Queer Eye for the Woke Guy: Netflixs Reboot Struggles to Be Fabulous

There is not a gay man over 30 who doesn’t have complicated feelings about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. So that the Netflix reboot, streaming starting Wednesday, comes with hefty luggage–and not of the designer type that Carson Kressley may have picked out.

As cannily evocative of the original series as the Netflix resurrection is, there is also a marked attempt, as was the case with the current Will & Grace resurrection, ensure that these queer eyes are wide open to these woker times.

“For the Straight Guy” is excised from the title, such as yours. The eyes may be queer, but they’re inclusive. “The original show was battling for tolerance. Our fight is for approval,” says fresh fashion expert Tan France. (And here this time you thought the fight was against baggy pants and bad grooming.)

Snark aside, there is a wider cultural mission which is more specifically detailed in this reboot than it ever was in the original. Actually TV’s dialed-up championing of altruisms and emotional pandering, platitudes abound here about how the Fab Five is “figuring out we are all similar, rather than how different we all are,” as cutie food expert (and our favourite new host) Antoni Porowski states.

A better nail and nail guacamole recipe are just superficial means to loftier ends.

Every reboot competes against, and is maybe even constrained by, its predecessor’s legacy. When Queer Eye‘s yield was declared, viewers were wary of whether a brand new Fab Five could step up to the indelible original cast, let alone make the case that, in the year 2018, there is redeeming value in a series where a flamboyant gay man purrs innuendos in a schlubby straight man whilst berating him for wearing jean shorts.

The Queer Eye reboot finds maybe even more pathos than the original one. The transformation from the premiere episode is a heartwarming hoot. But with a throw of attention-seeking specialists who too often steal focus from the proverbial mission available, it may be as exhausting and, at times, even as cringe-inducing as some have feared.

We remember how we felt if the original Bravo series was airing: excited, but conflicted. All these years later, we decided to revisit that the first couple of episodes of the series before watching the reboot. For the way the series has gotten lost in the think-piece weeds concerning its place in gay approval, gay visibility, and gay self-esteem, we discovered that what’s been overlooked is how just entertaining the series had been: breezy, feel-good fun. Additionally!

The series was important. Impeccably cast, the original Fab Five were humorous, talented, and generous, so fabulous as to be enjoyable and so fond as to be endearing. A fast-and-bright cultural phenomenon, they dispelled the thought that there was something frightening about a gaggle of gay men–even though it did not just do well to spoil the concept of the “other.”

At most, they helped move our culture toward tolerance. At the very least, they got American men into jeans that fit.

It was all so complex. All these were gay men who were respected for their expertise, but still tokenized, stereotyped, and often the butt of the joke.

That might have been viewed as a great thing: gay men encouraged and even celebrated for being unapologetic, and with wholesome perceptions of humor about themselves. The Fab Five were treated and pleased with dignity. In the calendar year 2003, my god, it was powerful to see gay men on TV that were confident. And for viewers they were, in the very least, demystifying. It might have been the very first introduction to gay people on a regular basis for quite a few, even though it was only on TV. Are men an abomination? Maybe. But, hey, these guys certainly are amusing, too!

Yet suffocating all that was the same old, debasing loss: gay men as zoo exhibits and court jesters, flouncy guys whose interests are relegated to effeminate things like hair and clothes and operas and dining.

What struck us revisiting the very first season is that, besides clear breakout star Kressley, the characters were all pretty muted and down-to-earth. Our memory of the series has been warped by its reputation. I’d prepared myself to get a cacophony of men in assless chaps snapping their fingers and yelling “ferocious” every three seconds; in fact, they were certainly quippy, but also just normal, competent guys.

The guys in the reboot are appealingly well-intentioned, but hardly as calibrated. Fabio-maned grooming pro Jonathan Van Ness packs a character as loud as his locks are very long, and a craven need to be the focus of any scene he’s in. While tame in comparison, his Fab cronies–Bobby Berk (style), Karamo Brown (culture), Antoni Porowski (wine and food), and Tan France (style)–only subscribe to the contemporary reality-TV idea that LOUDER! IS! BETTER!

“It is the rare example of superior TV that’s also authentically human.”

At some point, this grating big-ness became the default for anyone looking to make an impression on reality TV, but it usually has the effect of seeming artificial and hollow. It is a shame, since the encounters the hosts have with the guys whose lifestyles they’re intended to rehabilitation are, when the hysteria settles, very genuine. Beautiful, even.

The premiere concentrates on Tom, a self-described “dumb old country boy from Kentucky.” He has got a Duck Dynasty beard, wears jorts, and is dominated a “hot mess” by his own daughter. He has also got a great sense of humor–“I believe I’m unlucky in love since I’m butt ugly”–and is endearingly passionate about being made over by the Fab Five.

The mutual esteem Tom along with the Fab Five have for each other is immediately infectious. After the group is together, it’s over-stimulating gay bumper cars, together with the five guys jockeying to get one-liners and attention. It is when smaller groups break off to speak with Tom and reach the center of his self-esteem problems the series picks up.

To have your own life positively changed by people that you would never anticipate is an emotional thing, and you wager those minutes tug at your heartstrings when you see. It is the rare example of superior TV that’s also authentically human. That’s where this series works, and that has nothing to do with clichs or catchphrases, or even gayness.

In the 11 years since the original Queer Eye collection, gay men are emboldened to dial up their unabashed passion and excitement for matters that might be, reductively speaking, dominated as “gay,” be it style, pop divas, or yaas-ing in their particular vernacular. But they’ve also been accepted on a spectrum which doesn’t merely exist from tapered to boot cut, but that spans the actual breadth of masculinity and sexual expression.

Much of the fretting surrounding a Queer Eye reboot centered on whether it would reflect that widening spectrum– maybe incorporate an adventurous gay, or an overweight gay, or one who doesn’t understand his Tom Ford from his Thom Browne–and it’s frustrating that this one doesn’t.

Nevertheless, for all of the strides made in the last ten years, being out remains an inherently courageous and political act. A series like Queer Eye, then, remains innovative–even regardless of the concerns about reviving a series that fostered stereotypes many dominated regressive.

Is it refreshing that this is a display with a full cast of gay leads existing outside a space of oppression? Or is it ignorant?

Rooted in the intersection of self-improvement TV and gay self-loathing, Queer Eye has always generated a traffic jam of complex questions. The reboot, whereas successfully rewarding, does little to answer any.

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