It is easy to forget that, once upon a time, before the current content glut, before Queer Eye and RuPaul’s Drag Race and even before that one time on Thirtysomething when two guys had their shirts off in bed, there were approximately two gay men who regularly appeared on American television, and the joke was that they were never allowed to tell us. Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde sat at the top right and center of two popular game shows, pitching swishy one-liners and innuendos across the bow of a venerable format. They were, with rare exception, the most engaging raconteurs on their respective programs, Match Game and Hollywood Squares.
Today, we might call this “queering” — the application of a certain outré sensibility to an object or experience that is premised in some measure on the exclusion of that sensibility. In Gerald Ford’s America, however, queer was only an adjective, or when sneered, a noun, one that meant a person who was unwelcome. Particularly unwelcome on 1970s television were homosexuality and wit — Three’s Company’s conceit was that Jack was not, in fact, gay, and farce did not, in fact, need to be clever — and yet Reilly and Lynde proved to be two of the busiest actors on the small screen. Set against the vapidity of network programming, their unabashed nancing sparkled like water in the desert:
Brett Somers, the middle-aged woman who was Reilly’s usual seatmate on Match Game, wearing a dowdy velvet dress and gasping in mock disdain at his leisure wear: “Charles isn’t wearing any socks!”
Charles, looking directly into the camera: “Oh, we want to thank Shirley Temple for the use of her dress from Fairy Tale Stories.”
The thrill was partly aesthetic — Reilly typically sported an ascot, a sailor’s hat, and oversized glasses — but it derived also from the tension homosexuality elicited. Many of Lynde’s jokes depended on the implicit association of his manner with the fact that he fucked men and, moreover, the notion that fucking men was dangerous and exciting:
Peter Marshall, the host of Hollywood Squares: “According to The World Book, what’s the main thing we get from Honduras?”
Lynde: “You got it too?”
Just outside the frame of the television, simultaneously invited in and kept at bay by the bitterness that attended both men, was a lively nighttime world of furtive passes, cigarette holders, gossip, banter, gin, flirting, hangovers, excess. In a word, queerness.
How might one describe the queer that Netflix has been bringing to our homes? Queer Eye, the sixth season of which premiered on New Year’s Eve, is capacious in its conception of itself. It is a makeover show, a reality show, a longform advertisement for therapy and jade rollers, and, as it liked to remind viewers with commercials and billboards centered on tissue boxes, a tearjerker. Its primary ethic is the banishment of shame. Our hosts, dauntless gazelle Jonathan, gamine Tan, diligent Bobby, kindly Karamo, and physically present Antoni, are powerfully considerate, supportive, and sensitive. They reflect confidence back at their guests, affirming each one’s dignity and worth and refusing to countenance self-hatred. The message of the show is that everyone possesses beauty, and while there are forces at work in the world that conspire to keep us feeling ashamed or worthless, by adopting a kind of spiritual routine of love we can find our inner light. “Even when you’ve been through something hard, never stop growing,” Karamo counsels a fifty-eight-year-old woman anxious about her aging body.
Queer Eye’s primary ethic is the banishment of shame.
Queer Eye’s original incarnation, which ran on Bravo from 2003 until 2007, carried with it a prepositional phrase that defined a simple category of contestant: the straight guy, for whom the queer eye was. These panache-less men were whisked from commercial break to commercial break by the founding fabulous five, who explained exfoliation and bought hampers and built shelves in New York apartments. The idea was to introduce modest standards of hygiene and taste to a generation of men raised on television like Home Improvement, which had depicted products like moisturizer as prissy vanity. The straights were bewildered at being touched but otherwise grateful.
In the reboot, which turns its gaze upon all sexualities and genders, the quintet spends each week endeavoring to help a struggling American out of some quintessentially American plight: a high school music teacher who works long hours to sustain an underfunded arts program, a doctor who works long hours to sustain an underfunded public health clinic, or a father of six who works two jobs to support his family.
The queers take turns zhuzhing up, as they frequently say, the week’s guest. Tan is a deft hand, assiduously guiding his self-conscious charges to the right shoes for their ankles, the right dress for their waists, all the while firmly insisting that they look stunning. Jonathan’s relentless positivity short-circuits insecurity, and, periodically, gruff men will confess that while they were initially put off by his gender-bending, they have grown to appreciate the value of personal grooming. Karamo’s social work can feel like genre plotting — reuniting an estranged father with his children or planning a romantic date for a couple who have been drifting apart — but he is insightful and calming, his bearing patient. Bobby channels the show’s budget, distributing the real prizes and effecting permanent change: a new garden, a new teachers’ lounge, a new house. And to be fair to Antoni, who is supposed to be teaching everyone how to cook, when the show expanded its remit beyond immature straight men, it started casting people who already knew their way around a kitchen, often rendering his work unnecessary. He does look great with his shirt off, as we are reminded in a non sequitur shot of him shampooing a dog on a lawn.
The contestants are sympathetic, charitable people who have trouble drawing boundaries. They take in hundreds of disabled animals, build a Covid clinic from scratch, or start a foundation for the homeless. Their dedication to their communities leaves little time for peace; one gets the sense that their compassion has induced a kind of mania, every day a return to the triage ward. “If I could just take a moment to not be sad about people or animals that are hurting or being ignored,” frets Jamie, a mother of three who runs Safe in Austin, the home for disabled animals, which also doubles as a therapy program for children who have difficulty socializing. “That’s the hardest part, I think, not being able to not care for, like, a second.” She is inundated, by the obligations of her family, by the thought that every animal she is unable to house will be killed, by the million small tragedies of the world. When Bobby unveils the barn that he and some contractors have built for her, it is quite affecting. She breaks down in tears — all her hard work, stress, and anxiety have been worth it (“she’ll give a kidney to get a barn,” her mother not untruthfully observes in the episode’s introduction), and she will be able to continue her mission of care without having to give her living room over to a pig.
On these terms, Queer Eye is something of a marvel. One could object that the show is a kind of neoliberal fantasy, papering over systemic problems with heartwarming stories about do-gooders getting their just reward, but this is too cynical by half. Streaming television is not public policy, it is content designed to keep viewers watching. Far from inspiring collective action, one could at best expect a Netflix program to model care work, which happens to be part of Queer Eye’s vision of itself. Consider the parable of the child throwing individual starfish back into the ocean, defying the adult who insists that she can’t possibly save them all. It must be said that these queers — and Netflix’s money — have rescued some people, bringing them kindness, love, and money when they were beached on the lonely shores of American poverty and indifference.
In the second episode of the sixth season, we meet Angel Flores, a twenty-two-year-old weightlifter who was rejected by her father after coming out as a trans woman. She has struggled to feel fully embodied as a woman, rarely going anywhere other than the gym and home and never expanding her wardrobe beyond athleisure. Karamo, Jonathan, Tan, Bobby, and Antoni’s ministrations coax her out of her shell until she’s pirouetting excitedly in a dress, and a tearful reunion with her father seems to indicate that the Queer Eye intervention has had more than a superficial effect. “I had an amazing privilege to have amazing people come into my life and teach me like, ‘You are beautiful,’” Angel said, nearly a year after her episode was filmed. “I just wish that every single trans woman out there could hear that just like I did.” This is a mournful wish: millions of people who need to be shown love and given care — and a wardrobe and a clean home — will instead dry out like so many starfish.
The thought is infuriating, all the hurt that gets needlessly doled out. On TV, though, no one betrays any anger. Angel’s estrangement from her father has lasted for a year because, he has explained, he is afraid to even look at his daughter. It is clear that she is wounded, but the safe, telegenic affects of sorrow and catharsis are all we see: at their reunion, they cry and hug. This is not to say that the reunion isn’t genuine or the tears it draws don’t have a source in reality, but that there is another wellspring of reality where emotions like anger, dread, spite, despair, and pity bubble up, and it is an ugly swamp with ugly faces, unsuitable for television. Some other unwelcome uglinesses include any kind of confrontation with racism, such as might be exhibited by an otherwise sympathetic contestant; PTSD, which might account for why an adult man prefers living in a windowless trailer; or an acknowledgment of a homophobia so entrenched in a small town that American parents would choose to keep their children off of television rather than be associated with a gay celebrity. In fact, aside from the inexplicable shot of shirtless Antoni, Queer Eye avoids any queer desire stronger than the one for blonde highlights. This is a show in which, asked by a grandfather to define “zaddy,” our bashful hosts limit themselves to the tautological “it’s a sexier version of daddy.”
It would astound Paul Lynde that the box of tissues used to market a television show starring five queers was intended to suggest only the jerking of tears. It would not surprise him to know that there are still pockets of American television where same-sex desire is kept safely offscreen, and he wouldn’t even need to be told that what’s really sustaining the whole operation is good old acquisitiveness. Because at bottom, for all its mantras about self-care and confidence, Queer Eye is essentially a well-concealed specimen of the game show, elevating people onto the television stage, flattering them, and leaving them with a bevy of prizes. In some cases this has had a lasting effect on the recipients, but care work is more than just learning how to love yourself; it’s an ongoing process, shameful feelings and ugly warts and all. In the end, the Fab Five sweep the contestants off their feet and make great emotional investments, only to leave after a week when things start to look serious. It’s a bit like dating a gay man.
Angel beams in her dress, Jamie’s animals sleep out of the rain, some starfish return to the ocean, and every now and then lonely people get to spend a night out.
Much like those seeking the Fab Five’s help, Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde came from modest backgrounds and familial tragedy. Reilly’s father withdrew into alcoholism and poverty after his wife — who needed to care for her elderly parents and recently lobotomized sister — made him turn down an offer from a young Walt Disney to move west and start an animation studio, while Lynde’s older brother and both of his parents all died in the span of five years.
Despite studying with Uta Hagen and winning a Tony in 1962, Reilly was brusquely informed by an NBC executive that queers would never be on television. He made it to the small screen but spent much of his career winking and nudging, hamming it up on the sidelines while his classmates from Hagen’s Studio went on to win dozens of Oscars. In 2000, he began touring a one-man show about his remarkable life, Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly. By that time, he hadn’t been a television regular in at least ten years and was occasionally greeted in grocery stores with “I thought you were dead.” The show’s coda opens with the gentle sound of waves and a title card: “Epilogue: Talking to a pelican on the beach at Burt Reynolds’ house.” Reilly, who had for a time in the 1980s and 1990s taught acting at The Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Theater in North Palm Beach, Florida, was staying at Reynolds’s beach house when he heard a squawking pelican, which had become tangled in fishing line on the shore. He races out and sets the bloodied bird free, but when he tries to guide it back into the ocean, it refuses to move. The pelican frantically flaps its wings and seems, to Reilly, to be indicating something. “You can’t take off from the sand!” he realizes. “So if we wait, the tide will come in and go under you, and the tide will take you out. He told me that.... So, we’ll just wait for the tide.” Reilly takes a beat and then materializes a glass of whiskey. Surveying the imaginary pelican on stage, while the sound of waves washes around the two of them, he deadpans, “My father knew Walt Disney.”
Daniel Drake is an editor of The New York Review of Books.