The first season of the rebooted Queer Eye proved that a quintet of gay men could connect with socially and/or politically conservative men in the Deep South. But in the second season of the Netflix reality series, which debuts Friday, the Fab Five broaden their mission.
Antoni Porowski (the food expert), Tan France (fashion), Karamo Brown (culture), Bobby Berk (design), and Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) still spend the eight new episodes driving to various towns around the Atlanta area so they can spruce up the looks and lives of people seeking their own personal reboots. But while the first episode hews closest to the progressive-meets-traditional theme — in it, the group comes to the aid of a deeply Christian woman attempting to build a community center for her church — most of the others do not. Over the course of the new season, the Queer Eye team makes over a Walmart employee who can’t figure out how to propose to his girlfriend, a husband and father in a style slump, a handyman who regularly attends Burning Man, a homeschooled 18-year-old musician preparing for college, an Iranian-American slacker trying to come to terms with the fact that he hasn’t graduated college on time, the young mayor of the small town of Clarkston, Georgia, and, in the most groundbreaking installment, a trans man who recently had top surgery to remove his breasts.
Politics only explicitly enters into the self-improvement equation a few times, certainly in the episode about Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, who has a scraggly tangle of Letterman-esque facial hair that he refers to as his “Resistance Beard” (spoiler alert: Van Ness wants to get rid of it), and also has a Hillary Clinton 2016 sign tucked away in his home. But in season two, few of the Queer Eye clients seem to stand in ideological opposition to the show’s stars or seem uncomfortable hanging out with a bunch of self-described queens.
That said, the importance of bridging distances between people of different backgrounds is still emphasized heavily, in a way that implies, just as season one did, that Queer Eye is designed to serve as a comfort during a divisive chapter in American history. Even if the hug-it-all-out vibe can be a little much at times, it does serve that function. For real: I went from zero to crying out of love for humanity less than 20 minutes after I started watching season two. Try to beat that speed, This Is Us.
Anyone who fell in love with this charming Queer Eye crew will be happy to know that they remain very much in character during season two. Antoni continues to dish out exceedingly manageable cooking tips while wearing graphic T-shirts that imply he may be The Strokes’ No. 1 fan. Karamo is still rocking a stunning number of bomber jackets — I assume he rents an apartment solely to house them all — while coaching people to become their better selves. If anyone has earned the right to promote the slogan “Be Best,” it’s that guy.
Bobby is still the boy-next-door home designer prone to tearing up during one-on-one conversations. Tan, accompanied by his lustrous mountain of salt-and-pepper hair, reestablishes his love of pairing patterned collared shirts with linen blazers. And then there’s Jonathan, the breakout cast member of season one, who continues to pepper his sentences with “honeys” and “realness” while offering guidance about how to apply hair product and beard pomade. If anyone dares to say they don’t have time or money to incorporate such efforts into their daily routines, Jonathan Van Ness is here to tell you that you are dead wrong, honey, and that also, you look gorg.
Because there’s such an established formula to Queer Eye, binge-watching isn’t necessarily the best way to enjoy it. Spreading out the episodes will cut down on one’s awareness of the repetitiveness in its structure, as well as the repetitiveness in some of the advice being offered. (If you didn’t know that tapered jeans and a French tucked shirt are slimming, you will after spending eight episodes with Tam.)
The two best episodes are the one focused on Mama Tammye, the churchgoer who lives in the town of Gay (no, not kidding), and the portrait of Skyler, the trans man finally embracing his true identity in his early 30s. Tammye is the rare woman to get some makeover attention, and her story is an immediate tearjerker. An African-American breast-cancer survivor who recently lost her own mother to the disease, she also has a gay son, Myles, who returns to attend the church’s Homecoming with the hope that a community that once made him feel ostracized will now welcome him. Tammye is one of those women who thinks of everyone before she thinks of herself. There’s something incredibly sweet and moving about watching the Fab Five pamper her and do service on her behalf for a few days.
Skyler’s episode feels even more significant because of the way it delves into the joy, pain, and daily minutiae of embracing one’s gender identity. Skyler, who became estranged from his parents after revealing his desire to get gender confirmation surgery, had to raise thousands of dollars, supplied by his friends in the LGBTQ community, to even be able to afford his top surgery. Even with a beard and an obviously masculine appearance, it’s still tough for him to get his driver’s license updated to say male instead of female.
The Queer Eye guys, particularly Tan, who admits he has never fully understood the transgender experience, seem to learn as much from Skyler as he does from them. Without becoming too heavy-handed about it, the episode emphasizes a point that’s vital to remember when watching a show that, for storytelling reasons, tends to treat its subjects as if they’ve fully self-actualized after spending mere days in the presence of extremely talented and helpful gay men. That point is this: True transformation is a long, challenging, and often very painful process that takes weeks, months, even years to complete.
Queer Eye is an uplifting reminder that such change is possible. But the real, substantive, and hard change is what happens when the TV cameras are turned off and long gone.