N.B. Contains potential season 5 spoilers.
I’ve just spent the past few days binging all ten episodes of the upcoming fifth season of Queer Eye, which lands on Netflix right on time for Pride month on June 5th, and I am feeling pretty amazing actually; upbeat and optimistic. It’s the kind of afterglow you get when you’ve had a weekend away with your kindest, wisest queer friends, who build up your confidence, give you good advice and who you share some good food and plenty of warm hugs with. Quite an achievement for a reality makeover show in the midst of a pandemic, and just the queer tonic for the soul we all need in our lives right now. Feel-good TV never felt so good.
Shot last summer, this season sees the Fab Five, Antoni Porowski (Food & Wine), Bobby Berk (Interior Design), Jonathan Van Ness (Grooming), Karamo Brown (Culture) and Tan France (Fashion) bring some queer magic to the City of Brotherly Love. Somehow they manage to spend an entire season in the nation’s birthplace without running up the “Rocky Steps” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I can’t go more than a few hours in the city without heading there to do a slow mo run and celebratory fist pumping spin at the top. I guess it just goes to show that the Queer Eye producers have a little more imagination! In fact, as well ten gratifying transformation stories, the season is also a love letter to the city and an unconventional travel guide, introducing us to various Philly neighbourhoods and showcasing some great local businesses (as well as a few chain stores) along the way. And fittingly, Philadelphia born and raised queer pop star Vincint has recorded a new song for the season that’s used in the trailer.
The satisfying framework of the reliably entertaining show remains unchanged; the Fab Five spend a week a “hero”, nominated by their friends, family or colleagues, and transform them by teaching some self-love, reconnecting with them with the person they were always meant to be, (it’s essentially the message Dorothy learns in The Wizard of Oz, that she had the power all along). It’s a narrative structure that allows for some episodes to go deep, as evidenced by the powerful season opener where we meet Noah Helper, a pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Fishtown. He’s single, and lives with his two cats in the dilapidated parsonage, with holes in the ceiling. He also happens to be gay and out, but not exactly proud. Feeling guilty for not having stood up for the LGBTQ community sooner, he was previously married to a woman and having come out later in life he’s clearly dealing with some internalised homophobia. Understandable given that he grew up in a “homophobic Baptist denomination” as he describes it, where he was taught that “queer people were wrong and probably going to hell.”
About to celebrate its 125th birthday, Noah’s church puts Jonathan in mind of the Sister Act movies, and he jokes during the grooming session with him that he feels like The Preacher’s Wife. But for Bobby these are far more uncomfortable surroundings having grown up in a church that preached hatred against LGBTQ people; “judgement, hurt and pain” is what the church means to him he says, but he wants to overcome those feelings in order to help Noah create a space that will be welcoming for all parishioners. Unlike the church of his youth, Noah wants his place of worship to be the one place where LGBTQ know for certain they will be accepted for who they are. During one of the standout scenes of the season Bobby and Noah discuss how faith has often been used against LGBTQ people, something that Noah feels churches needs to acknowledge if they are going to move forward and fill their pews; “the church owes you an apology” he tells Bobby. Noah also shares a fascinating Biblical story about Jesus healing a Centurion’s beloved, essentially his boyfriend; not one I heard in Sunday school. Meanwhile Karamo facilitates a deeply moving meeting between LGBTQ Lutherian clergy; activist Megan Rohrer, the first openly trans minister to be ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and Guy Erwin, the first openly gay bishop to be ordained by ELCA, who are both further along the road of self-acceptance than Noah and offer their support. “Go in peace and be fabulous for the Lord” Noah ends his sermon, having shared his personal journey with his congregation publicly for the first time; the impact of spending a week with Fab Five clearly apparent.
The newest canine member of team Queer Eye is the adorable mixed breed Walter (Bruley sadly passed away last year), and the second episode of season five is definitely one for dog lovers. Rahanna’s trailer, which she used for her mobile dog grooming business, broke down two years ago and as it sits stationary outside her parents’ home it serves as a metaphor for how her life has stalled. She’s in need of some business mentoring, and some tips to become less self-conscious about her 6 foot three height. Can Tan even get her to where a heel? Her time with the Fab Five leads to a doggie fashion show at the end of the week where Tan gives us his best nonchalant Anna Wintour impression, sitting front row of the doggie runway. In the kitchen Antoni turns his hand to baking crunchy doggie pretzels, while Karamo’s relationship counselling aims to heal some of the damage caused by a past infidelity.
In episode three, father of the bride Kevin, who rather endearingly sleeps with a teddy bear shaped huggable pillow, is a little anxious in the week leading up to walking his daughter down the aisle and the father daughter dance. His friendship with his ex-wife is beginning to stand in the way of him moving on with his life, with his own wardrobe still full of clothes she left there…four years ago! Jonathan does some amazing grooming and helps Kevin to smile again, literally, with some new dentures. Trigger warning: with most hair salons and barber shops across the country still shuttered for safety’s sake it’s hard not to feel a little envious as Jonathan is transforming the heroes’ looks in each episode.
Episode four’s Tyreek grew up in North Philadelphia and at one point in his life found himself homeless, leading Bobby to open up to him about having been homeless himself, sleeping in his car and on friends’ coaches before he was a successful business owner. Tan pulls some great looks for Tyreek who has an adventurous flare for fashion but hasn’t had the resources to buy anything new for years. At the core of this episode is examining the rift between Tyreek and the woman who cared for him during his formative years. Unclear about why he had to leave her as a child, Karamo reminds us that communication is key as he unravels the misunderstanding that has kept them apart for so many years. Antoni shares with Tyreek that he hasn’t been in contact with his own mother for several years; and it’s in intimate moments like this, when the Fab Five are alone with the people they’re helping where the show is at it’s most affecting. Throughout the series every member of the quintet has times when they really shine and achieve a major breakthrough with their heroes. It’s particularly touching to hear Tyreek talk about not having had open conversation with his male friends, and an example of the skilful, delicate way that the show touches on important issues like men opening up about their inner lives to one another.
18 year-old Abby, a dedicated climate change activist is at the heart of episode five. She’s living in a shared house with her fellow Gen Zers of the Sunrise Movement. Usually nervous about cooking for her housemates, Antoni teaches her a delicious looking twice cooked eggplant vegan dish. Meanwhile Jonathan is shocked to learn that Abby doesn’t know who Liza Minnelli is, and when he discovers that she hasn’t heard of the Sister Act movies he proceeds to fill her in on the plot of both films with an entertaining summary. As well as helping Abby to strike a severely lacking work life balance, one of the themes tackled in this episode is the idea that women can look feminine and fabulous without relinquishing being taken seriously. In keeping with the climate change issue that’s so important to Abby, all the clothes that Tan selects for her new wardrobe are either from thrift or vintage stores or sustainable brands; while Bobby sources only used furniture for his makeover of the shared areas of the Sunrise house.
The Fab Five take a break from the city in episode six and head to the Jersey Shore to meet Ryan, a property manager by day and DJ by night in his thirties who’s plagued by concerns about what his life should be like and his perception of his family’s expectations of him. Tan describes the man’s bedroom as a “little shop of horrors” and given the Jersey Shore setting, as you might expect, tanning beds are involved, with Jonathan encouraging Ryan to end his addiction to them. It leads to an important discussion about accepting our changing appearance as we grow older, “ageing is a privilege” as Jonathan puts it, that should be embraced not fought. In a later episode he echoes that by saying he wants “more silver haired divas in the world!” So put that hair dye back on the shelf.
In the most emotional part of the season, episode seven introduces us to Jennifer who’s been nominated by her gown-up daughters, getting ready to leave the nest. She’d been a devoted stay-at-home mom until her husband was diagnosed with ALS (motor neurone disease) eight years ago, meaning she had to go out to work, while also taking on the care of him at home. Stuck in the 80s she begs Jonathan for a perm, although, as you might expect he’s not into that idea, though he does give her the big hairdo she’s been craving. Antoni reconnects Jennifer with their shared Polish heritage in the kitchen with traditional dishes, along with some careful handling of meat in a pun-tastic sausage making session, which shows just how therapeutic cooking and conversation can be. As Jonathan puts it in a later episode “carbs always brought my family together more than anything.”
Exuberant fishmonger Marcos in episode eight is living out the American Dream he left his native Mexico to pursue, as he prepares to open a seafood restaurant off Philly’s Italian market where he has a stall. The episode goes deep in exploring what life can be like for first generation Americans whose parents often place high expectations on their kids, something that’s caused tension between Marcos and his eldest daughter. Jonathan impresses us with his grasp on Spanish, while Antoni, Tan and Karamo all share their experiences of growing up with immigrant parents. Subtle in the way it addresses politics, seeing this beautiful Mexican family at work feels like a welcome antidote to the racist fear-mongering that launched a certain presidential campaign and set the tone for his administration. Once again Queer Eye shows us an inclusive America in contrast to the angry one adorned with red caps.
The hero of episode nine, paediatrician Lilly Yi, is also the daughter of immigrants, a first generation Korean American and the first in her family to graduate from college. Her story again touches on the expectations she felt were placed on her by her family growing up and those she now places on herself as an adult. With her husband the stay-at-home parent of the family, Lilly fears she’s missing out on seeing her daughter growing up as she’s about to start a new job. Jonathan offers the insight that one of the reasons that Lilly in her work as a doctor, and the Fab Five themselves, can be so “empathetic and sensitive and help on the level that they can” is down to having experienced bullying growing up. In a poignant moment, many of us queer folks will relate to, he catches himself say that “obviously” he was bullied at school.
The opening of the season finale feels a bit like an episode of the reality show How Clean is Your House? which saw Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie visit Britain’s filthiest homes, as Antoni discovers some seriously out-of-date mouldy items in the fridge and the team marvel at the dust and grime in Nate McIntyre’s living quarters above the gym that he runs. Nate, who happens to be singer Macy Gray’s brother, is concerned by the rapid gentrification of his West Philadelphia neighbourhood (yes, I have The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song in my head now too), and fears his business will be priced out of the community he loves. A musician himself and son of an army drill sergeant, the Fab Five help him rediscover his vigour.
Although Queer Eye adheres to a set format, the life circumstances of each hero is varied enough to allow for a satisfying an all-day ten episode season five binge. But it’s hard not to watch this show without some self-reflection, so you might need to press pause occasionally as you get inspired to clear out that overflowing closet, call that relative you’ve lost touch with or put on a moisturising face mask for some self-care. Once again the Fab Five have delivered hours of uplifting, heart-warming, hopeful TV that makes you feel better about yourself. And if you’re not in a pool of empathetic, cathartic, happy tears by the end of every episode you need to check your pulse.
By James Kleinmann
Queer Eye Season 5 launches on Netflix Friday June 5th 2020. Seasons 1 to 4 are streaming on Netflix now.