This week has been an absolute boon for people looking for a good cry. Over the last five days alone, This Is Us alone has shown the world Jack Pearson’s (Milo Ventimiglia) dead body and his tear-stained funeral. That’s a lot. But, once NBC was done closing out The Great Jack Pearson Death Mystery, Netflix premiered its brand new reboot of Queer Eye For Straight Guy, now shortened to the cleaner Queer Eye, on February 7. The show owes its updated moniker to the fact our new Fab Five no longer limits themselves to making over the heterosexual men of the world. Now, the quintet welcomes gay men as well, and the episode born out of that choice, “To Gay Or Not To Gay,” will make you sob more than any Crock-Pot can.
Friend, the story of A.J. Brown will make you cry and then lift up your weepy soul. It’s a 46-minute journey you deserve to experience.
When we meet 32-year-old A.J., we learn he’s an Atlanta native and civil engineer who’s been living a double life. Among friends, he’s an out and proud gay man with a boyfriend. But, with his step-mom Haide, who seems to be A.J.’s only living relative after his father’s death, he pretends to be a straight guy. Similarly, the engineer avoids his sexuality at all costs at work to avoid, as he says, “looking gay,” or, it’s suggested throughout the episode, feminine. “I’ve been lying to a lot of people,” A.J. admits. So, A.J.’s Queer Eye adventure isn’t merely about fixing up his man cave and updating his wardrobe — it’s about putting his two worlds together and making him whole.
That is what brings us to the single best moment of Queer Eye season 1: A.J. coming out his step-mom. After a few days of preparation, A.J. invites Haide over to see his new digs, post-Fab Five. The rest of A.J.’s loved ones are there, including his boyfriend Drey. When A.J. asks Haide to join him in his bedroom for a Big Conversation, she has no idea she has met her step-son’s partner.
In a rarity for reality TV, the moment doesn’t feel over-produced, or even produced at all. That makes sense, as creator of both versions of Queer Eye, David Collins, explained during a roundtable interview with journalists the production crew completely pulled back for the exchange, leaving the relatives with bare-bones interference. “The cameras were on; they had audio,” Collins said. “We let them go and be them.”
That level of restraint leads to a genuine floodgate of emotions, which starts out intense and then becomes nearly overpowering. First, A.J. reads Haide a letter he actually wrote for his late father. “If what people say is true,” he says at the end, referencing common theories about the afterlife, “then you also know that I am gay.” The terrified way A.J. looks up after saying that sentence will gut you, since it’s clear he truly isn’t sure how this mother figure will react. Is she going to disown him? Storm out? Throw slurs at him? Instead, thankfully, she just smiles.
It looks as though A.J. is going to drown in grief and feelings as he comes to terms with both the fact he’ll never be able to share a similar moment with his dad and how supportive Haide ends up being. Unless A.J. is the greatest actor alive, the image of him cradled in Haide’s arms sobbing and hyperventilating over hiding his sexuality is 200% startlingly real, especially when he hints suicide could have been a possibility if it weren’t for certain loved ones. It’s no wonder the Fab Five is also in tears as they watch the recording of A.J.’s coming out and subsequent joyous emotional rebound upon introducing Haide to Drey.
This entire rollercoaster of emotion works for a lot of reasons, but chief among them is that A.J. is very clearly working through internalised self-criticism for being a gay man of colour. He talks with culture expert Karamo Brown about fears of seeming feminine, needing to put up a “traditional” front, and the knowledge he already has a “strike” against him for being Black. A.J. is obviously terrified to add another strike against himself by living his unapologetic truth.
But, by the end of “To Gay Or Not To Gay” A.J. realises whom he chooses to love and what he chooses to wear isn’t a strike at all — it’s wonderful and worthy of celebration. That’s something he clearly didn’t realise for at least the last seven years, if not his entire life.
As culture pro Brown said of the emotional experience during a New York City interview, “That was really important for us because the journey in the coming out episode is not just for LGBTQI[+] people. It’s for anyone who’s facing fear and anxiety and doesn’t know how to get over that.
“We figured out how to encourage someone to say, 'This is what’s blocking me in life, and this is how I can get over that hurdle.’ I think that’s a universal truth that everyone will be able to apply to their own lives. That’s the beauty of this show.”
That ability is what actually makes this revival shine, as opposed to the very good haircuts and “Voila!” apartment reveals. In a long line of near-constant television reboots, A.J. Brown proves Queer Actually needed to be brought back from the dead.
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