When Queer Eye for the Straight Guy debuted on Bravo in 2003, the term “metrosexual” was still in regular rotation and the Supreme Court was more than a decade away from legalizing same-sex marriage. Back then, the idea that straight men would invite five gay dudes, each an expert in some aspect of style and self-care, into their orbit was just radical enough to turn Queer Eye into a sensation. There was something both ludicrous and weirdly inspiring in the show’s basic premise: that all a person needs to improve his life is access to a couple of recipes, a few killer ensembles, and the ability to zhoozh one’s hair. But the subtext of it all was more important. Every episode presented a carefully edited modern-day, mini-Pygmalion in which sexual orientation no longer put up walls between people, and also no longer put up a wall between a macho dude and his ability to rock a pair of skinny jeans.
Now Queer Eye has gotten its own makeover, in the form of a Netflix series that applies the same basic template to the present, where much progress has been on the LGBTQIA front since 2003, but Trump’s America suggests there’s still much work to do. “The original show was fighting for tolerance,” explains fashion expert Tan France in the first episode, which debuts on Wednesday along with seven more. “Our show is fighting for acceptance.”
As before, the new members of the Fab Five get assigned to clients in need of a lifestyle overhaul, jump in their Fab Five mobile to dash off and help them, then gather at the end of each installment to watch from afar as their male Eliza Doolittles attempt to apply what they’ve learned. But this time, all the makeovers take place in Atlanta and its suburbs, a geographical choice that forces the quintet to work with some conservative folk who might not be as comfortable around “the gays.” (Although, truly, it’s hard to imagine a genuine homophobe agreeing to appear on this show in the first place.)
Despite the obvious intent behind Queer Eye 2.0’s orchestration, there’s still something undeniably heartening about watching what happens (sorry, Bravo) when Southern cops, firefighters, Trump supporters, and extremely religious guys become friends with such out and proud men. It’s obvious the makers of Queer Eye want viewers to think to themselves, “Wow, we really need a show like this right now.” But the thing is, we really do need a show like this right now. Queer Eye is fun, uplifting and, as long as social media is avoided while watching it, capable of persuading viewers that it’s possible for the extremely sharp divides in this country to be bridged. Apparently, all we need to do is make America zhoozh again.
The members of the new Fab Five still focus on the same specialities. There’s food and wine guru Antoni Porowski, who vaguely resembles John Mayer; design specialist Bobby Berk; stylist/groomer Jonathan Van Ness, also known for his Funny or Die Game of Thrones recap series, Gay of Thrones; Karamo Brown, the former Real World: Philadelphia star who plays the culture adviser role and is also the first black Queer Eye star; and France, the Pakistani fashion master stepping into the high-end leather loafers once worn by Carson Kressley. This is a slightly more diverse group than the original, and also a less judgmental one.
To be clear: The guys don’t mince words when they take their initial tours through their clients’ cluttered homes. “When was the last time you changed these sheets?” Brown asks while flinging the linens off a bed that belongs to Joe Gallois, a 32-year-old aspiring comic who still lives with his parents and sleeps in his childhood room. “When was the last time your mom changed these sheets?” Berk asks as a follow-up. Later, Van Ness runs a black light across the same bedding to determine how much bodily fluid is embedded in the fabric. (For the record, the answer is none.)
Generally, though, this is a kinder, gentler Queer Eye, where the cattiness has been toned down and replaced by talk about transformation and how “allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the biggest show of strength.” (Some version of that statement is said at least three times in the second episode.) The lack of bitchiness admittedly makes this Queer Eye a little less funny than the first; most of the comedy weight is provided by Van Ness, the most quick-witted of the group. But all five of the consultants are likable and go out of their way to match their guidance to the interests and circumstances of the men they advise.
Several of those men look like candidates for the next New York Times longread about the misunderstood Trump voter. There’s Tom Jackson of Dallas, Georgia, who regularly drinks redneck margaritas — that’s a margarita made with tequila and Mountain Dew — and, based on the beard he’s got going when he meets the Fab Five, may actually be the fourth member of ZZ Top. There’s Cory Waldrop, a white cop who loves NASCAR, takes his wife to Walmart when they go on dates, and voted for Trump. “Politically, it’s not great,” Berk says of Waldrop’s garage after spotting a “Make America Great Again” sign in the corner. And then there’s Bobby Camp, a deeply Christian husband and father of six, who tells the Fab Five post-makeover that part of the reason he wanted to be on Queer Eye was to set an example for his children.
“Growing up the way we did,” he says of himself and his wife, “homosexuals were not accepted, and they still aren’t in a lot of church environments. But in the Camp family, they are. In our hearts, they are. And we want you guys to know you have been loved here.”
He is crying as he says this, and so is every member of the Fab Five. That’s the other thing: There is a lot of crying in Queer Eye. It’s basically the This is Us of reality shows. Just about every man who gets made over, including A.J., a gay African-American entrepreneur who hasn’t come out to his stepmother yet, tends to break down sobbing after undergoing his transformation. The show also goes out of its way to force the subjects into deep conversations with representatives of the Queer Eye posse. Waldrop and Brown take a long car ride in episode three so they can openly discuss police brutality. That conversation, as well as others, is just substantive and personal enough to make it feel like progress was made, but not as hard as it genuinely needs to be. I was dying for Brown to ask Waldrop how he felt about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, or why he voted for Trump. But he doesn’t. Queer Eye is willing to get provocative, but not enough to make things genuinely uncomfortable.
Still, it feels pretty monumental at the end of the episode when Waldrop — who could easily pass for Danny McBride’s brother — sums up his experience. “There are the typical Southern rednecks out there. But look,” he says, gesturing to himself while dressed in a well-tailored suit that France helped him choose. “We can be transformed.”
Can a man truly be changed after spending a mere week with five gay guys who know how to julienne vegetables, coordinate home decor, and use the proper hair-care products? Can this country really be healed by a reboot of Queer Eye?
Common sense says absolutely not. But this engaging Netflix series makes that fantasy seem like a plausible possibility, at least for the amount of time it takes to happily binge-watch eight episodes of reality television.