After three seasons of feeling like “huge fish out of water” in rural Georgia, Kansas and Missouri, Season 5 of “Queer Eye” sees the Fab Five head to a big city for the first time: Philadelphia.
With a new intro and new issues (such as gentrification) to address, this season “feels like it has a different energy,” says the gang’s style guru Tan France.
A gym owner, a canine groomer and an over-worked doctor are among the hero highlights this season, which is launching at an extremely difficult, highly-charged time for many viewers, and for the Fab Five as well.
Here France and showrunnner Jennifer Lane talk with Variety about what to expect from the new season, and to discuss one old episode with a message that now seems all the more urgent.
There was an episode in Season 1 where the Fab Five were pulled over by a cop, and the hero had a “Blue Lives Matter” flag in his house. How do you look back on that episode now?
Tan France: We are an extension of the show, I guess, and the show is an extension of us. We don’t shy away from those conversations in our immediate lives and on social media too. As a person of color, I’ve dealt with racism my whole life also, so it’s a topic that I am very sensitive to. I am very proud of the fact that I’m on a show where we discuss racism and we encourage those conversations to hopefully start to educate people on what impact that has.
Karamo [Brown] had a very tense conversation with him in the car that episode.
Jennifer Lane: I really like to have the attitude of making sure we operate with integrity, but that we don’t manipulate things too much. I don’t know if that shows in the storytelling, but it really is a more documentary style of producing. Sometimes things happen that surprise you even as a producer. In that case, it was the officer’s idea to pull the Fab Five over. Karamo insisted on driving that morning, and it all kind of felt like a weird storm of possibility. But yet, sticking your finger in everything as a producer, I think, doesn’t yield the best content. It was very in-depth conversation and a really jaw-dropping moment in the beginning of shooting “Queer Eye” where we realized that this is a new show. It has a different tone and a different sensibility than the original, which was very funny, very very comedy-driven. The contrast was immediately palpable.
How does moving to Philadelphia change things this season?
Lane: We didn’t want to do more of the same and stay in a safe pocket where the Fab Five were huge fish out of water. We kind of wanting to have a new type of hero, a new community. Once we started thinking that we wanted to be in an urban center instead of more of a country vibe, we looked at all the great cities in America, and with Philly we have arguably the greatest American city. Obviously Philadelphia is rife with American history, and we were just interested in seeing what would happen in a new culture.
France: Seasons 1, 2 and 3 were different beasts because we were going to places that were known to be very hospitable. But with larger cities, more built-up cities, they don’t have as much time for the little niceties that we may be used to in these smaller towns, so they’re a tougher audience. With this season’s heroes, it just took a little more to break them down and to get them comfortable with really opening up. The casting department also tried to find some heroes who aren’t as familiar with our liberal way of life. It makes for a more interesting show when we are actually breaking down barriers.
One barrier you weren’t able to break down so successfully Tan was the Philly accent.
France: Oh my God! I can’t wait for people to see the episode with Jennifer Sweeney; we did this accent-off, it was amazing. She has the most extreme accent of any of our heroes, but that is the common accent you will hear around the streets of Philly. I’d never heard it before, I thought it was hilarious in the most lovely way possible.
Talk about the new intro this season, why did you choose to do a play on Washington crossing the Delaware?
Lane: It is another example, I think, of how we embrace dialog. I had consulted with a professor of racism at the University of Pennsylvania, and he advised me to be careful that being too PC would perhaps have us remember history not the way it really was. Having our Fab Five play revolutionary heroes, when the world was so different back then, it makes your jaw drop a little bit. At first you might think it’s Jonathan [Van Ness] in a dress that might cause attention, but it’s Karamo as George Washington that makes you go, “Wow.” It’s kind of like “Hamilton.” Are we to say that actors of color don’t play these parts? Or does it actually open the eyes of all the young people in the audience to say, “I see myself in that person now.”
There’s also a new moment near the end of each episode where the Fab Five dances with the hero, what do you feel that adds?
France: We shot all of them on the same day. Those new interstitials were a surprise for us that morning, and I actually thought it was a lovely addition. We were able to see all the heroes again — it had been a few weeks since we had seen them, so it was actually lovely to have them join us.
Which hero was the toughest challenge for you this season, Tan?
France: The most challenging was probably Lilly Yi. She was difficult because she had such a bad case body dysmorphia. She just really struggled with seeing herself the way I saw her and we saw her. Every time I would want her to put something on, she would comment on her body in a way that really upset me because of how she felt about herself. I don’t love a self-deprecating joke, I don’t love when people really beat themselves up, and that was really hard for me to hear. Before the reveal, before she actually put those clothes on and came out, the boys and I had a really interesting, tough conversation with her which was, “I need you to never speak to yourself this way again. It’s such an unkind way to speak to yourself.”
“Queer Eye” returns to Netflix June 5.