You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be at least somewhat charmed by Queer Eye. After all, what could be more wholesome, and yes – more escapist – than watching five flamboyant individuals on a quest to build a person back up – one moisturizing act of self-care at a time?
But let’s face it: as a concept, it’s über American. The transformation – we’re talking self-image, home décor, relationship resolution – happens within a week. Monday’s gormless wallflower is Friday’s glamorous socialite. Whether you’re still living in your parents’ basement or burdened by unbearable grief, you can count on the Fab Five to sort you out. In a hyper capitalist world, it’s all in a working week.
So, I’m not going to lie. When I found out Netflix was making a German version of Queer Eye, I was terrified. Scarred by formats such as Das Perfekte Dinner (imagine Come Dine With Me stripped of all humor, irony and editing) I feared the worst. Could literal-minded Germans translate tone? And who could possibly step into the knee-high boots of Jonathan van Ness?
Reader, I have been surprised. Queer Eye Germany is not at all terrible. In fact, it’s pretty good! Room for improvement? Selbstverständlich. But it would hardly be in the spirit of the show to open with a finished product.
The Fab Five are of course the hardest act to follow. In the American original, the chemistry is undeniably good. For every time Jonathan van Ness caresses someone’s hair and utters the words “Oh my God, you are like so gorgeous,” we get a shot of Tan casting a withering eye over a wardrobe full of outdated garments. As Bobby efficiently puts the builders to work, Karamo tackles his charge’s vast emotional landscape. All while Antoni turns misty-eyed over a plate of Polish potato cakes.
While the German version also casts compelling characters, they don’t mesh quite so well, perhaps because they feel like emulations rather than the real thing. David Jakobs, who describes herself on Instagram as gender non-conforming and has an online clothes shop, faces the impossible task of appearing sincere while trying to live up to Jonathan van Ness’ larger-than-life personality. Leni Bolt, influencer and life coach, scores better on authenticity, perhaps because they have already carved out a niche in the self-love realm and aren’t relying too much on the Karamo template. Aljosha Muttardi, who until recently ran a vegan YouTube channel may need some time to cook up feelings in quite the way that Queer Eye demands, as will bowtie afficionado Jan-Henrik Scheper-Stuke. Doe-eyed designer Ayan Yuruk, on the other hand, benefits from some super emotional storylines that allow his empathy to shine through.
Of course, the true test of Queer Eye isn’t in the hosts but in the people whose lives they promise to transform. Here, the German version has done well. We meet a football-mad single dad with low self-esteem, a hideously overworked mum, a young baker who’s hiding his sexuality, an 18-year-old who has suffered unbearable loss and a 50-something-year-old Star Wars fan scared of ending up alone. I was especially glad to see regional Germany represented, instead of just the urban centers. While the Fab Five communicate in a rather comic Denglisch – “Group Hug” they exclaim, “wir haben fun, oder?” the protagonists are refreshingly true to their roots.
Small touches, like when the fab five munch on Nussecken (nut squares, found in every German bakery) delighted me, as did the Nordic Walking sticks, a piece of sporting equipment stored in many a German home. The shot that best marries the American format with the German landscape is in the final episode, when Leni and Eugen (the Star Wars fan) have a heart-to-heart conversation while out strolling with alpacas. Windmills loom in the background. We are in Heinsberg, near the border with the Netherlands, and the talk is of self-acceptance.
Casting protagonists for a show like Queer Eye is a complex task. Their stories need to pull on your heartstrings, and there should be more than a nod to the Zeitgeist. Queer Eye Germany partially delivers. In episode three, the young baker’s quest to tell his family and football team about his sexuality makes a statement about the lack of openly gay athletes in Germany. Unlike what you’d expect in the American format, his “outing” takes place off-camera and as viewers, we see his parents expressing their acceptance over dinner afterwards. A little understated, but effective.
Not so progressive is the treatment of Ulrike, who has no time for herself after working two jobs, taking care of the kids and doing all the housework. Nominated by her husband, who wants to see his wife let go again, the obvious question of whether he might pull his weight more to offer some relief remains unanswered. Instead, the advice is to schedule time for Nordic walking and date nights. Not tackling the root cause of the problem – that society places unacceptable burdens on mothers – is an oversight.
The bravest episode and the one that made me cry more than once features 18-year-old Marleen, who has lost her mother, father and two brothers to a rare hereditary disease. Left alone in the world and dealing with the medical consequences of a heart transplant, the grace with which she deals with her fate will make you vow never again to complain about your lot. When Ayan helps her paint her father’s old cupboard, they speak intimately about grief, and about the possibilities and impossibilities of living in the moment after suffering loss.
It’s a difficult line to walk but the Fab Five strike the right tone as the narrative flits between light and dark. After all, as Ayan remarks: “wir sind der Regenbogen, wir bringen Farbe und Glitzer!” (we’re the rainbow, we bring color and glitter!).
Five episodes in, this former skeptic says of Queer Eye Germany, let it rain, no let it pour.
Very perceptive and well written.