a badge of populist male rage and a rebuke of the sartorial dictates of “liberal elites.” Whether this America would actually welcome the style advice of gay men from New York City and Los Angeles—when not on a carefully staged reality show—remains to be seen.
The new Queer Eye premieres on Netflix on February 7th.