In a '60s play about racism, an aspiringly progressive mother tells her daughter she should love racial minorities because they were put on Earth to make it more beautiful for white people. Something like that patronizing mentality may be at work in "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a new series premiering on Bravo tonight, only now it's heterosexuals appreciating homosexuals because they do so much to pretty up the planet.
Forced to choose between scorn and condescension, gay people could hardly be blamed for preferring the latter -- and thus might not object to the stereotypes on parade in the series, which each week dispatches five New York gay men to rescue some poor, style-starved straight person at a crossroads in his life. One can hope the series, debuting at 10 tonight with another hour-long episode at 11 (this week only), will prove to be as harmless as it is frivolous.
We meet the five gay lads (license plate: FAB5, on a black SUV, of course) in the opening credits. Kyan handles grooming, Ted takes care of "food and wine," Jai advises on "culture," Thom supervises interior design, and Carson, the most outgoing and arguably most obnoxious of the group, is the fashion consultant, though he tends to dictate more than consult. Their first assignment: Brian "Butch" Schepel, a likably shaggy part-time artist and full-time builder of props and scenery for Broadway and off-Broadway plays. His first-ever showing at a gallery is coming up, and the boys descend upon his cramped apartment, which probably costs him a bundle in mad Manhattan, to chic him up.
"We're not going to change you, we're going to make you better," one of the Fab 5 explains. They roam through his flat -- to the degree that roaming in a shoebox is possible -- pronouncing this "disgusting" and that "ugly." His bed is derided as "prisonlike," and they don't care for his baggy boxer shorts either. Schepel appears only slightly ill at ease during the initial encounter. It isn't likely the quintet will be called into the service of any homophobes; a decal on Schepel's front door says "Mean People Suck."
Carefully interwoven with all the advice that is dispensed and all the catty quips that are proffered are plugs for innumerable fashionable products and the fashionable venues where one can acquire them; there's always the omnipresent Internet, of course, for non-New Yorkers to explore. The program seems very merchandising-minded. It may be more significant in its product-placement gestures than in consciousness-raising on behalf of homosexuals. Then again, if consciousness is raised, even as a byproduct of sales-pitching, that might be considered some sort of social victory.
Obviously TV has come a long way from times when gays were either being invisible or portrayed in cliched and melodramatic terms; then there was a period of discovery, or whatever, when it seemed that the only well-adjusted adults in dramas or sitcoms were gay, because seemingly every show was careful to include a positive gay role model among its dramatis personae. The word "queer" itself has gone from detested epithet to a slang term embraced by homosexual groups themselves, thus essentially taking away its sting.
One feels an obligation to provide some sort of context when talking about a show called "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," but the fact is, the program has no particular claim on words like "milestone" or "turning point." And to that charge, the producers may justifiably respond with "So what?" All they're doing is having a little fun, they might say, and passing along some lifestyle-improvement tips generously seasoned with outright commercial plugs.
At a salon called Dop Dop, Schepel loses the long hair he's been growing for nine years. The sheared-off tresses will be donated to Locks of Love, a group that gives hair to "sick kids," we are dutifully informed. The artist also has his eyebrows dyed by the beautician because, she says, eyebrows darker than one's hair color draw more attention to one's eyes. And then there's this: Remember to apply styling products from the back to the front. Says Kyan on beholding the new Butch: "For me, now, it's actually, like, 'Wow.' "
Sunless tanning is next, then a trip to a fashionable jeans store for some fashionable pants. Here we learn another valuable lesson: When wearing a denim jacket with jeans, make sure the two denims are contrasting, not the same, because otherwise you run the hellacious risk of appearing tacky.
In the last segment of the show, the five masterminds sit around watching videotape of Schepel as he tries to apply what they have taught him, even to the point of cooking up flat-bread pizzas to be served at the gallery, though he is assured they will be delivered to the party site by trained professionals. Carson is happy with Schepel's sartorial choices: "He's wearing the old-fashioned wing-tip for a vintage flair, with no socks -- which is the only way to go." But of course!
Having earlier been assured he now looks "incredible," "amazing," "awesome" and, most important of all, "cool," the artist hears the same prepackaged compliments mouthed by friends and guests at the gallery event. One young man, who has the kind of long hair Schepel had about 24 hours earlier, proposes a toast: "Incredible. This is really unbelievable," he says. "This is incredible."
Finally, the fivesome deliver still more fashion tips directly to the camera and thereby to all of us unreconstructed slobs at home. Carson declares, "Clothes may make the man, but accessories make the man fabulous." On the second episode, the five busybodies will come to the aid of a Long Island businessman who forgot his wife's birthday and now wants to throw her a surprise party. Bravo included the episode on the preview tape sent to critics, but you'll have to forgive me -- I just couldn't stand the thought of spending one more minute with these wacky lads. Not so soon, anyway.
In Mart Crowley's breakthrough play "The Boys in the Band," a particularly effeminate character remarks, "Oh, Mary. It takes a fairy to make something pretty." In some circles, that play is now considered hopelessly reactionary. And yet that line sounds as if it might have come from "Queer Eye for a Straight Guy" -- except that "fairy" is no longer an acceptable term. Things change -- or do they?