BARNHART

Netflix's Queer Eye Makeover Is Hitting Its Stride

Back for a second season of episodes in Kansas City, the series about personal transformation is deeper and truer than ever.
  • Queer Eye's New Fab Five: Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness and Tan France. (Netflix)
    Queer Eye's New Fab Five: Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski, Jonathan Van Ness and Tan France. (Netflix)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Twice weekly on Primetimer.

    Queer Eye
    Watch on Netflix
    Season 4 drops July 19

    When Bravo launched Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in July of 2003, civil unions were just starting to catch on in blue states, and Boston hadn’t won a World Series in over 80 years. Even with all the makeover shows on the air, Queer Eye (the title was shortened in 2005) seized the attention of viewers and critics, this one included.

    “Exuberant and howlingly funny,” I wrote in my review. “There’s no sad music, no pitiful ‘before’ pictures, no announcer telling us how the victims are about to have their lives changed forever. There’s no need because we have Carson Kressley.” I quoted a few lines from Queer Eye’s original fashionista, like “Do you buy all your clothing at the Home Depot?” and, while rummaging through some poor guy’s underwear drawer, “I think there was a car accident because I see skid marks!”

    Right out of the box, Queer Eye sparkled. It won the Emmy for best reality show, and received an epic second-season order from Bravo — 30 episodes! And yet, barely four years later it was gone, joining so many other shows in the pantheon of pop-candy TV, the ones people look back on later and marvel, “What was that all about?”

    Jonathan Van Ness, Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Bobby Berk, and Karamo Brown in a promotional photo for Queer Eye. (Netflix)

    At the time, I think a lot of observers, myself included, thought the Fab Five would have a bigger cultural impact than wound up being the case. Today, they’re less well-known for advancing gay rights than for cleaning up members of the world champion Red Sox. Despite helping millions of straight men appear more mainstream to their wives and girlfriends, Queer Eye did nothing to advance the mainstreaming of gay men.

    In fairness, the people who ran Bravo weren’t trying to make a social statement, they were trying to help Bravo shed its reputation as a boring, artsy-fartsy channel. But when Netflix announced a Queer Eye reboot in 2018, I think a lot of us expected something with a little more oomph than the Bush-era confection.

    <i>Reacting to the big reveal on Queer Eye. (Netflix)</i>

    After all, Netflix is right smack in the middle of the cultural wars, swinging its huge bankroll and viewership around like a battle axe. Surely a rebooted Queer Eye would, in some way, reflect the new cultural landscape for gay, transgendered, and yes, queer folk in America. And it does — but not in the way you might think.

    To be sure, much about the show is familiar, from the opening lipstick-cam shot inside the Fab Five’s SUV, to the closing scene, where their makeover victim steps out in beautiful hair and clothes and whips up something to eat. People looking to refresh a room on the cheap will not be disappointed by the new Queer Eye.

    <i>The goal in the newer seasons is more than just a superficial makeover. (Netflix)</i>

    But these superficial changes are not the heart of the show anymore. Queer Eye is no more about looking sharp than Marie Kondo’s Netflix show is about cleaning up. The people chosen to appear on these shows have superficial problems that serve as windows to deeper emotional chaos and self-inflicted damage that can’t be remedied with a celebrity house call.

    Before going further, let me advise viewers interested in exploring the Queer Eye reboot to start with Season 3. One of the pleasant surprises of the Peak TV age is that shows are given the freedom to evolve, a luxury that advertiser-dependent networks in the past couldn’t afford. It took a while for Queer Eye to shift into high gear, but now its episodes feel both exhilarating and culturally vital. The fact that Seasons 3 and 4 were filmed in Kansas City, my favorite place in the whole world, is mere coincidence.

    Anyway, the Season 3 opener features Jody and Chris, an outdoorsy couple from rural Missouri. They like the rugged life — hunting and growing their own food — but Chris admits he’d like to see his wife wear pretty clothes and go out for a nice meal now and then.

    <i>Karamo Brown helped Missouri hunter Jody Castellucci find friends and confidence in herself. (Netflix)</i>

    First to get a crack at Jody is Tan France, who has taken Kressley’s place in the wardrobe aisle. When Jody beelines for the olive drabs at a clothing store, Tan leaps in her path. “Camo is not your friend!” he tells her. Next thing you know they’re discussing guns. “I don’t know a lot about hunting,” Tan says, “but my in-laws are from Wyoming and they hunt” — a line particularly disarming when delivered in a British accent. “Before I met them, if you’d asked me what I think of people with guns, I would say, ‘They’re out of their minds, no one should have a gun.’ My opinion has changed a little bit.”

    Jody, whose day job is at a local prison, relaxes. She even admits that “gun laws need to be tighter.” And within minutes she’s stepping into two-inch heels for the first time in her life. And so it goes for the rest of the episode, the conversations with each of her makeover gurus turning personal, resulting in a narrative that is less about retail therapy than therapy therapy. This could get treacly, but mostly I find it compelling. Critics complain about gay stereotypes on TV, but it does seem like every gay man I know can draw on a reservoir of pain pretty much on demand. The hard work this show’s producers have done is to find a Fab Five with stories to tell, and to match them with hearts and minds that are open to being changed.

    Expertise-wise, Antoni Porowski is the new Ted Allen (food). Jonathan Van Ness is the new Kyan Douglas (grooming), though he clearly is the spirit child of Carson Kressley. Bobby Berk takes Thom Filicia’s place on design. And then there’s Karamo Brown. He is supposedly there to advise on relationships, as Jai Rodriguez did on the old show, but this former social worker (and Real World alumnus) is almost always called on to walk the subject through some personal trauma in their past.

    <i>Karamo Brown and Jonathan Van Ness bond with Lawrence, Kansas, college student Jess Guilbeaux. (Netflix)</i>

    It is to Karamo that Jody first opens up about the loss of her brother. Though it’s never quite put this way, you get the impression that the moment Jody stopped caring about her looks is the day her brother died. With remarkable grace — and, let’s be honest, help from the show’s producers — Brown is able to offer sympathy and a gentle prod that it’s OK to try something new.

    So that’s what Netflix means when it says the new Queer Eye is “more than a makeover.”

    When Season 1 appeared on Netflix, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk compared Queer Eye to The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover Home Edition, arguing that in the end, all reality TV is the same, and that damaged people stay damaged, and no amount of home improvement or temporary changes in grooming patterns is going to change that. “It’s a variety of storytelling that gestures at a potential future beyond the show, but we’re not supposed to imagine that future too closely,” VanArendonk wrote.

    Tan France rolls up the sleeves of an outfit he’s selected for Kansas college student  Jess Guilbeaux. (Netflix)

    Actually, the most over-the-top treatment of a Queer Eye case came after the episode had aired, when viewers ralied together to pay off the student loans of Jess Guilbeaux, a lesbian rejected by her adoptive family when she came out. Mostly, though, the goals for the typical makeover are surprisingly modest. With Joey Greene, a shaggy camp director living in a decrepit RV south of Kansas City, the goal is mostly to get him to take responsibility for being a single dad to a teenager. We know how the show is going to end — haircut, nice glasses, a move into a decent apartment — but that’s all secondary to whether Joey is going to start setting an example to his kid (a follow-up interview suggests that the answer is yes).

    <i>Joey Greene, a camp director in Kansas City. (Netflix)</i>

    In the end, the big reveal is no longer the new outfit or the posh patio, it’s the change going on in the heart of the person. The problem is, you can’t see that, and most of us are terrible talking about our feelings, especially on camera. That kind of change is frustratingly slow. It doesn’t run on TV time.

    <i>In Season 3, Joey Greene got a makeover that was more than skin deep. (Netflix)</i>

    And yet, sometimes it can move blazingly fast. After all, how was it that public attitudes toward LGBTQ rights changed so quickly between the two incarnations of Queer Eye? One painful conversation at a time — between gay children and their parents, between ministers and their congregants, between husbands and wives. Yes, all makeover shows are phony, and the happy endings are contrived, but that doesn’t mean the ones on Queer Eye aren’t real.

    People are talking about Queer Eye in our forums. Join the conversation.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Sign up to get all his Primetimer reviews at tvbarn.com.

    TOPICS: Queer Eye, Netflix, Reality TV