Halfway through the third episode of the Queer Eye reboot, you’ll come across the scene that embodies what makes this show so much more daring than the original American (and subsequent UK) versions. Karamo Brown, the new show’s “culture expert,” and Corey Waldrop, a Talladega-visiting, Trump-supporting policeman and subject of that week’s episode, are stuck in traffic for an extended period of time. There’s palpable tension between them as they skirt around the subject of targeted police brutality. Eventually, Brown brings it up. “We don’t want all black people to be lumped together as criminals, and sometimes we feel that way,” he says.
“And police officers don't want to be lumped into being the bad guy,” Waldrop says back, before clarifying that use of excessive force isn’t right. “I gotta say, hearing you say that heals me, and gives me relief,” Brown responds. They have a gruff breakthrough. And yes, the policeman does say “Black lives matter.”
Rippling under all the interior design fix-ups and cooking tutorials in the new Queer Eye is the attempt at something more ambitious: forging empathy and understanding through conversation. And while the original was revolutionary for showing gay men being themselves on television for the first time, the reboot, which premieres on Netflix on February 7, is a reflection of how masculinity has changed in the 15 years since. It’s no longer about watching five gay men like they’re exhibits at a zoo, but instead portraying the nuances of being a man in the modern era. The Fab Five help subjects balance the inherited, societally-mandated expectations of masculinity – being a provider, being tough; feeling the weight of toxicity and fragility – with the realities of being a human being with emotions. The show is forcing confrontations that might never happen otherwise. No topic is off-limits.
“I wanted tears out of these guys,” Brown told Refinery29, only half-jokingly – most of the men cry at some point. “Everyone else around you, culture and society, say, ‘You’re a man, hold it in. You can’t show emotion in front of your wife. You can’t show emotion in front of your kids.’ I was like, no, no baby. I’m going to find a way to hit that trigger point to let a tear cry that maybe, when we’re gone, if something is affecting you you won’t keep it in. You’re going to let it out and express yourself.”
The very element that made Queer Eye For The Straight Guy so radical when it premiered in 2003 — gay men being gay men on TV — is no longer statement-making in 2018. In 2003, LGBTQ+ individuals were severely underrepresented on TV — as in only five characters on TV identified as LGBTQ+. But things are different now. In 2017, a record-breaking 6.4% of characters on broadcast prime-time American TV identified as LGBTQ+. Between 2016 and 2017, more LGBTQ+ characters were included on prime-time, cable, and streaming TV shows, amounting to 329 characters total.
As a result, the Fab Five no longer have to be ambassadors for the entire gay community. They can just be themselves. They can casually mention their boyfriends and husbands. “Before, it was like, we’re going to make somebody over. We’re fabulous gays!” Bobby Berk, the new show’s interior expert, explains. “But now, I think we’re really being seen as individuals. As fathers. As husbands. As cat mommies. And so, it’s much more in depth. You’re seeing us as real people. Not as characters.”
To be clear, not everything about the new Queer Eye feels new. The show still features a quintet of gay men, professionals in the fields of design, grooming, cooking, fashion, and culture, lovingly referred to as the Fab Five. Just like the original, they’re tasked with making over subjects — referred to as the “heroes” — who range in age, race, and socioeconomic status. And this group, bursting with chemistry and inside jokes, still roll around in a large black SUV, discussing the episode’s “hero” on the way to their destination, just as the original Fab Five did.
But their subjects are not all straight, just struggling. They differ in hang-ups and circumstance, but are united in their obvious need of a change. There’s Tom, the older vintage car enthusiast who lives in filthy basement apartment; Neel, a slightly reclusive professional who wants to re-enter his friends’ lives, and A.J., a black man who wants to come out to his step-mum. In the original version, the Fab Five would help subjects prepare for events, like art launches or parties. This time, the heroes have wedding-redoes, coming-out conversations, and hopeful reunions with ex-wives to work towards — essentially, life moments. Loftier goals, for a loftier show.
Another one of the reboot’s most significant changes is its relocation from New York to Atlanta. In each hour-long, documentary-style episode, the Fab Five visits a different community surrounding the metro Atlanta region. Whereas in the past, Carson Kressley would take his straight man of the week to a Tom Ford store on a brick-lined street in Soho, France takes his father-of-six hero to a Target, so he can shop within his budget and develop a sustainable grooming regimen in a bathroom shared by eight family members. Now, instead of taking his hero to Chelsea Market to learn about cheeses like Ted Allen did, Antoni Porowski, the reboot's chef, teaches men how to cook using what they can find in the local grocery store.
Without the luxury of Chelsea Market and Tom Ford a subway ride away, the new Fab Five had to reframe their thinking. “In the South, it’s about focusing what these people need. We can come in with any skill set we want, but at the end of the day it’s figuring out what works for them,” Porowski said.
The mixing of Southerners with people from elite coastal communities isn’t just about creating a more accessible show with a wider audience funnel. In today’s divided America, it’s a radical move that harkens back to the groundbreaking roots of the original. And it’s in the subtle clashes that arise between the Fab Five and some community members that the show’s alchemy happens.
“When you start to break down that wall between two sets of people, you each get a view into each other’s backyards. That’s where it starts to become interesting,” producer Rob Eric explained.
If by interesting Eric means awkward, then he’s right. When the Fab Five accompany an aspiring comedian to an impromptu performance at the local VFW hall, for example, the locals stare at Jonathan Van Ness, who's in charge of grooming, like he’s an actual space alien (“You should see the full, raw, uncut footage of that. That was next level,” Berk said). Van Ness, relentless in his positivity and charm, wins over some of the attendees — though not all.
“We were allowed to talk about whatever we wanted to talk about,” Tan France, the reboot's fashion guru, said. “All the real conversations are what made it into the show. This show wasn’t about fluff. The original show and America weren't ready for these conversations. They are now.”
Even if unsubtle — it’s apparent the producers picked subjects who would hit a pain point with at least one member of the Fab Five — these conversations do lead to breakthroughs. As Waldrop says during his interaction with Brown about police brutality, “If we could have a conversation like you and I just did, things would be a lot better. Everybody wants to talk, and nobody wants to listen.” Remarkably, you have two people understanding each other, without having to compromise their identities as cop, Christian, gay man, black man. Queer Eye says: You can be yourself, and still respect a person from the other side of the divide.
“For us to not have to check our different identities at the door was very important,” Brown said. “I think that’s a great lesson for anyone watching — you don’t have to check those things. You can bring them all in there.”
And let’s just say, Brown got his wish, and tears abound. This leads to the biggest difference between the new Queer Eye and the old one: The sheer volume of the emotions. “I knew that so many men need a cathartic moment. They need a moment to release,” Brown said. If any of the heroes had a stigma against crying, it evaporates along with emotional barriers and messy tears. Everyone, from the Trump-loving cop to the thrice-divorced man whose motto is “You can’t fix ugly,” cries.
After a week of working together, bonds really do seem to form between the heroes and the Fab Five. “You got so emotionally involved with these amazing guys who were a little down on their luck, or didn’t have the self-confidence to see how amazing they were. And to see them blossom in a week! Guys who were very standoffish and wouldn’t look you in the eye, and by the end of the week they were giving you a hug,” Berk recalled.
For all of Queer Eye’s magical emotional powers, five men doing a makeover is not what is going to cure the deep-seated differences between American communities. It’s still an unscripted reality TV show designed, above all, to entertain. It provides the impression that communication and love between communities is possible, without forcing the viewer to do any of the hard work necessary to make that happen. Still, Queer Eye manages to do something that sounds more impossible than making over a dude with a mullet — stare straight into the American divide, and forge a feel-good show from discomfort.