THE PRECAP: After launching successful re-boots of former broadcast network hits, Netflix mined the cable archives for it’s latest dust off. While it makes sense to go with a familiar property, the new QUEER EYE does little to distinguish itself. It’s pointless “cut, copy, paste” that ultimately rings hollow.
When Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered in 2003, it was groundbreaking television. The series was an unapologetically gay confection that also resonated with viewers outside the rainbow. Bravo made it the centerpiece of a major network re-brand and, in the process, created a pop-culture sensation. Though Queer Eye for the Straight Guy would ultimately last five seasons, the concept ran its course long before the final episode aired in 2007. Hobbled by a tightly structured format, the series grew repetitive and predictable. Once the novelty wore off, viewers went elsewhere. Audiences preferred the hyper-drama of competitions like Project Runway and the train-wreck spectacle of Real Housewives. Defying all odds, both of those franchises are still going strong. Bravo’s schedule is dominated by the various tentacles of the Real Housewives and Lifetime snatched Project Runway from the network in 2008.
As for Queer Eye, it was relegated to the “fond memory” file until Netflix announced a re-boot no one was asking for. While there’s nothing wrong with creating supply without demand, opting to resurrect a series that flamed out more than a decade ago is a bit of a head scratcher. Which begs the question: why this show and why now? The official announcement of the pick-up came with little in the way of explanation. Aside from a new cast, there wasn’t much more to chew on. Maybe the streaming giant knew something we didn’t. Netflix has a reputation for making esoteric programming decisions and this wouldn’t be the first time that included lifting a TV chestnut from the mothballs.
With previous series revivals, Netflix made smart strategic acquisitions that satisfied nostalgia-hungry subscribers and gave each title a renewed sense of purpose. Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life proved scripted originals didn’t have to be dark and edgy to grab eyeballs and generate buzz. Fuller House was aimed squarely at suburban families and potential subscribers who might otherwise assume Netflix was too highbrow. Even if you hated the original, this iteration is a surprise guilty pleasure. One Day at a Time reinvented a classic sit-com. Sharp writing and relevant social commentary connected with viewers and made the show a critical success. As for Queer Eye? Sadly, it’s “none of the above.”
Other than a truncated title (at least one makeover recipient isn’t straight) and production shifting to the Atlanta area, Queer Eye is basically a total format lift from the original. Such uninspired execution casts an inescapable pall of “been there, done that…better.” Structurally, there’s almost nothing fresh, contemporary or distinctive here. Episodes feel like re-treads of dated source material. It’s all harmless enough, but why play it so rigidly safe on an uncensored streaming platform? Even the one big change here falls short: the new Fab 5.
Aside from checking off a couple of diversity boxes, the new quintet is a mixed bag that works better when there’s fewer of them on screen. The original cast is a tough act to follow and Queer Eye desperately needs to do better than manufactured camaraderie and obviously scripted banter. Neither is a substitute for the potent pleasure of genuine on-screen chemistry. Of course, dropping a bunch of newbies into a shopworn format and expecting on-air magic is a bit naive.
As in the original, a Queer Eye make-over covers grooming, culture, food and wine, interior design and fashion. Each member of the Fab 5 takes the lead in one of these areas of expertise, though “expertise” feels like a fluid concept here. During the course of any given transformation, the value of each individual contribution runs the gamut from significant to negligible. The blame for some of this falls squarely on an abundance of ham-handed editorial decisions. In other cases, depth of knowledge was kicked to the curb for less substantive casting priorities.
Take Antoni Porowski. Though he’s certainly nice to look at, casting him as a food and wine authority is a bit of a stretch. He worked at a sushi restaurant, dabbled in an acting and modelling career that went nowhere and eventually stumbled into a personal assistant thing with Ted Allen (the original Queer Eye food guy). Gee, I wonder how Porowski got this gig? Thus far, he’s proven to be a master of “less is more,” offering make-over subjects the kind of single dish silliness one might remember from home-ec class. He’s supposed to be part of a holistic transformation process. Too bad there’s absolutely nothing life altering about a dubious guacamole recipe or a plate of grilled cheese. But, hey, Porowski is good looking and shirtless on Instagram. Whatever.
I could also do without grooming guru Jonathan Van Ness, or at least the cartoon-queer version concocted by Queer Eye producers. Fabulous and flamboyant are wonderful (especially on a show this dispassionate), but the unmodulated mess on display here treads uncomfortably close to gay Stepin Fetchit territory. Van Ness prattles on incessantly about himself and his long hair (which he really, really, really loves), taking the occasional break to catch his breathe and focus on the subject at hand. In the original, Carson Kressley lit up the room. He chewed scenery with joyous abandon, but never lost sight of why he was there. If casting Van Ness was some lame attempt to duplicate Kressley’s signature persona, it’s a misguided fail.
The rest of the cast fares much better. Bobby Berk is the real deal, a talented interior designer with an engaging personality. He connects nicely with each make-over subject and doesn’t cut corners in the scope and vision of his work. Berk can also hold his own in conversations that don’t revolve around him, adding a welcome layer of depth to a series that could use more. Fashion is in the capable hands of Tan France. Instead of going bitchy or hyper-critical, he draws on mistakes made in his own past and offers practical, real-world advice. Unfortunately, though Berk and France do the lion’s share of real work on Queer Eye, habitually bone-headed editorial decisions leave much of it off-screen. In the premier episode, France gets a brief, rudimentary consultation scene with Tom (the make-over recipient), then, poof! The next time they’re together, Tom’s wardrobe revamp is a done deal. Berk works real magic with Tom’s ramshackle apartment, but viewers don’t get so much as a glimpse at his process. Instead, the designer and his subject are sent to a mattress shop. It’s a pointless detour that exists solely as a set-up for some juvenile pillow-top antics.
Rounding out the new Fab 5 is Karamo Brown, who manages to rise above the “culture expert” pitfalls that bedeviled Jai Rodriguez in the original. Steering clear of feather-weight platitudes and trite sound bites, Brown offers substantive advice that feels genuine and heartfelt. He’s the authoritative life coach the original series never had with Rodriguez. Brown also deserves better than a cheap stunt in episode three that plays racial profiling for laughs. In all honesty, so do viewers. Unfortunately, that’s not happening on a show this blissfully oblivious.
The most frustrating thing about Queer Eye is how the show chooses to exist in a dingbat bubble of its own construction. Despite the breadth of artistic freedom offered by Netflix, this re-boot is mere nips and tucks away from being a Hallmark Channel original. I’m not suggesting going Riverdale dark, but a little extra effort could have put real meat on these bones. Without it, scenes that do venture outside the artifice of Queer Eye’s shiny, happy place invariably go nowhere or implode. Instead of socially relevant content, we get tone-deaf racial profiling face plants and dozens of potentially meaningful conversations that get the short shrift. Maybe it’s just me, but the world we’re now living in would be better served by Queer Eye that sees more, stands for more and matters more.
Queer Eye is a Netflix exclusive. Eight new episodes are available now.