There's a certain vibe that's built into the DNA of all makeover shows -- even one as culturally significant as Queer Eye For The Straight Guy-- that sings with the type of undefeatable optimism can only come from an army of professionals who specialize in happy endings. The engineered glossy glow is what fans come for: the drama is internal; the journey, a neatly wrapped 50-minute path to self-acceptance and discovery. When Netflix announced a reboot of the iconic series that mainstreamed palatable queer (read: white passing and cisgendered male) aesthetics, no one had any reason to guess that the aptly shortened Queer Eye would open up conversations around police brutality and offer up one of the most cathartic moments of television in 2018.
"Dega Don't" starts off like every other episode of Queer Eye. The new roster of hosts, which include two people of color, are driving to surprise their nominee, a cop named Cory. Karamo Brown, the host specializing in culture, is driving when police sirens start up behind them. While cracking jokes to ease his obvious and immediate tension, the father of two pulls over. Brown, a queer black man, waits for a familiar scenario unfold.
The cop asks for his license, which Brown doesn't have. ("We have follow cars that the producers are in behind us, and we drop our stuff with them.") The cop asks for Brown to step out of the car to a chorus of protests from Brown's cohosts Tan France, Jonathan van Ness, Antoni Porowski, Bobby Berk. The cop still hasn't clarified why Brown was pulled over despite repeated requests. The cop instead asks for more information about the show Brown said they were filming. The cop then reveals his name is Henry, the best friend (and nominator) of the episode's star Cory.
The literal screams of delight when Brown and his cohosts know they're out of danger and the light-hearted Queer Eye won't be turning into UnReal Season 2 or worse, a segment on the nightly news, provide a palpable release of tension. The sheer relief is so overwhelming that it's not till the end of the episode during which Cory and Karamo have a long, ultimately positive discussion about why black people fear the police in America that you ask yourself, how manufactured was this happy ending? According to Brown and producer David Collins, the fact that Brown ended up behind the wheel for this intro was freakish coincidence -- one of the few unengineered moments in a show that otherwise sticks to the reality script.
"Every morning that we started a new episode, the guys would do Rock, Paper, Scissors and try to buck up to see who got to drive," said Collins in a call with TV Guide. The producer's only role in this morning routine was to make sure the same person doesn't end up behind the wheel too often so the episodes don't feel repetitive.
"The guys and I in the morning, we actually all physically fight for who gets the keys," Brown added. "Sometimes we're driving for two hours, and so if you're in the driver's seat you are definitely gonna be awake and control of the radio. That morning I was adamant that I wanted it, not knowing that [getting pulled over] was going to the part of the show." Unbeknownst to him, Henry and Cory's other friends at the precinct had gleefully signed up to play a little trick with the help of producers.
Queer Eye producer Collins said that what started out as an innocent prank ended up becoming a bigger creative risk for the show than anticipated. As two individuals living entirely different experiences, Brown and Henry (and later in the episode, Cory) became a living example of the big, sometimes uncomfortable conversation about law enforcement and people of color -- conversations that sometimes get boiled down to angry rhetoric on both sides.
"My fear was, 'Who's gonna come to our rescue right now?'" said Brown. "How is it gonna happen, because I'm terrified of what [Henry's] gonna do when he sees me, when he sees Tan. Brown "felt scared," despite the fact that there were producers nearby. "It speaks to the fact that no matter how I identify, me being a black man always comes first," said Brown.
Immediately after Henry's reveal, Brown asked him if he "had to be such an ass" at the window. Henry's response gave Brown a new perspective. "I'm not giving any passes to anyone, of course. Any police officer, especially no white police officers, but what I will say, is that it opened my eyes a little bit to understanding that they're scared as when they come up [to the window]," said Brown. "When you are that guy, you put on this bravado. And so Henry's mindset was like, 'I have to get into the mode. I can't be my natural self because my natural self may allow someone to act in a way that would make me not go home to my family.'"
That conversation left Brown in a position few people of color find themselves in, in 2018: with an understanding of how to open a dialogue with someone in power who seems diametrically opposed to you. Later in the episode Brown and a mid-makeover Cory are driving back from Atlanta and have a shockingly ernest talk about Brown's fear of the police. "It was the first time that in the past three years especially that I've heard a cop say, 'I am so sorry,'" said Brown.
"I heard one finally say, 'You're right. There are some really bad ones, but there are some good ones...that accountability was powerful for me," said Brown. Brown's hope is, the next time a police officer or Trump supporter engages with someone discussing why black lives matter, they'll think about this moment and remember what they heard from one of their own.
"I'm also hoping that people of color will take a moment just to say, 'You know what? I know that I have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and I feel triggered in these moments, but maybe there's an opportunity that maybe this one will be someone that's good,'" continued Brown. "Because that's what it did for me, and that's what it did for Cory."
Brown is not naive enough to think one on-camera conversation is enough to change everyone's mind. "I don't think it will completely change things, and I gotta be honest with you. But I hope that people will think twice next time," he said. "[I hope] people around the world who never get to experience what it's like for people of color behind the driver's seat will actually get an opportunity to see that, and hopefully get a little perspective to take away that the next time they see someone getting pulled over or harassed they can say, I saw a glimpse of that deal. I understand what they're going through," said Brown.
That's why Brown was ultimately glad he wasn't pulled out of the driver's seat by the producers. In an unaired scene, Brown turned to to French, the other person of color in the Fab 5, and said, "I'm so thankful that they didn't pull me away because that would have been a disservice to the show, and to our experience as people of color." Brown continued,"It would have been easy to whitewash it, and put the white guy in the front seat and then everything's peachy keen. Like, oh, look, this is all fun and games. But instead there's a more powerful moment, and that's a risk, but I respect the fact that they allowed that risk to happen because, again, it played out in such an extremely powerful way."
By the end of the episode, Cory and Brown are continuously reaffirming their respect and affection for each other. As the Fab 5 prepare to head out so Cory can reveal his new look to his friends and family, Cory tearfully confesses to Brown that talking about an issue that plagues both their daily lives is what he treasures most from his Queer Eye experience. "Cory and I now have such a real friendship because we saw each other and we heard each other," said Brown.
Brown said they still text -- just about every day in fact, and that the conversation isn't always easy, but it is always rewarding. "I still don't agree with him being a Trump supporter," said Brown. "We talk about politics probably about 50% of the conversation. Then the other 50% of the time we talk about both being fathers. We have really transparent conversations, but the beauty of it is because now we're not blocked to each other, and we know that the other has good heart. He can listen to me, and I can listen to him without feeling like we're judging each other, or that we are pointing the finger like, 'You're bad.'" Most recently, they've debated DACA, and by the end of their exchange Brown said, "'Cory was like, 'Yeah, I don't think it's fair that families are being ripped apart.' Just one person at a time, you know?"
"I don't want to make it seem as if like I'm just changing him," said Brown, quick to point out what Cory brings to this surprising friendship. "My partner and I are toying with the idea of getting married, and Cory is such a great husband. He gives me some really great advice on how to truly respect my partner, and just love him wholeheartedly." No one, not even Brown or Collins, could have predicted that the nominees would have such an impact on the hosts. In moments like these, Queer Eye reveals why the show deserved it's own updated makeover: gone are the days of queer culture packaged as superficial (yet couture) edits easily discarded after the Fab 5 roll out, here to stay are lasting connections and windows into the lives of people who have good reason to fear each other.
Brown ended the episode with a new friendship, a new perspective, and a new appreciation for what his platform could do. "[Queer Eye] allowed me to talk and just be transparent about my feelings and didn't stop me from talking about me being a black man and raising my sons," said Brown. "I shied away from that at first because I had a little apprehensive fear: Can I go there? Can I really speak my truth?" The minute Brown expressed that fear, his producers and co hosts jumped in to reassure him that he could, "be you, say what you want to say, and if you get uncomfortable at any time we support you. If you want to stop the conversation we support you, but if you want to keep on we go with you."
Cory, Karamo Brown, and America are all a little better for it.
Queer Eye is currently streaming on Netflix.