When Netflix’s Queer Eye premiered in February 2018, its cuddly fun makeovers came laced with a strange amount of tension: The threat of culture clash always loomed. The first episode opened with the Fab Five introducing themselves to the camera and heading from Gay Street—the New York City landmark in the original series’ title sequence—to Georgia. As the confident cosmopolitan quintet entered the dens of the South’s schlumpy and self-doubting, they gave off a feeling of oil being poured into water, or, well, of queer people entering possible zones of intolerance. You were never sure if the subject of any given installment would get along with the guys. In one episode, a rural cop—a friend of the Donald Trump–voting makeover subject—pulled over the Fab Five’s car when Karamo Brown, the one black cast member, was driving. The suspenseful encounter was eventually played as a joke, making odd sport of a serious social issue, just as the show often does.
By Season 4 (yes, Netflix has pumped out iterations of the show with the frequency that Apple issues software updates), the anxiety-making, strangers-in-a-strange-land premise has receded. Now the Fab Five are crusaders who are well known both to viewers and subjects. You can see the shift in the season premiere, when the guys head to Quincy, Illinois: the hometown of the wise and wild grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness. Their mark is, in fact, Van Ness’s high-school music teacher, who’s sporting the same mullet she has for decades. The two of them hug warmly when the Fab Five show up at marching-band practice, and her students cheer for their celebrity visitors. The week that unfolds seems nearly as emotional for Van Ness as it does for her, and he recounts how she helped him survive feeling like an outsider during adolescence.