“You are full of love and light,” says Queer Eye’s culture expert Karamo Brown in “God Bless Gay,” the season-two premiere episode of Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. He’s speaking to Tammye, the Fab 5’s first female “hero”: an awe-inspiringly goodhearted African-American woman who lives in Gay—yes, Gay—Georgia, a town with a population of 89. It’s unclear if that number includes Tammye’s son, Myles, who’s recently moved back in with his mother, though you certainly believe that he feels included by the end of the episode. After all, the show’s governing principle—for better and worse, though mostly better—is as plain as day: to foster a sense of belonging.
Myles, who’s gay, felt lost living in Atlanta, and his move back home is a means of finding himself. But there’s a wrinkle, as the young man fears that he won’t be embraced by the church he’d always loved. If Myles belongs in the end, that’s in no small part due to the immaculately measured speech, so pointed but nonjudgmental, that Tammye gives to the men and women of her mostly black church. Her words exude intelligence, clarity, and especially kindness, and by episode’s end, there’s a sense that, in bringing joy to Tammye and her family, the Fab 5 have also rounded out their own lives.
For those who blubbered their way through Queer Eye’s first season, “God Bless Gay” wants to make you believe that it’s similarly coming from a place of love and light. It’s in the way Tammye expresses her gratitude to the Fab 5 for the new life she’s won, while then offering them words of wisdom about the issues most of them—but especially design expert Bobby Berk, who was rejected by his adopted parents when he came out as gay—wrestled with throughout their stay in a place that stirred memories of painful experiences in their lives. This is Queer Eye at its best: when the Fab 5 are engaged in a mutual exchange of give and take with both their hero and audience.
Episode five, “Sky’s the Limit,” is more explicitly radical, beginning with what appeared to me at first to be footage of an infant undergoing surgery—an apt misconception, perhaps, as the episode is practically an account of being born again. Cut to the Fab 5, from their home base in Atlanta, processing the footage of their latest hero undergoing “top surgery” and waking up in a daze of fatigue and exhilaration to the sight of where his breasts used to be. By the end of the episode, the Fab 5 have not only helped Skyler to feel more comfortable in his body, but they’ve also come to understand the distances between the different factions of the LGBTQ community. And you may hope that “Sky’s the Limit” goes some way toward shrinking those distances.
At a time when America is more divided than ever, as our president devotes himself to feeding his ego at the expense of our democracy and world standing, Queer Eye’s palpable sense of communion is like a salve. Why harp on how the show refuses to prod Tan France for admitting that he sees himself as an outlier in the gay community—as his remarkable coif suggests the 24/7 handiwork of countless gay men—when it seems as if the fashion expert, through tears, has truly tapped into a heretofore buried aspect of his own humanity through his relationship to Skyler? Watching episode five of Queer Eye’s new season, you don’t doubt that it will land on Netflix queues the world over and save people’s lives. So, isn’t that enough?
The short answer is yes, but Queer Eye readily reveals its seams when it isn’t selling us a vision of inclusivity, which is ironic given that the show is, at heart, about self-improvement. The new season’s fourth episode, “The Handyman Can,” sees the Fab 5 making over Jason, who’s single and contemplating a move to Reno in order to be closer to his beloved Burning Man. Hard as it is to complain about having to stare at Antoni Porowski’s face, after the umpteenth cutaway to the show’s food and wine expert blatantly T-shirt signaling his love of the Strokes and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, you may wish instead for a better handle of what fuels Jason’s fear of success, if only to make the revelation that he’s staying put in Georgia scan as less preordained.
Come to think of it, preordained is an apt word for Queer Eye, even when it is geared toward emphasizing social-emotional learning. Season two drops on Netflix four months after the first one did, and in spite of that short turnaround, the new episodes seem shaped in response to the public’s reactions to season one. That means we don’t get a moment of dubious suspense to the degree of the opening of last season’s “Dega Don’t”—in which it appeared that Karamo, while driving, was being racially profiled by a white police officer—because that would only bring more attention to the means by which the producers are manufacturing trauma without thinking about how they may be putting the Fab 5 in the path of danger. Instead, we now get more of those cloying black-and-white asides featuring the Fab 5 gleefully falling over each other or walking toward the camera in slow motion.
More conspicuous, though less surprising, considering that Queer Eye airs on the network that booted Kevin Spacey from House of Cards, the new episodes also suggest they’ve survived a legal minefield. Yesterday, it was revealed that Netflix has initiated a series of workplace rules on the set of their shows, including a ban on employees staring at someone for more than five seconds. Does that explain why grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness appears almost lobotomized throughout the new season? His ability to make us gag remains unparalleled, as when he correlates the hero of episode six, “Big Little Lies,” awkwardly premiering his makeover with a female gymnast falling on her first Olympic beam performance. But there’s a sense that the show’s biggest personality has been tasked with ensuring that his interactions with the show’s male heroes carry as little of a sexual charge as possible.
It may be too much to expect Queer Eye to want to have a conversation about sexual objectification, given that it’s default mode is to sell a lifestyle brand that practically equates happiness with living inside a Crate & Barrel catalog and good eating with combining yogurt with the the first five things you see in your refrigerator. When they feel as if they don’t stand to learn anything about themselves from their heroes, the Fab 5 leans on faux-shock and platitudinous mush to sell their normative brand of self-improvement. It’s as if their empathy only goes so far. The Fab 5 can stand to ponder whether or not their heroes feel as if they’re embracing an inauthentic idea of the self. But as Queer Eye already knows that its strength isn’t in selling us a product, but rather in using its heroes to remind us of how to be more decent in our lives, maybe it’s okay to tell the Fab 5 that they, too, can do better.