This New Netflix Series May Change Your Life

The beauty of this show isn’t only skin deep.

There’s a moment in episode 3 of Netflix’s new iteration of Queer Eye when the veneer of a glossy makeover show slips, and we see a microcosm of America contained in one fraught interaction.

First, some background: The series follows five gay men — Food & Wine connoisseur Antoni Porowski, Interior Design expert Bobby Berk, Culture consultant Karamo Brown, Grooming pro Jonathan Van Ness, and Fashion phenom Tan France — who spend a week helping transform the lives of people (not just straight guys this time around) who need a little help, whether that’s in their social interactions, wardrobe, diet, lifestyle or, most often, all of the above. After five days of advice, confidence-building and some truly excellent decorating, the “Fab Five” leave their “hero” to try and put their wisdom into action, hopefully learning a thing or two about self-love in the process.

It might sound cheesy on paper, but even the most cynical TV fan would have a hard time dismissing a show that genuinely wants to help people build connections, regardless of their age, body type, skin color or sexual preference. It’s basically the binge-watching antithesis of Black Mirror: instead of convincing you that we’re all doomed, Queer Eye is guaranteed to restore your faith in humanity, even if the general idea of a makeover show brings you out in hives.

Exit Theatre Mode

Unlike the original series, which featured participants who were based near New York, the new Queer Eye focuses on folks who live in Georgia — from self-proclaimed rednecks, NASCAR enthusiasts and devout Christians to closeted gay guys, nerdy tech bros and aspiring comedians. This shift to the South takes the series out of its own liberal bubble, forcing the team to engage with ideologies and lifestyles that are vastly different from their own — a task that proves challenging, but ultimately rewarding, on both sides.

Early in episode 3, the Fab Five are on their way to meet their newest hero, a former Marine named Cory, when their car is pulled over by a local cop. As a black man driving a car full of gay guys in a red state, Karamo is immediately on guard, even as the others attempt to downplay the tension of the situation.

When the officer asks Karamo to step out of the car, it feels like we’re watching a slow-motion train-wreck, right up until the cop, Henry, reveals that he’s the one who nominated Cory for the makeover, and he was just messing with them. The guys are all quick to laugh about it, but it’s the type of laughter that has an undercurrent of hysteria as the adrenaline wears off.

When Karamo later relays this encounter to Cory, who’s also a police officer, the discomfort of broaching a sensitive topic quickly gives way to a recognition that they share common ground. Despite the fact that one’s a staunch Republican and the other’s a Democrat, they discover that they both had similar Southern upbringings and an appreciation for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Karamo explains why, as a black man, he immediately feels threatened when he encounters cops, since it often feels like law enforcement officers view all African-Americans as criminals by default. Cory acknowledges that police brutality is a pervasive and unconscionable issue, but points out that all cops don’t want to be judged by the actions of a few violent outliers either.

Cory and Karamo

Cory and Karamo have a tough but honest conversation.

“If people could just sit down and have a conversation like me and you just did, things would be a lot better in society,” Cory says. “Everybody wants to talk but nobody wants to listen.”

In a private moment later, Karamo reflects on the impact that conversation had on him. “The beauty of what’s happening here is that I’m open and I’m going to stay open because I need him to learn from me, and I need to learn from him. Because right now, our country seems like it’s getting worse and worse and worse and it has to start somewhere. And I’m not saying a conversation with one police officer and one gay guy is gonna solve the problems, but maybe it can open up eyes to something more.”

A number of recent unscripted shows (like Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America on Hulu) have attempted to bridge the cultural divide between conservatives and liberals, but too often they can come across as preachy or condescending, rather than both parties meeting halfway. Queer Eye manages to sidestep this by allowing its hosts to have meaningful one-on-one time with participants, enabling them to recognize their similarities instead of their differences, and grapple with their own biases in their own time. Another episode features a devout Christian man who bonds with Interior Design guru Bobby, since both were raised in religious families, helping Bobby to move past his own knee-jerk assumptions about Christians.

Bobby and Bobby discuss growing up in the church.

Bobby and Bobby discuss growing up in the church.

In another affecting installment, the Fab Five make it their mission to help a closeted guy come out to his family (we dare you not to cry), but first he has to wrestle with his own internalized fear of presenting himself as “too feminine,” allowing the team to dismantle some of his presumptions about how a gay guy is “supposed” to behave.

Beyond the political discussions, the show is refreshing for its non-judgmental tone and refusal to perpetuate stereotypes — about both straight and gay men. The original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was very much a product of its time — which, in 2003, felt revolutionary, but in hindsight, seems like it was bending over backwards to make homosexuality palatable to mainstream audiences who had only just started to see gay relationships normalized on TV through Will and Grace, as if we were supposed to be impressed that these aggressively heterosexual guys were allowing themselves to be dressed in pink shirts by dudes who flirted with them.

That inevitably meant the Fab Five often leaned into the “bitchy queen” archetype that historically reduced gay men in pop culture to sassy sidekicks who always had a snarky quip or fashion tip at the ready, even while the show remained squeamish about discussing the team’s personal lives or politics. This allowed the quintet to hide behind their superficial fairy godmother roles without ever really needing to let their subjects get close to them.

In the new series, Karamo, Bobby, Tam, Antoni and Jonathan are eager to discuss their marriages, kids, childhoods and personal struggles — and if they ever feel obligated to go the extra mile to make themselves seem relatable to the macho dudes they encounter (which doesn’t often feel like the case), they also appear heartened and appreciative of the opportunity to talk to people they otherwise might never have bonded with. In the original series, the transformation was wholly one-sided, with the Fab Five basically performing a public service for tragic hetero bros, but this version of Queer Eye seems determined to prove that regardless of our exterior, most people are intrinsically good, and are generally willing to treat others the way they want to be treated, as long as they receive respect in return.

(In an insightful interview about filming episode 3, Karamo tells TV Guide that he and Cory still text almost every day, discussing everything from parenthood to DACA, which seems to imply that the episode’s happy ending isn’t just a fluffy reality TV facade.)

When so much of today’s rhetoric focuses on our supposedly insurmountable differences, and how stubborn and unwilling to compromise “the other side” is, regardless of which side you’re on, Queer Eye feels even more revolutionary than the original series did — offering a celebration of individuality without alienating those who are different from us. We’ve all had those awkward Thanksgiving meals or Twitter arguments where it seems easier to insult our opponent rather than trying to put ourselves in their shoes, but Queer Eye stands as an optimistic example of what can be accomplished when we’re willing to listen as much as we talk. (Being tolerant is not always as simple as reality TV makes it seem, of course, but it’s a worthy goal.)

Society constantly tries to put all of us into boxes, but Queer Eye dismisses the notion that anyone can be easily categorized, whether they’re straight or gay, black or white, Republican or Democrat. In a TV landscape that often tries to divide and conquer, you won’t regret watching a show that fights to bring us together instead.

Laura Prudom is the Executive TV Editor at IGN. You can talk to her on Twitter at @LauinLA.


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