The legend of cynical reality show producers looms large. Thanks partly to behind-the-scenes satire UnREAL, we’ve come to understand television’s most guiltily enjoyed genre as manipulative and humiliating—often for the audience as much as the contestants. But to maintain their cultural dominance in a world where television is an increasingly called upon coping mechanism and distraction, reality shows have recently made a more concerted effort to soothe. The “reality” they tend to depict now is often kinder and woker, wherein contestants compete to bake the best cakes or perform the best drag routines. Or find unlikely love on islands. Or be given life-affirming makeovers from a diverse cast of talented and charismatic gay men.
If optimism is the new standard for reality TV success, Netflix has nailed the brief with 2018’s Queer Eye reboot. It is the least cynical viewing you’ll enjoy this month, maybe this year; an artfully produced, thoughtfully edited, and cleverly political series that is extremely fun to watch from start to finish. The streaming service has been slow to commission original reality shows— Queer Eye has only two predecessors, the critically-panned YouTuber joint Chasing Cameron and American Ninja rip-off Ultimate Beastmaster—but with Queer Eye, it finds its (scrubbed and manicured) feet.
It could have gone the other way. As is the norm with reboots, the announcement of a new Queer Eye last year was met with an even split of excitement and trepidation as its fandom cautiously re-awakened. The original Fab Five were beloved back in the day, but nostalgia for that weird half-decade where the word “metrosexual” fell into common usage felt problematic at best. Additional questions arose: should a show about “queer” culture feature only the most privileged group of people living under the LGBTI banner? Do straight men need to be any more empowered than they already are? Must we continue to conceive of all gay men as stereotypically sassy arbiters of taste? Can anyone ever truly replace 2003 icon Carson Kressley?
All of these concerns were anticipated, and have been countered, mainly through a smart setting swap. The reboot leaves New York behind and moves to Georgia—a second season is scheduled to take place within the Midwest. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a well-organised evacuation from the liberal bubble. Some of the men getting made over include devout Christians, red trucker hat-wearing cops, and self-confessed rednecks. Their houses are adorned with American flags and their cars are SUVs. We’re making over a very particular brand of masculinity, here.
You’d be forgiven for assuming we’re in Georgia on a stealth mission to convince hillbillies to vote Democrat as part of their new daily skincare routines, but here’s where things get compelling: with little visible effort, the Fab Five resist the urge to preach. Nobody is getting an ideological makeover on the new Queer Eye, although everyone–gay guys, straight guys—is open to learning new things. The relationships formed between the Five and their contestants, all of which appear to be totally genuine, are based on trust and acceptance of the other side’s beliefs. As a result the show is full of raw, sometimes tear-inducing, and most importantly gentle discussions about race, gender, religion, and sexuality. Ideas are swapped in an informal, after-class way. No lectures, and any occasional seriousness is balanced out with a lot of hair flicking and quipping courtesy of hairdresser Jonathan, the dude from Funny or Die’s Gay of Thrones, as well as the endearingly earnest attempts by food adviser (and totally capable cook, despite people’s arguments to the contrary) Antoni to make avocado the straight man’s go-to snack.
“I didn’t ever think I’d be out planting vegetables with a gay guy in my front yard,” a deeply religious father of six tells design expert Bobby Berk in episode five. Berk carefully begins to ask him about religion and homosexuality—it turns out that he, too, was brought up in an evangelical Christian home. The two swap childhood anecdotes. “Growing up [I was taught] that gays were crazy, gays were wrong,” straight guy admits, but says he has noticed a contrast between that mentality and the words of the Bible. “Maybe you think we’re judgemental. Maybe you think we hate gays. But that’s not us. God told me to love my neighbour.”
Fashion expert Tan France generally takes the role of gay cultural educator. In the show’s pilot, he declares that while the first incarnation of Queer Eye was fighting for tolerance, “we’re fighting for acceptance”. But the goal is actually more ambitious than that, as the series makes clear over time. “Just don’t make me look feminine,” one contestant requests as France assesses his wardrobe. “I want to mention that word you just used, ‘feminine’,” France replies, going on to unpack stereotypes a little. Another memorable moment sees Bobby and Jonathan—enthusiastically, and without bristling or judging—dispel a straight guy’s misconception that married gay men divide their relationships into husband-and-wife roles.
In a notable episode that makes over a Trump-supporting police officer and NASCAR enthusiast, culture expert Karamo brings up the Black Lives Matter movement during an initially tense car ride. “My kid didn’t want to get his licence because he was scared of getting pulled over and shot by a cop,” Karamo tells his passenger. It’s worth watching, so without giving too much away: the conversation concludes with concessions on both sides of the vehicle, and both men expressing a sincere wish that white police officers and BLM activists find a way to work together. They also bond over Wu Tang and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. “If everybody had a conversation like we just did, things would be a lot better,” says the cop. “Everybody wants to talk but no one wants to listen.”
Queer Eye isn’t so much about giving Trump voters a voice as it is acknowledging their existence and seeking, in a surprisingly nuanced and unpatronising way, to understand it. There’s a difference between these conversations and, say, a newspaper publishing an opinion piece by a neo Nazi in the supposed interests of balanced journalism. For one thing, no screen time is given to racism, homophobia, or misogyny. For another, contestants may have been nominated by friends or family members, but they’re ultimately there by personal choice, and all of them have decided to receive lifestyle advice with an open mind—from a group of gay men from the big city who are more than willing to participate in cultural exchange. Nobody is ever humiliated or scorned, and unsurprisingly this makes for much more productive conversation.
Just as not every Southerner votes red, not every contestant on Queer Eye is a white Trump sympathiser; the show also makes an effort to peel back layers of masculinity-based Southern stereotypes as they apply to the non-white, and non-straight (there’s a reason the show’s title was chopped in half) men of Atlanta and its small town surrounds. In a stand out episode the Five help a closeted gay man come out to his mother, and come to terms with the death of his father—who never knew his sexuality.
Is all of this real? Maybe not. Strings are being pulled for sure. But you don’t feel like you’re being manipulated by Queer Eye as much as you could be—there are subtleties and grey areas where there are usually just hokey scripted narratives, and that’s a rare feeling when watching an American reality TV show produced for a mass audience. All five men get along well on and, you therefore suspect, off camera. There’s a sincere sense that they’re having fun doing this, which is something that’s hard to fake.
And the made-over men seem happy, too. You can actually see the relief in everyone’s eyes when elephants in the room are pointed out. The show is driven by a deep sense of curiosity, the human desire to be seen, and to be seen as an equal.
A Queer Eye reboot was no doubt pitched during an earlier stage of the Trump presidency when liberal media players were scrambling to understand what the hell had gone wrong, and wondering whether their own insular reporting was at fault. Its bubble-leaving logic has fast fallen out of favour as debates between the left and right (over gun control, over immigration, over race, over the right to life) escalate and darken. Still, this show makes a persuasive and moving case for putting the barriers down instead of up. For love and understanding, as well as a good daily SPF. Follow Kat on Twitter