A makeover comes with unlimited possibilities, and the makeover show takes an almost unlimited number of forms. American pop culture is still firmly in the grip of the HGTV craze, which remodels living spaces as proxies for the lives spent within them. For a full decade, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly sternly informed women What Not to Wear—no horizontal stripes, no pattern clashing, and no miniskirts over 35, for example—to present their best selves to the outside world. The Biggest Loser fast-forwarded the difficult process of weight loss by making its contestants’ decisions for them. Ever the entrepreneurs, the Kardashians have gotten in on the makeover game. And though they don’t technically fit into the genre, pop-therapy programs from Dr. Phil to Iyanla: Fix My Life promise what is essentially a makeover for one’s inner being.
The formula is the same throughout: an officious, all-knowing host bears down on a specific aspect of their subjects’ existence and improves their entire well-being in the process. The message is aspirational, optimistic—all that stands between you and self-actualization is an unopened floor plan!—and, most importantly, efficient. With the magic of editing, a renovation or shopping trip fits easily within the confines of a 45-minute episode, allowing the maker-overs to move on and the made-over to maintain their improvements indefinitely, if only in the viewer’s imagination.
By such targeted standards, the pre-reboot Queer Eye was already remarkably ambitious. Running on Bravo from 2003 to 2007 under the name Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the show put aesthetically challenged men in the collective hands of the Fab Five, a superheroic moniker that encompassed five lifestyle experts in five separate disciplines. Refusing to choose between fashion and home decor, Queer Eye took on both—and grooming, and cooking, and whatever “culture” means. In one short week, the Five would teach a man to fish, then to prepare the fish with some freshly infused herb butter while wearing a tailored suit and tastefully applied cologne.
The show’s latest incarnation has been rebranded, relocated, and recast for both a move to Netflix and 2018. Though the home decor has been updated for the age of Pinterest and the slang is now peppered with “Yaaas!”-es, the group’s core makeover mission remains largely intact. To the Fab Five’s already imposing workload, however, the 2018 Queer Eye adds a new mission, one that escalates the series’ aims above and beyond even the total-package Cinderella story the show was to begin with. This Fab Five wants to take on its projects’ inner lives as well as their outer presentation; in fact, Queer Eye now sees improvements to the latter as a means to improve the former, rather than as a goal in and of itself. And while a real-life personality overhaul takes years of therapy and halting progress, these transformations fit squarely in the one-and-done hour allotted to them. Like all makeovers, the results are mixed—but occasionally transcendent.
Queer Eye’s second generation now operates out of an über-stylish Batcave in Atlanta. The migration from the original base in New York City was almost certainly prompted by Georgia’s generous tax incentives for film productions, but it introduces a dynamic Queer Eye’s producers waste no time capitalizing on. Five openly, unapologetically gay men just a short drive from blood-red Trump country is a recipe for a teachable moment, and teachable moments are the new Queer Eye’s (artisan) bread and (cultured) butter.
First, the roster. Your “food and wine” czar is Antoni Porowski, a New York City chef as fond of the Strokes as he is pop-literary novels (and T-shirts commemorating both). Fashion advice is dispensed by Tan France, a British Pakistani stylist now based in Utah. Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize hairstylist Jonathan Van Ness from Gay of Thrones and culture guru Karamo Brown from The Real World: Philadelphia. Rounding out the quintet is designer Bobby Berk, who has an unassuming, workmanlike presence on camera that belies the Herculean effort that goes into refurbishing an entire home in less than a week.
Despite their clearly delineated roles, it’s immediately clear that the Five’s mission adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Their first beneficiary is Tom, a single grandfather and three-time divorcée living well outside Atlanta’s cosmopolitan borders. Tom survives on a steady diet of greasy Tex-Mex and “redneck margaritas,” i.e. tequila and Mountain Dew, leading to the requisite gross-out shots whereby the very trim Five express their shock and displeasure. But the Five aren’t just in town to clean up Tom’s act; in a pattern that holds for each remaining episode, they’re preparing him for what is essentially a coming-out party for his new self—in this case, a car-show date with his ex-wife Abby, for whom Tom still carries a torch. His makeover includes the standard before-and-after stints in a salon chair and a vintage clothing store, but also a pep talk; in the same matter-of-fact voice he uses to tell Tom his “moisturizing” face wash is actually drying out his skin, Jonathan also informs Tom that his insecurity about his looks “is the ugliest thing about you.” Without saying as much, Jonathan is preaching the gospel of self-care far from its native choir.
The Five continually treat their subjects’ disarray as a symptom, not a disease. The second episode centers on Neal, an Atlanta tech worker who hails from the more conventional Queer Eye demographic of single men who’ve allowed themselves to fester along with their bachelor pad. Neal confesses he hasn’t had anyone over to his apartment in a decade and is duly diagnosed with closing himself off to new experiences. Karamo takes him boxing, Antoni teaches him how to cook for a crowd, and by episode’s end, Neal has shed both a truly gnarly beard and his protective outer walls.
Often, the Five sell their guests on upgrades by encouraging them to think of topical changes as an extension of deeper, more meaningful shifts. Tan is fond of emphasizing that dressing well isn’t a sign of vanity, but a way of signalling to loved ones that you’re taking the time to present yourself with them in mind. Bobby uses a home redesign as an opportunity to give overburdened parents a separate, adult space from their six children. Jonathan espouses the benefits of a beauty routine as a way to take time for oneself in the midst of a hectic schedule.
There’s a subtly subversive message at work in all this: that fashion, beauty, design, and food aren’t superfluous luxuries, nor the exclusive province of femme-of-center gay men. By teaching the benefits of a good sauté technique or face scrub, the Five can also impart their wisdom on messier, more intangible issues like emotional labor and vulnerability. There’s nothing unmanly about a hug, and it’s not fair to take your wife’s effort for granted if you’re not making the same effort for her. These epiphanies are what Queer Eye is chasing—the spruced-up wardrobes are mostly a visual aid.
There are, of course, limitations to this approach. Reality-show logic is not real-life logic, and the seams of the illusion tend to show when Queer Eye brushes up against truths too harsh and problems too complicated for one lighthearted entertainment to address.
Queer Eye is packed with heart-to-hearts whose takeaways unfailingly boil down to “deep down, we’re all just human beings”: Tom wonders who the wife is in a same-sex partnership and gets a gentle but firm talking-to about gender roles; Bobby warily asks how one man’s religion affects his views on homosexuality and gets his own lesson in rushing to judgment. The theme is simplistic and not particularly challenging to either party’s worldview, if fundamentally true. Mostly, the sweetness of the message is enough to override the obvious slickness of the packaging.
In Episode 3, however, the Five help out a NASCAR-loving cop named Cory, whose best friend and partner decides to welcome the crew to town with a prank. He pulls over a car full of queer men, driven by a black man, and without introducing himself brusquely demands to know why they’re in town and why Karamo isn’t carrying his license. The encounter is tense and weighted with dread; even after the partner drops the charade and Cory later talks with Karamo about police brutality, the discomfort lingers. Cory is also an open Trump supporter with a garage full of Trump-Pence signs, and while Karamo’s candor leads him to consider the other side of the police brutality debate, the Five never directly push Cory on the homophobia of a politician whose name is prominently displayed in his own home. There are only so many entrenched divides a single episode of television can bridge, a limit Queer Eye is well within its rights to draw. The problem is that such conversations’ conspicuous absence threatens to puncture the bubble required to keep comfort TV comforting.
Nothing is more deadly to the makeover-show fantasy of the quick fix than the unfixable. When the Fab Five bailed out the family of eight, whose father works two separate jobs, often working until 4 a.m., I couldn’t help thinking that these people’s problems derived from much broader systemic failures, not a disorganized living room. Conversely, the invisible hand of Queer Eye’s producers sometimes edges into view; how much vetting had to be done to make sure Tom’s relationship with Abby was cute, not creepy? America’s reigning gay reality franchise, RuPaul’s Drag Race, often solves this problem by being disarmingly transparent about behind-the-scenes machinations, with PAs showing up on camera and contestants freely discussing how the show has affected their careers. Queer Eye is determined never to break the fourth wall, sometimes to its detriment.
More often than not, though, Queer Eye’s formula is devastatingly effective. The episode that showcases the updated template at its best is also the episode that highlights how much the series has evolved. Living up to the promise that Queer Eye is no longer just for the straight guy, the Fab Five resolve to help a gay engineer named AJ come out to his stepmother and embrace his identity in the process. True to the Queer Eye ethos, fashion becomes a proxy for self-confidence and working through internalized homophobia. Karamo takes AJ ziplining, an on-the-nose metaphor for taking a leap of faith; Antoni relates his personal experience of experimenting with how flamboyant he wanted to be after coming out, one of several times the Five emphasize AJ’s personal comfort. Everything culminates in a wrenching coming-out scene, in which the discomfort of witnessing such an intimate moment is rapidly subsumed by a tidal wave of tears.
AJ’s episode is the furthest expansion of what Queer Eye can be sans Straight Guy modifier. It’s also the purest expression of Queer Eye’s thesis: that a makeover show can and should take a peek under the hood. Queer Eye wants to improve lives, not just reorder them. That might be pushing the limits of reality TV to their breaking point, but what would a show called Queer Eye be if it didn’t try to challenge our assumptions of what can or can’t be done?