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The Queer Eye Effect: How One Netflix Reboot Saved TV In 2018

© Netflix

If 2018 belongs to a TV show, that TV show is Queer Eye. When it was first announced that Netflix would be re-booting Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Noughties makeover franchise which ran from 2003 to 2007 and featured five gay men dishing out style, interiors and grooming tips to straight men who direly needed them, the news was met with a collective shrug: hadn’t we moved past the tired, reductive assumption that homosexuality equates to being good at fashion and being able to choose the perfect scented candle at ten paces? Since it landed online in late February, however, Queer Eye has enjoyed the sleeper-hit-to-mainstream-success trajectory that Stranger Things achieved two summers ago. We’ve learned how best to apply fragrance ('Spray, delay, walk away!'), become gripped by the will-they, won’t they saga of Tom and Abbey (more on them later) and admired Antoni’s seemingly unlimited cache of vintage Strokes t-shirts. Now, the ‘Fab Five’ have taken a break from writing emoji-filled affirmations underneath one another’s Instagram posts to announce that a second season will land on Netflix on June 15th. What's their secret, other than sulfate-free shampoo?

In its format, Queer Eye stays pretty close to the original show, which aired on Bravo in the US and was later remade for UK audiences by ITV, but it’s the small differences that make it work for 2018. As in the original, we’re introduced to the ‘Fab Five.’ There’s grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness, who has the hair of a Renaissance Jesus and the ability to turn any sentence into a catchphrase through the sheer force of his upspeak. There’s Antoni Porowski, the ‘food and wine’ expert who only seems to know how to chop up avocados (but chops those avocados with finesse), Tan France, the British Muslim stylist with a transatlantic Doncaster accent, Karamo Brown, the ‘culture’ guy who serves as the show’s de facto counselor and finally Bobby Berk, the interior designer who, as the Internet loves to joke, does about as much work as the other four put together.

The Fab Five © Netflix

This more diverse line-up of experts is mirrored and contrasted in the ‘heroes’ (the show’s term for the participants) that they’re making over. Queer Eye 2.0 is based in and around Atlanta, Georgia in America’s Deep South, rather than the New York of the original, and though the lessons in fashion (cargo shorts out, rolled up sleeves in!) and grooming are still a huge part of Queer Eye’s fun, there are more nuanced segments in which different worldviews are aired and tentatively reconciled. While Karamo (tasked with ‘culture’ and ‘lifestyle’) has the most tenuous job description of the Five, he also has many of the show’s standout moments. In the third episode’s opener, we see him visibly tense up as his car is pulled over by a police officer (as an African-American man, he is clearly all too aware of the stakes of this interaction). As it turns out, the officer is the friend this episode’s subject, Corey. No, this isn’t exactly nuanced, but later in the episode, Karamo gets to have an open and honest conversation with Corey about police brutality. ‘I’m not saying a conversation with one police officer and one gay guy is going to solve problems, but maybe it can open up eyes,’ he says.

Elsewhere, the participants find themselves questioning their preconceptions and prejudices about the LGBTQ community. When Tom, the self-styled ‘redneck’ of episode one with one of the show’s most compelling narratives (following his transformation on Queer Eye, he’s re-married his ex-wife, Abbey) asks Bobby whether he is ‘the husband or the wife’ in his marriage, the interiors expert calmly explains why that’s not a comparison to make. In a later episode, a devoutly Christian father-of-six (also called Bobby) talks about how he was raised to see homosexuality as a sin, but that his time with the Five has encouraged him to be more accepting, and to encourage his children to do the same. And not all the participants are straight, either. One of the most-discussed episodes focuses on AJ, a gay man who is finding the courage to be honest about his sexuality with his much-loved stepmother. The Five share their own experiences and eventually – minor spoiler alert – he comes out to her; it’s hard to think of a similar instance in mainstream TV (let alone on a reality show) where a coming out narrative has been so sensitively handled.

Of course, masculinity can’t be ‘fixed’ in a 45 minute Netflix show, and the Queer Eye approach might be a little too schmaltzily packaged for some, but anything that at least raises such powerful questions in a warm, accepting way is surely a good thing. Compassion and open-mindedness are as crucial a part of the show as Jonathan’s hair flips and Tan’s JLS-worthy obsession with v-neck shirts. At its heart, Queer Eye has all the good bits of the guilty pleasure makeover shows that defined the Noughties (paging Trinny and Susannah) without the bad aftertaste. May we all, to paraphrase Jonathan, go forth and ‘just like own our space, and stuff.’

What are the Queer Eye season one stars up to now?