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Clap if you believe in fairies
Queer Eye saves America’s guys from themselves; plus Ellen’s happy talk
BY JOYCE MILLMAN
‘Warrior’ is no masterpiece

"Superpower meets super warrior circa 60 A.D." is how PBS and WGBH are hyping this Sunday’s Masterpiece Theatre presentation, Warrior Queen (it airs from 9 to 10:30 p.m. on Channel 2). And that’s a reasonable description of what happened back in Roman-occupied Celtic Britain when Nero was emperor. Among the Romans’ subject tribes were the Iceni, who lived in what is now East Anglia. When Prasutagus, the leader of the Iceni, died, the Romans, according to Tacitus, took the opportunity to flog his widow, Boudica (a/k/a Boadicea), and rape their two daughters. Boudica then led an uprising that seized the town of Camulodunum (now Colchester) and then Londinium (London). Eventually, Roman reinforcements arrived and the rebellion was quashed in a massacre in which, again according to Tacitus, 80,000 Britons fell (as against just 400 Roman dead) and Boudica poisoned herself.

The facts are mostly straight in this script from screenwriter Andrew Davies, but the sensibility is strictly "Xena Goes to Britain." Roman soldiers with English accents enjoy the "ex-pat life" in Britain. The Iceni are told, "Let’s be absolutely straight about this. If you don’t play ball with us, we’ll team up with your enemies and wipe you off the face of the earth." Boudica (Alex Kingston) isn’t fazed; she tells her husband, "We’ve beaten the Brigantes and the Branovici before . . . " Prasutagus (Steven Waddington), however, is Neville Chamberlain in an early incarnation ("I’m sick of killing, Boudica. I can’t go into battle anymore."), and it’s only after the tribe’s skinhead druid facilitates his death that the action heats up. Nothing, alas, can stem the tide of clichés: Boudica tells her daughter, "The best we can do is live every moment of our lives to the full," and when her new boyfriend says, "This might be our last night together," she replies with a hearty smile, "Then let’s make it a good one."

After the inevitable noble deaths in battle, there’s a bit of silly druid magic and one last platitude: "We don’t write our stories down. We live them." The Romans were, of course, not the last race to oppress the British Celts. And to judge from this nonsense, the English are still at it.

— Jeffrey Gantz

Surely there are heterosexual men who are unafraid to moisturize and who understand that a bucket of KFC and a brewski do not a romantic dinner make. But Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the Bravo cable series that has become the TV phenom of 2003, is not concerned with them. No, the five gay superheroes of Queer Eye (10 p.m. Tuesdays, Bravo) aim to bring good grooming and style-consciousness to the hardcore hets, the guy’s guys, the truly slovenly, the habitually clueless.

In the show’s witty opening montage, the members of the "Fab 5," as they call themselves, are summoned as if by Batphone to perform another lifestyle-saving "make-better." Kyan Douglas, "grooming guru," grabs his blow dryer. Ted Allen, a/k/a "the connoisseur," reaches for his trusty whisk. Thom Filicia, the "design doctor," picks up a paintbrush. Jai Rodriguez, "the culture vulture" (no, I don’t know exactly what he adds either, but he’s adorable) rushes off with a vinyl LP record. And Carson Kressley, the show’s quippy "fashion savant" and breakout star, arms himself with a pair of Burberry’s shopping bags. Then, it’s into the Fab 5 Mobile (OK, an ordinary SUV) and off to Queens or Long Island to do battle with heavy-metal hair, Salvation Army sofas, and scum-encrusted shower curtains. (A seven-hour "Queer Eye" marathon airs on Bravo October 10 at 7 p.m.; new episodes will resume in November.)

"Queer Eye" taps neatly into the "life transformation" trend of hits like Trading Spaces and What Not to Wear. But its cunning broad-spectrum appeal is this: everything the Fab 5 do, they do to make a guy more appealing to women. Look, the advice on personal grooming and how to buy gifts for women is no different from what a guy could cull from the pages of Esquire or Details. Queer Eye is really pitched at the unhappy wife or girlfriend who has nagged herself hoarse, but would prefer not to send her guy off to the laddie mags for help. The Fab 5 are fairy godfathers. What straight couple doesn’t need one?

The biggest hit in Bravo’s history, Queer Eye expands on the perhaps dubious notion (mainstreamed by Will & Grace and the subtextually queer Frasier) that gay men have "magical" qualities — that they possess divine taste and a sixth sense for style that the average Joe Het lacks. (If this is true, how does one explain Barney Frank?) Still, the Fab 5 have so far performed at least one miracle: they’ve made the unspellable "zhuzh" (the "zh"acts as a "j," it rhymes with "noodge" and it means "primp" or "tweak") into a household word. But seriously, these guys have confronted back hair, monobrows, toe fungus, non-breathable fabrics, inflatable furniture, and every conceivable kind of filth with brisk determination. In their confidence and "no job too dirty" dedication, the Fab 5 are the manliest men on television.

Not that Queer Eye doesn’t earn snaps for bitchy humor. Every episode winds down with a juicy segment where the Fab 5 leave their freshly made-better subject alone with his new clothes and hair products and instructions on how to cook a special dinner to impress his family and friends. They then adjourn to their queer lair to sip cocktails and watch the action on a hidden camera. And they do what we all do when we watch reality TV — they make fun of everybody.

In the Make Room for Lisa episode, where they clean up Tom the rocker dude’s act so his girlfriend would agree to move in with him, the Fab 5 watch Jersey girl Lisa alight from a commuter train wearing thigh-high boots and what appears to be one of Julia Roberts’s miniskirts from Pretty Woman. "There’s a hooker in Trenton who wants her boots back," drawls Kressley, speaking what was surely on every viewer’s mind. A beat later, when Lisa tells her boyfriend she was worried he’d be made into a corporate preppie, Kressley turns to his colleagues and snorts, "What are we, the five fags from IBM?"

Bitchiness aside, Queer Eye always ends on a note of uplift, as the Fab 5 raise their glasses and toast their protégé’s courage in putting himself into their hands. Some of these fellas are visibly shaky about being alone in fitting rooms and the Pottery Barn with gay men. One subject, a New York cop named John Verdi, shared what looked like the most uncomfortable liquid tanning session in history with a skimpy-swimsuit clad Kyan, who tried to engage him in a discussion about why John felt that the whole situation was "gay." Despite such angsty moments, the Fab 5 do often succeed in their mission of showing straight guys that gayness isn’t something you catch like a cold, that gays and heteros can be friends. "It takes a village, people," Kressley is fond of saying at the end of shows, as the Fab 5 proudly watch a subject exhibiting new confidence while his woman weeps with joy.

And it is this image of the gay man as the sidekick who helps to maintain the heterosexual status quo that has opened Queer Eye to criticism. The chief rap: it promotes flamboyant stereotypes that pander to mainstream America’s idea of gays as "others."

Well, just as there are straight men who can zhuzh like there’s no tomorrow, there are gay men who have no fashion sense, live in squalor and subsist on 7-Eleven burritos and Mountain Dew. Someday, perhaps, Queer Eye will silence its critics by capturing and making over one of those elusive gay Sasquatches. It would take a big gay man to admit that queer style is a matter of nurture, not nature. But I think the Fab 5 are up to the challenge.

ANYONE WHO EXPECTED ELLEN DEGENERES to take up Rosie O’Donnell’s "crusading lesbian talk show host" torch must be thoroughly perplexed by now.

On DeGeneres’s month-old syndicated daytime talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show (11 a.m., weekdays, WHDH Channel 7), one of the few immediate hits of the new season, the most provocative stand DeGeneres has taken is to come out in favor of adopting homeless puppies from the S.P.C.A. And darn it if she didn’t go right out and practice what she preached, taking home a mutt from the shelter and talking about her on the show every day.

Like its host, The Ellen DeGeneres Show is self-effacingly lovable. DeGeneres is a born talker, relaxed and quick with celebs and ordinary folk alike; her skill in coaxing the unheralded quirkiness out of audience members and persons on the street might be second only to David Letterman’s. But like her puppy, DeGeneres’s show has teeth when you least expect it.

DeGeneres’s comedy comes from a Bob Newhart kind of place — the surprisingly surreal mind of a seemingly average, buttoned-down person. DeGeneres is brilliant at appearing so guileless that your first impulse is to take everything that comes out of her mouth seriously. So when she goes into the audience to play "Driving Test" ("the most difficult game in daytime television") and tells contestants that they have 30 seconds to answer as many road questions as possible and then the clock clearly shows 20 seconds, no one challenges her. Ellen wouldn’t lie, would she? This gag gets funnier as it goes along until finally, the last contestant meekly points out the "mistake" and DeGeneres looks into the camera with a flash of panic, which turns into chagrin and then settles into exaggerated indifference. DeGeneres can get you to suspend disbelief even when you have a good idea what’s coming.


Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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