Here's a sad but important truth: You have to be of a certain age to truly understand what's going on in the popular culture. See, things go around and come around again.
Some readers will not remember this – 15 years ago a certain TV show, and a reality show to boot, caused a sensation. A very positive sensation. A benign, beautifully mixed cocktail of style, fun, friendship and assistance. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy launched on the Bravo channel in the United States and quickly became the most talked-about series of the time. Five gay guys – the Fab Five – descended on some hopeless fella and helped him get his act together. How to dress, how to shave, how to furnish your home, how to dine out, or how to host a dinner. What to do to just be, you know, a put-together guy.
The series was many things to many people but it was, apart from being fun, a cultural shift, an advancement of tolerance and an acknowledgment that gay culture was mainstream and benevolent. One of the truly memorable aspects of it was the sheer gratitude of so many straight men after being schooled in how to be a more polished, debonair person. It was a beautiful thing.
Queer Eye (streams on Netflix starting Wednesday) is back in a new iteration. It's fun, too, and, shockingly, as important as ever. One of the new Fab Five, Antoni Porowski, who is originally from Montreal, told Variety, "Helping people is never going to get old." But, once again, this is way more than a makeover show. It's significant that the title has been shortened to just Queer Eye and it's very significant that the first batch of episodes are set mainly in rural Georgia, and focus is on the men of what the show calls, "the Red State Deep South."
This is Trump country. This is a place where the original series, set mainly in New York City, probably had no impact at all. There are many lessons to be learned in this new iteration and not all of them are about good-fitting jeans, grooming and eating sensibly.
The new Fab Five are Porowski (food and wine), Bobby Berk (interior design), Karamo Brown (culture), Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) and Tan France (fashion). They are all TV-savvy and ostentatiously cheerful about their mission. But prudent about the necessary part of their mission that involves explaining not just who they are, but what they represent. On the evidence of the first there episodes, this version is raucous and playful, and at times a deep reveal, a reflection and refraction of the culture in which they are now operating.
Regrettably there is no Carson Kressley from the original series, whose put-downs were amiably hilarious. On one show he asked the makeover subject where he'd bought some stuff. The guy answered, "Kmart" and Carson replied, "Don't use that kind of language around me!" It was also Carson who spoke the truth about the show: "We're not here to change you, we're here to make you better." In this version all of them are aspiring Carsons.
In the opening episode the guys visit a good ol' boy named Tom, a single, much-married chap who has sunk into a despondency of sorts. He describes his routine as, "I go to work, I come home, I make myself a redneck margarita, light a cigarette, sit outside and watch the TV through the door. It's my favourite thing to do." In truth, he has no self-esteem. "I'm butt ugly," he says. "You can't fix butt ugly." He isn't of course. There's more to him than that.
In terms of gazing at the cultural divide in the United States, the most powerful episode is the third. The subject for a makeover is police officer Cory, a proud Trump supporter whose mind-set and biases are as lazily accumulated as his clothes. After taking Cory to buy a suit, Karamo Brown, who is black, gently explains to Cory what it means to be a black man dealing with a police officer. He tells Cory that his own son didn't want to get a driver's licence because he feared being pulled over and shot by the police. Cory is moved to explain what faces him in his daily life, when others see him as a boiler-plate prejudiced, trigger-happy cop, not as an individual.
Queer Eye is making a very welcome return. It's fun and occasionally a little fraught, as is so much in the culture these days. It won't solve much, but every little bit helps.
Back when the original was winning Emmy Awards and pulling in more than three million viewers on cable, the Fab Five did a stunt in which they attempted a makeover of Jay Leno, then hosting The Tonight Show. By way of research, I asked the sharpest gay man I knew in the Globe building about the likelihood the Queer Eye crew would be able to make Leno over into someone halfway presentable. His response: "They're just gay men, not miracle workers."