"Queer Eye" is terrific television

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  July 16, 2003 at 1:23 PM
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LOS ANGELES, July 16 (UPI) -- Let's get something straight, so to speak: Bravo's two new gay-themed programs - the makeover show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," which began this week, and the six-episode reality dating series "Boy Meets Boy," premiering July 29 - don't mean the cable network is now officially aimed at the gay audience.

"Absolutely not!" Bravo president said last week at the network's news conference in Hollywood. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

But Bravo is making something of an out-of-the-closet rebranding effort with its one-two gay programming punch this summer. Since one's a hit and one's a miss, let's get the bad news out of the way first.

About "Boy Meets Boy"... Oh, Mary, don't ask. From the "Bachelor"-inspired premise - 15 potential male mates vie for the hand of handsome, shy, human resources manager James - I was hoping for at least a hint of "Boys In the Band" bitchiness.

Alas, "Boys In the Bland" is more like it. Because the twist here is that some of the contestants are actually straight, which James doesn't know and isn't supposed to be able to guess. So the contestants could all (pretty much) pass for straight.

And since men, unlike women, don't hear their biological clocks ticking, "Boy Meets Boy" lacks the crazed, "Fatal Attraction"-like histrionics ("I can see the picket fence! I can see him coaching the soccer team!") that made ABC's "The Bachelor" so compelling.

Instead we have hugging and, I am sorry to say, learning. "I learned that you can't tell who's gay and who isn't, and it really doesn't matter," says one "Boy Meets Boy" contestant. "Love everyone for what they are."

Well, it matters if you're looking for a date, you idiot.

"Queer Eye," on the other hand, is a delight - by far the best TV I've seen this summer. And the "Fab Five" that descend upon some straight slob each week to redesign his entire lifestyle - fashion maven Carson Kressley, grooming guide Kyan Douglas, dining expert Ted Allen, social advisor Jai Rodriguez and interior designer Thom Filicia - are all flamboyantly fabulous and proud of it.

"We're really gay," Kressley assured reporters. "I know that's hard to believe."

Kressley, who has the looks and sarcastic manner of David Spade, is a former Ralph Lauren stylist and designer who also was once on the U.S. World Cup Equestrian Team. His horsemanship background probably helps with the "Queer Eye" makovers, as the only way to deal with creatures-of-habit who'd naturally rather be munching hay in the barn than doing fancy dressage steps is by taking the reins firmly in hand.

"You never wanna match your denims," Kressley instructs aspiring artist Butch in the first episode, removing Butch's clothes from the closet with tongs. "It makes you look like some crazy farmer."

Butch works on stage scenery crews and needs a new look for social situations. As Kressley scolds: "That whole Mr. Green Jeans going to 'Hee-Haw' look is fine for work, but.."

Although clearly a nice guy, Butch - like too many bachelors - has an apartment so jumbled and untidy it could be the lair of a serial killer.

"Looks like Butch's special friend is a bed-wetter," Kressley says, grimly observing a stained mattress. "OK, if you weren't here to represent yourself, I'd say, let's call the police - we found him."

Other team members tend to be slightly more tactful. "You know, when the red wine gets dusty," suggests food advisor Ted Allen, holding up a bottle with an inch of dregs remaining, "it's time to get rid of it."

At its core, though, "Queer Eye" has a lot of heart - as well as energy, optimism and boundless good cheer. The show is clearly inspired by the success of the BBC's fashion makeover show for women, "What Not to Wear," but realizes that men often need style advice that extends beyond their wardrobe.

"People are gonna say, 'How are you doing?'" Kressley advises Butch, who's getting ready for a gallery opening of his artwork. "And then YOU say, 'Super! Thanks for asking!' That's what I always say."

A thumbnail description of "Queer Eye" as a gay "What Not to Wear," though, may not be entirely accurate, because that show had instrinsic camp elements that made the translation to "Queer Eye" probably inevitable. I suspect, in fact, that the governessy Trini and Susannah of the BBC show are already standard personae in drag clubs.

But like the "What Not to Wear" gals, the "Queer Eye" team is obviously deeply sincere about wanting to improving its subjects' lives - who for their part know a change is due but are clueless about how to achieve it. As Kressley put it: "Sometimes people need an intervention."

They end up deeply appreciative. "Some of the guys have welled up when we're leaving," noted Jai Rodriguez. "It's really kind of shocking to us."

One subject, an Italian-American policeman from Staten Island, started out rather homophobic. "But at the end, he was so grateful he gave each one of us Fraternal Order of Police cards to get out of jail free if we get pulled over," said Ted Allen.

All this becomes more apparent by the second episode, when the Fab Five invade the home of Adam, a sweet but completely unkempt family man who has forgotten his wife's birthday two years in a row.

"Oh, thank God!" exclaims Adam's wife Karen as the "Queer Eye" team invade the couple's home in what they term the initial "shock-and-awe" phase of the operation.

But she's culpable, too. Adam may have a monobrow and five-day beard growth and store his shoes under a pile of sweaters on the floor of his closet, but Karen has allowed the living room to be taken over by their kids' plastic jungle gyms.

"Karen, they make these for OUTSIDE," the guys instruct her firmly.

This segment makes a good case that sometimes the gay sensibility can be family-values friendly. You get a sense, in fact, that "Queer Eye" may have even saved a straight marriage.

"Look at her," Kressley observes in satisfaction at the end of the episode, after Adam has (with the team's help) organized a surprise party for his wife and presented her with a pair of pearl earrings. "She's a darling, darling wife."

In just a few days, the team transformed Adam's and Karen's house from a sty into a stylish nest. Mostly this was just by rearranging existing furniture, some clever use of paint, and discovering items the couple were too disorganized to realize they owned.

"I was actually unwrapping some of their wedding presents," interior designer Thom Filicia said. "And they were so thrilled to see them."

Will they keep it up? Maybe not entirely. Still, "Queer Eye" makes a strong argument that people can become prisoners of their own inertia and need help to see past the schlumpy clutter to the possibility of a better life.

"Some of the best things are when we meet a guy, and he says, 'Oh, my God, I didn't even know this existed,'" said social advisor Jai Rodriguez, at the Bravo news conference.

"They're like, 'Wow, Windex - who'd have thought?'" added dining expert Ted Allen.

Kressley dealt briskly and tartly with any notion that the show might traffic in prejudices. One questioner asked if "Queer Eye" didn't reinforce every gay stereotype imaginable.

"Well, not EVERY one," interrupted Kressley. "'Cause we don't have a florist."

And to the possibly perjorative connotations of the word "queer," Allen noted that when he was volunteering at a gay youth organization, he found that "the new generation of gay kids prefers the word 'queer,' because it's intended to be reclaimed from negative use in the bad old days."

"And snaps to you for your volunteer work!" Kressley added.

What's the biggest style disaster the "Queer Eye" team has encountered?

"Feet shaving - not good," said Rodriguez.

"Enormous amounts of porn, right out there on the coffee table," said Allen.

"A lot of guys are afraid of fashion," Kressley said. "My mantra is, shop around. If you find it boring, find other ways to make it fun. Maybe bring a six-pack along, or a friend."

"An overriding theme is that guys don't tend to develop their own personal sense of style," he added. "They have a favorite ball team, but they don't have a favorite designer. It's crazy!"

"But in the end, the result is so great, and the guys are so grateful," he concluded. "We wind up with a guy who has an increased sense of confidence, looks better and feels better. And I know about hockey now."

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