March 20, 2018

Queer Eye: Why A Show From 2003 Is Getting A Reboot in 2018

The focus of this blog is mainly retro pop culture from the 1970's to the 1980's, but it's worth acknowledging that those are generalities.  Perhaps the most notable is because the start dates and end dates are not always clear-cut, and with television, reruns have made moderately-successful network TV shows far bigger hits in syndication.  For example, the TV sitcom "The Brady Bunch" is generally considered to be a 1970's show (as was "Gilligan's Island").  But both Sherwood Schwartz sitcoms were actually much, much bigger in syndication than they were in their first-runs.  Also, both shows first premiered in the late 1960's, hence both shows could technically be considered sixties pop culture and therefore irrelevant to this blog using the original year of broadcast as a cutoff.

I refuse to do that.

Without getting too tied up in specifics on start and finish dates, although the 1990's and 2000's aren't a central focus for this blog, again, because some pop culture (television, movies, music, etc.) carries over from the 1960's or the 1980's, it occasionally does find a place here, too.  This is one such post.

One early 2000's cable program that is enjoying a renaissance (resurrection or reboot) is one of cable-network Bravo's earlier success stories from 2003.  The show was initially known as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (later renamed simply "Queer Eye").  The premise of the show relied upon the stereotype of gay ("queer") men as experts in matters of fashion, style, personal grooming, interior design, and culture.

It's worth acknowledging that Bravo's own history as a cable network is relevant to this discussion.  Bravo began in 1980, and its original focus was on performing arts, drama, and independent films (indeed, Bravo originally claimed to be "the first television service dedicated to film and the performing arts" and a 1985 profile of Bravo in the New York Times observed that most of its programming at the time consisted of international, classic, and independent films).  The Bravo network was acquired in the early 2000's, and it switched its format from focusing on performing arts, drama, and independent films to being mainly focused on popular culture including reality shows, fashion/makeover shows and celebrities.  In those days, Bravo quite literally was throwing things against the proverbial wall to see what stuck, much as the Fox broadcast TV network had done just a few years earlier.  The main difference is that Bravo was done on cable, rather than on broadcast TV.

The concept for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was created by the show's executive producers David Collins and Michael Williams along with David Metzler through their company, Scout Productions and, as noted, turned out to be a surprise hit for Bravo.

There were a variety of reasons for its success.

One reason for its success was that "Queer Eye" very much stuck to the 22-minute format (which amounted to a half-hour show with commercials) and ran at many different times throughout the day.  Given that there were no story arcs (also called a narrative arc), which are extended or continuing storylines in episodic storytelling in media such as television, with each episode following a dramatic arc.  On a TV program, for example, a story arc would unfold over a number of different episodes.  Without any arcs, there were no expiration or sequence required for airing, making it well-suited for cable.  Arcs were missing from "Queer Eye", lending it to repeated play throughout the day whenever the network needed half-hour content to run.

The original "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" series starred five openly-gay men from New York who conducted a "make-over" (or "make-better") of another person, usually a hapless straight man at the request of his wife or girlfriend, with the cast helping to revamp wardrobe, redecorating, and offering advice on grooming, lifestyle, and food/wine.

Original Fab Five cast from Bravo's version of "Queer Eye"
The opening sequence introduced the gay "Fab Five", outlining each of their particular "specialties" on Manhattan's "Gay Street": Fashion Savant (Carson Kressley), Food and Wine Connoisseur (Ted Allen), Grooming Guru (Kyan Douglas), Design Doctor (Thom Filicia) and Culture Vulture (Jai Rodriguez).  The five men armed themselves with their tool of choice (including Thom Filicia holding a paintbrush, Ted Allen holding a whisk, Carson Kressley holding a shopping bag, Kyan Douglas holding a blow-dryer, and Jai Rodriguez holding a set of music headphones), all in-line with their particular specialty, then put on their sunglasses before we saw the camera turn the corner of "Gay Street" to enter "Straight St."  The opening sequence closed as the Fab Five "power walked" straight toward the camera.

The show also enabled the newly-nascent Bravo cable network to successfully transition to a completely different focus for content (and audience), and established it as a cable network willing to break away from traditional cable network dogma about what was necessary to succeed, as well as having a willingness to break from traditionally-taboo topics, including featuring genuine gay individuals on television.

The original "Queer Eye" series ran perpetually on Bravo in 2003, as it sought to fill 24-hours with new content that was anything but its original content, which was much more like what ran on PBS in those days, and also had a much more limited audience.

The series also quickly attained pretty good ratings for Bravo, peaking during September of that year with 3.34 million viewers per episode according to Nielsen.  The popularity of the series also established the original Fab Five as media celebrities in their own right, with high-profile appearances at the Emmys and a "make-better" of Jay Leno and his The Tonight Show set in August of that year.  Fab Five members parlayed their celebrity into endorsement deals, perhaps most notably Thom Filicia's becoming the spokesperson for Pier 1 Imports, and Ted Allen would later endorse cooking utensils (skillets, for example) sold at retailers.

The American press also generally complimented the series and the Fab Five.   The gay Out magazine listed the Fab Five in its "Out 100", the "greatest gay success stories" of 2003, while Instinct magazine declared Mr. Kressley one of the "Leading Men" of 2004.  The series also won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004.

Mr. Kressley knows it's impossible to disentangle his sexuality from "Queer Eye" and he made zero effort to try and do so.  2003 America was not especially kind to the LGBTQ community.  At the time, "Don't ask, don't tell" banned openly gay people from serving openly in the military, and only a few months earlier, 13 U.S. states had homosexual sodomy laws on the books while heterosexual sodomy was legal (the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated those in the Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003).  Kressley says that by introducing America to real queer people, it allowed them to get to know members of a demographic long shut out of most other media, and he is of the opinion that was the show's real power.  His co-star Jai Rodriguez agreed, telling The Hollywood Reporter that the number one thing people told him about "Queer Eye" was that the show helped them come out to their families. "The houses and the fashion, that has never been a takeaway," he said. Though "Queer Eye" didn't have an explicit political message, that didn't matter: "In 2003, being out was political."

Mr. Rodriguez also says that "Queer Eye" also made space for friendships between straight and gay men, a bond that at the time "wasn't OK to be formed" because of homophobic fears of romantic attraction.  On the show, gay and straight men could exist, work and laugh together without strings attached.

Since 2003, the Bravo cable network has changed ownership a few times, and is now firmly in the hands of cable television giant Comcast's NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment business.  But Bravo's days in 2003 were more freewheeling, as already noted, marked by its willingness to try and see what drew in viewers.  The "Queer Eye" gamble paid off for Bravo, drawing a diverse audience far beyond a gay-only viewership, to a more mass-market success.  That also made the show relevant for a broader, American culture perspective.  The cast discusses the impact in the video playlist below.

In January 2017, internet streaming service Netflix announced that it was reviving the series with a brand new Fab Five in a season of eight episodes.  It's part of Netflix's desire to move into the unscripted space, including talk-shows hosted by Chelsea Handler, David Letterman, and soon, former President Barack Obama.

NPR's popular radio show "All Things Considered" covered the "Queer Eye" reboot which can be listened to below, or by visiting https://n.pr/2H5fMnV.

The new "Queer Eye" show is based in the southern city of Atlanta rather than New York.  Netflix does not disclose traditional Nielsen ratings performance indicators as broadcast and cable television do, but on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, as of March 2018, the season held an approval rating of 100% based upon 13 reviews, and an average rating of 7.35/10.  The website's critical consensus read, "Queer Eye adapts for a different era without losing its style, charm, or sense of fun, proving that the show's formula remains just as sweetly addictive even after a change in location and a new group of hosts." On Metacritic, the season had a weighted average score of 73 out of 100, based on seven critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".

The new Fab Five cast on the Netflix version of "Queer Eye"
As noted, the new version of "Queer Eye" does change the locale from New York to Atlanta, and although there is no news (yet) on another season, co-creator and producer Collins said that if Netflix does order more, he hopes to find a new location for the show — and he's thinking specifically of returning to his roots.  He said "I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio, born and raised. I would like to go the tri-state region: Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, because you can base in Cincinnati and go across the bridge to Kentucky and go up the interstate to Indiana. The corn-fed midwestern folk are where I'm from — and I love actually being from Ohio, it's a great place to be from."

Similar to the cast chemistry of the original, the new Fab Five cast for the new version of "Queer Eye" seemingly has pretty good on-screen chemistry, although some important yet relevant changes have been made.

Notably, unlike the show's first iteration, where four of the five stars were white, and all were cisgender.  But it helped open the doors to wider and more diverse queer representation, bringing the Fab Five into millions of homes around the world. That counts for something. Jai Rodriguez, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, notes that his successor in the reboot, Karamo Brown, told him: "One of the biggest things for me watching the show was finally seeing a queer person of color."  Another evolution is that much of this cast comes from lower-income backgrounds, and some even have little mouths (children) to feed.

The new "Fab Five" consists of Bobby Berk (Design Expert), Antoni Porowski (Food Expert), Jonathan Van Ness (Grooming Expert), Tan France (Fashion Expert) and Karamo Brown (Culture Expert).  Of them, Tan is a gay, British-Pakistani Muslim (who happens to be married to an American Mormon cowboy), and Karamo is a gay, African-American man from the South who is also a father of two children, while cast member Bobby has been married to another man for almost fifteen years.  None of that could have been accepted, let alone watched on television, back in 2003.

Updating the original 2003 series to reflect the current social and political climate of today's America was important for Mr. Collins, given how much things have changed. For starters, it feels possible to be a bit more open about the Fab Five's personal lives: "We've evolved in a big way," Collins said. "If you think about the fact that our original Fab Five [didn't use] word 'my husband' or 'my boyfriend' or 'my kids' — America was not ready to handle that. [Now], we get to see that Karamo is a father of two, Tan's a Muslim man married to a Mormon cowboy. And Bobby's been married for almost fifteen years now."

To view a playlist consisting of the original show's intro, the new Fab Five meeting with the original Fab Five, the new show's intro and an interview with the new cast conducted by co-creator and producer David Collins which can be seen below, or by visiting the playlist I created at https://goo.gl/wV4hms:



Author P.S., March 26, 2018:  Entertainment newspaper Variety reports that the Netflix version of "Queer Eye" has been renewed for a second season.  Although a renewal for Season 2 is now confirmed, there is no word yet as to whether it will relocate from Atlanta to Cincinnati as co-creator and producer David Collins said he hoped to do.

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