I don’t like reboots. I’ve been burned by too many in the past. They bank on nostalgia and they rarely deliver. So when screeners of Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot, and later, ABC’s Roseanne revival, hit my inbox earlier this year, I spitefully ignored them. As a writer tasked with the impossible job of covering quality TV in 2018 — a year in which Netflix alone is churning out 18 new original series – anytime I see a network reanimating the corpse of an old TV series, I die a little inside.
And there’s no nostalgia to hook me to either series. As a seven-year-old when Roseanne ended and a teenager when the original Queer Eye aired, I doubt I was either series’ intended audience. In fact, I’m probably not the intended audience even now.
Both Queer Eye and Roseanne returned to TV earlier this year with a surprisingly similar goal: to unite people. They hoped to do that by marketing themselves to, who else, Trump voters? The show purposefully set up shop in a red state, moving from the liberal elite bubble of New York City to Georgia and the subjects it chose — a MAGA-supporting police officer, a devout Christian father, and a self-professed redneck who liked fixing up old cars and smoking cigarettes in his La-Z-Boy — represented archetypal Republican voters. Of course, one show is more overt in its political leanings with the star of Roseanne tweeting her support of the current political administration when she’s not subscribing to weird conspiracy theories and making poorly thought-out Hitler jokes, but both Queer Eye and Roseanne want to mend fences, to open people’s minds and make them feel more comfortable with a society that’s quickly changing and reinventing itself. No one seems more in need of that kind of solace more than middle-class white America.
But if both shows are hoping to bridge the cultural divide with their content, only one has succeeded so far.
For Queer Eye, a reality makeover series that follows a group of gay men trekking down to Atlanta to help some real, salt-of-the-earth types get their lives together, the purpose is in the promos. Bobby, a truly gifted interior designer; Tan, a fashionable and fun-loving British stylist with perfectly coiffed hair; Karamo, a smooth and sage life coach; Antoni, the sexiest Polish-Canadian chef you’ll ever see make a bowl of four-ingredient guacamole; and Jonathan, the groomer of the group, a precious cinnamon roll who doubles as the show’s funny bone, each share their respective gifts with complete strangers in the name of acceptance for their community.
As Tan confidently points out in the trailer for the show, the original series was about inclusivity, but this modern-update goes a step further to fight for tolerance.
This is reality TV, which means everything is viewed with a practiced shine that can dull the edges of that pointed statement. The boys are often put in uncomfortable situations in which they’re forced to build bridges between themselves and the men they’re making over. Sometimes that comes across as lighthearted and instructional, like when Bobby and Jonathan explain to Tom, a 50-something man sporting a bedraggled beard and jorts for most of the episode, that questioning which one is “the woman” when two men get married is sexist and ignorant of evolving gender norms. Sometimes it’s more difficult to watch.
A short chat between Karamo and Cory, the police officer in need of a life touch-up, about the problem of police brutality that’s driven almost entirely by Karamo working to understand and listen to Cory’s side feels particularly insulting and a tad cringeworthy. Here was Karamo, a black man, working to make a white police officer feel better about himself even as he struggled to convey his basic point — that officers shouldn’t use excessive force to target a specific race of people — to the reluctant Cory.
But even when these more solemn, heartfelt moments meant to enlighten both the men they’re helping and the audience that’s watching seem staged and off-balance — it’s about time that marginalized communities aren’t expected to shoulder the burden of opening the minds of willfully ignorant people — the sincerity behind them and the guys’ intent is never in question. Whether I’m watching Jonathan parade around in rompers and channel Beyoncé, Tan joke about his Pakistani heritage and share his love for a good print, fawning over Antoni making a ridiculously simple dish, envying Bobby who can create magic out of a messy, run-down space, or writing down life advice from Karamo, I never feel like these guys are anything less than what they claim to be. They’re doing this show to put some good out in the world and they’re putting themselves on the line, crossing thresholds into conservative Christian homes, palling around with police officers, and sharing their own intimate journeys with complete strangers to help them come out of closets, pursue their dreams, and find purpose in life.
After capitulating and watching Queer Eye, I thought maybe my aversion to reboots was misguided and misinformed. Maybe I was missing out on another truly great revival? Maybe I was the willfully ignorant one? So I decided to challenge myself and tune into the first few episodes of the new Roseanne series and it made me realize something: when it comes to reboots and shows that claim to stand for that feel-good word like “inclusiveness,” “acceptance,” and “unity,” Queer Eye is the exception, not the rule.
In fact, for as much as Roseanne professes to be a voice for blue-collar America, it’s doing a disservice to its core base. That’s because, unlike Queer Eye — which puts its cast in uncomfortable situations to teach and learn from those unlike themselves, hoping to impart some helpful wisdom to viewers who aren’t exposed to diversity in their daily lives — Roseanne glories in its conscious segregation.
From its poorly worded promo which touted its stars as “the family that looks like us” to its intentionally divisive jokes about network series featuring predominately black and Asian casts, and its poor treatment of beloved characters like Jackie (the too-good-for-this-shit Laurie Metcalf), Dan (John Goodman) and Roseanne herself, the show seems to be committed to derailing its history of treading socially and politically contentious waters with care and, more importantly, with something to say.
Unlike Queer Eye, a show that strives to paint everyone in a favorable light to cultivate good will and gently ease its audience into more prickly situations without scaring them off before the lesson’s learned, Roseanne has no qualms with leaning into the eye=rolling simple us-vs-them narrative. It likes to paint Jackie, a pussy-hat wearing feminist and liberal as a woman off-her-rocker, one that cluelessly spouts regurgitated lingo from the left only to be met with her sister’s droll takedowns that successfully show how uninformed and wrong her “side” is. And it’s not just politics that Roseanne uses to forge a rift amongst viewers. A particularly cringeworthy episode about Roseanne’s young, gender non-conforming grandson begins with Roseanne and Dan warning the boy about the dangers of wearing bright colors, skirts, and other, less manly fashion before ultimately deciding to support his choice by intimidating his classmates and having a heart-to-heart with the kid about the criticism he’ll face while staying true to himself. It’s not the best way to handle the situation, but it feels like a realistic model many conservative-leaning parents might take if they were put in the same position. Yet all of that work goes to waste when the episode ends with the kid learning to protect himself from bullies by exploiting their own weaknesses. Who knew watching kids threaten their peers with peanut allergies could be so funny?
I’m under no illusion that the people watching Roseanne and the people watching Queer Eye are of the same stock. As hard as the Fab Five have worked to appeal to the bigoted and privileged, they’ve probably built a fandom of people more like myself – younger audiences unfamiliar with their predecessors who view Queer Eye as refreshingly revolutionary and positive for reality TV, who find heart and hope in the show. Maybe, if Queer Eye is to believed, all men aren’t trash, toxic masculinity won’t ruin society, people can be reformed, their opinions can change, their hearts can grow. And I suspect Roseanne’s audience will stay loyal even if that loyalty means buying into a narrative that only widens the gulf between us.
I’m going to take a page from Bobby, Jonathan, Karamo, Antoni, and Tan’s book and extend an olive branch by admitting the ways in which both shows are the same — their belief in their respective ideologies, their commitment to their fanbase and their goal of unifying people by presenting a portrait of America not often seen on TV — before I pull a Roseanne and declare that one is unequivocally better than the other because it doesn’t pander to people who happily describe themselves as deplorables or demean and dehumanize those who are different from them.
In the age of Trump, in the age of Peak TV, and in the age of reboots, we need more shows like Queer Eye — ones pushing the envelope to bring audiences together that hook you with sincerity, humor, and a worthwhile message — not crusty old sitcoms happy to stir up controversy while staying stuck in the past.