In its second season, Netflix’s revival of “Queer Eye” does something novel, at least for a zeitgeist-hit reality show: It develops and complicates the show’s formula. That, for the first time, the revival takes on a straight woman and a trans man is only the beginning of the evolution of a show that has far more to say than viewers might have initially expected.
Earlier this year, the show’s debut season on streaming was a surprise sensation — a show that made certain among its central quintet into stars on social media and in the gay community. The surprise of the show’s success lay in quite how random a property the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” had seemed to excavate. The original series, which aired on Bravo in the early 2000s, was fueled by a sort of culture-clash comedy between gay aesthetes and straight louts. That it had been one of the pieces of culture that had moved us closer to widespread gay acceptance also meant its sensibility was effectively irrelevant.
The revival’s first season changed the formula, injecting an explicit sense of nurturing and bonhomie into the equation. The old “Fab Five” would give you a half-zip sweater and a pair of desert boots; the new group would help you pick out an outfit that made you feel comfortable in your own skin, and ask you what rejections had made you feel uncomfortable in the first place. The touchy-feeliness could go a bit far, as in a widely-remarked-upon episode in which the fivesome made over a Trump-supporting cop, pushing their own evident feelings so far aside as to seem self-negating. The vast majority of the work of learning and growing was on them. Now, though, there’s a bit of combativeness that makes the show vastly more interesting than standard reality fare; watching the experts work through what it means to be gay and to be an expert on this show is interesting because it’s happening before our eyes. “Queer Eye” was always fun TV, but, in ways that are realer than reality TV tends to get, it’s now verging on great.
In the season premiere for instance, the fivesome set out to zhuzh up the life of Tammye, a devout Christian mother and leader in her church. By the show’s anything-for-a-gag logic, she seems, almost, to have been chosen because she lives in the hamlet of Gay, Georgia, pop. 89; the more producer-friendly reason is that she’s reconciling her faith with her love for her openly gay son. But she ends up a perfect subject for instigating a bit of dissonance. Design expert Bobby Berk, who, like the subject’s son, felt out of place in church due to his sexuality, sings with him at a gay choir audition; his voice taut, he tells us “I quit singing years ago, but I was able to fill that void with design.” Asked by Tammye at episode’s end what he learned, Berk says he needs “to let go of some of the resentment and realize that not everyone out there who claims to be Christian is good, but there are a whole lot out there who are.” It’s a statement that comes as close as one can to dismissal without being dismissive; it’s not what she’d been looking for. Informed by Tammye that, indeed, more Christians are good than bad, Berk purses his lips. The experience has been broadening for both, but, intriguingly, it doesn’t have a perfectly happy ending.
The episode features plenty of what I’d consider traditional “Queer Eye,” including food expert Antoni Porowski’s openly weeping to camera (twice!) about the family’s togetherness in the face of differences. But Berk injects it with a sort of skepticism, a half-step away from the utopianism that we’ve come to expect from the show. If you’re looking for it, you will suddenly find it everywhere: The walk-throughs of the subjects’ unkempt homes are suffused with genuine criticism, not just goofy acknowledgment that there’s work to be done ahead. (“Veggie chicken nuggets,” Porowski announces, as disgusted as if he’d found human flesh in the freezer. “This is so weird.”) The experts are at times openly disappointed when makeover subjects wear their clothes the “wrong” way at episode’s end; happy as they are for Skyler, their trans subject whom they treat with sensitivity and care, they can’t hide their lack of approval he still wears his collar outside his suit, disco-style. They’re happy he’s wearing clothes the way he feels comfortable, but a tetchy sense of discomfort remains. It isn’t what they’d taught him, is it?
The episodes, filmed toward the end of Season 1, according to Berk, feel loose and improvisational to a degree “Queer Eye” hadn’t yet been. They’re unafraid to be judgmental and a bit catty, or something more than that; Berk strongly dissuades Skyler from incorporating rainbow-flag imagery too heavily into his home decor. “Flags are to be flown,” he tells the camera. “They’re not the core.” Later, he tells Skyler that his queer identity is but one “pillar” of who he is, “not the trash can, not the wall art!” It’s a critique that seems unduly harsh, rooted in something from off-camera; this fellow is very early in his journey towards living openly as trans. If he wants a rainbow flag on the wall, or an iridescent trash can, who’s harmed?
No one, really. But it would have chipped away at “Queer Eye”‘s increasingly clear sense of itself. The old “Queer Eye,” from the 2000s, posited queerness as central to one’s identity; Berk, who has a case but also some insecurities of his own, rejects that. The show, throughout, stages its dissent and sniping at the margins of a story about camaraderie and acceptance, but it’s there. Its setting in the American South has come to seem apt; the show’s sensibility is that of the southern saying “Bless your heart,” the verbal equivalent of an outstretched middle finger in a lace glove. These gay men may be experts, and their producer-aided impacts on people’s lives may be just short of magic. But in the manner of so many post-gay marriage, post-“Will & Grace” millennial gay men, they want to be seen as more than just their sexuality, a fact that works against the show’s initial premise. Their resentments and their own stumbling blocks are real. Which means, for the first time in the long history of the franchise, they’re real, too.
What has made the show popular, so far, is its heavy hand with positive reinforcement, and that’s still in evidence. Grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness still thinks every man is just a good shave away from being really rather sexy; Porowski still chooses recipes to make that are flatteringly easy and replicable to even the most inept home cook. But the tough love is what struck me about Season 2; rather than just get him new clothes that fit, clothing expert Tan France hauled a subject who’d recently put on weight to a gym. Was it as lovingly kind as “Queer Eye” could be, and did it meet its subject where he was? No. But, stretching out a bit, “Queer Eye” seems to have decided that facing challenges and adjusting expectations shouldn’t solely be the province of its experts. As a result, it’s as fascinating as it’s ever been, a document of gay men in 2018 — proud but uncertain about Pride, liberated but carrying wounds from an all-too-recent past — that feels unexpectedly vital.
TV Review: “Queer Eye”
Reality series (eight episodes, six watched for review): Netflix, June 15.
Credits: Executive Producers: David Collins, Michael Williams, Rob Eric, David George, David Eilenberg, Adam Sher, Jennifer Lane and Jordana Hochman.
Cast: Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Tan France, Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness.