by Billy Nilles | Fri., Sep. 14, 2018 6:00 AM
Not merely content to dominate the worlds of dramatic, comedic and documentary television, Netflix set out this winter to take over the world of reality television too. And wouldn't you know it—it worked.
With the arrivals of Queer Eye and Nailed It, especially, the streaming giant has delivered two of the year's biggest reality TV success stories, with audiences falling in love with the former's new Fab Five and the divides they've bridged down in Georgia one makeover at a time and the latter's hilariously irreverent approach to the traditional baking competition. Both shows have taken the internet by storm, going viral in the best way possible. And Netflix has noticed.
Back in March, the streaming service has just announced that both shows, as well as Dope, Drug Lords, and The Toys That Made Us, had received second season orders. Those second seasons begat third season orders, an Outstanding Structured Reality Program win at the 2018 Creative Arts Emmys for Queer Eye, and 2018 People's Choice Awards nominations for both shows.
"These series are indicative of what we're trying to accomplish for Netflix unscripted: working with world-class producers to create the best unscripted shows on television," Bela Bajaria, Vice President of Content for Netflix, said in a statement. "These series elevate the genre with innovative takes on familiar formats. They deliver immersive and nuanced stories. They elicit so many emotions from viewers, from tears of laughter to tears of joy - and that's just Queer Eye."
But just how did Queer Eye, a revival of a show that began on Bravo, and Nailed It, a show that seems more at home on Food Network, make their way to the streaming service?
A New Queer Beginning
When Netflix announced it was reviving Queer Eye back in January of 2017, the original series, which debuted on Bravo under the full title Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2003, had been off the air for a full decade. But that didn't mean that people had forgotten about the groundbreaking series, which introduced the world to the Fab Five (then comprised of Carson Kressley, Ted Allen, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia and Jai Rodriguez) as they performed makeovers for heterosexual men in the Big Apple, normalizing gay culture along the way.
"Well, people had been asking, 'Is there any chance that Queer Eye can came back?' And we had the exciting opportunity to kind of look at the show and think, ‘Well, let's do it,'" creator and executive producer David Collins told E! News. "It was probably about two years now. We thought,' Let's do it somewhere cool and new and amazing,' and we went to Netflix with it. And the stars aligned quickly and we partnered up with Netflix to bring it back."
As Collins explained it, the opportunity to tell a different and deeper story with a new Fab Five working their magic down in a traditional red state like Georgia in 2018 was too good to pass up. And that's what made the streaming platform such a perfect fit. "The opportunities afforded at Netflix are endless to begin with, but one of the cool things is we don't have commercials or teases in and out, so the depth of our story really could come to the focus of every episode," he said. "So that part definitely excited us the most. And then being able to work creatively as partners with Netflix was also obviously a really huge thumbs up for somebody that we were looking forward to figuring the format out as it related to being a 2018 world and how we were going to show the Fab Five in a new light, updated light, and allow them to tell their stories, which is, I think, kind of what the fans are really connecting to, right?
"We get to know the Fab Five, we get to hear about their world and their stories and who they're married to and their husbands and boyfriends and kids—all those things that I think originally we didn't touch on, right? 15 years ago, the guys were kind of just superheroes that flew in and flew out," Collins continued. "And these guys, they're the real deal. They're bringing home their stories that are connecting and creating a real dialogue with our heroes every episode."
But before Queer Eye could debut earlier this year, Collins and his team would have to work their casting magic and find the perfect candidates for the new Fab Five. And boy did they get it right with design expert Bobby Berk, fashion expert Tan France, grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness, food and wine expert Antoni Porowski and culture expert Karamo Brown. But getting there was a process.
"It is lightning in a bottle, right? I tell you, casting is a big game, right? it's crazy. It's like chess, you move your pieces back and forth and everywhere. Ultimately, it's chemistry. It really is chemistry," Collins explained. "We brought in the top 50 guys from around the world that we had narrowed down in each of the five categories and we brought them all to L.A. We had a long weekend where we just played mix-and-match, but I think the guys will tell you…that they all kind of found each other in the room of 50 and kind of identified—and their chemistry and energy was so evident and palpable in the rooms because we did some speed dating [laughs] with 50 gay guys in a hotel. And it just really, I remember Tan would really start to shine. You're like, ‘OK, don't leave the room, Tan.' And then Jonathan, you would just be like laughing your butt off. You're like, ‘No, Jonathan, you stay.' And then room kind of got smaller and smaller and there they were, all five of them lined up. Truly, timing and luck and chemistry—the casting gods really were there with us. It was amazing. Truly amazing."
Of course, without the perfect episodic subjects for the Fab Five to interact with, the show wouldn't be much. Luckily, the show struck gold there, as well. "God bless Tom, right? How about it?! I love it," Collins said when the topic of the Heroes, as their called in the show's parlance, referring to the premiere episode's subject Tom Jackson, whose love story with his ex-wife Abby has turned the pair into internet stars in their own right. But he readily admits that finding eight men in the South willing to appear on the show was more difficult than finding the Fab Five.
"And I think there's a few reasons," he explained. "One, the show had been gone a long time, right? So a lot of people didn't know about the show. And we were headed into the South. And when you head into the South and you say, ‘Hey, I'm working a show called Queer Eye,' there's a lot of questions there."
In the end, casting relied on friends and family members to bring deserving Heroes to the show's attention. "They'd be like, ‘Hey, my dad,' as you see in Tom's episode. His beautiful daughter was like, ‘I don't want my dad to be alone.' She really cared and brought him to the forefront, but the search for the heroes, it definitely was not easy," Collins said. "There's so many deserving people. We all have stories, right? And yet, these guys really came to the top of the barrel. It's like, ‘Alright, let's do this. Let's figure this out.' It's fun to watch the Tom and Abby story unfold because it's so beautiful. That really is him. He really is that good old boy. And his passion for the guys and his experience is carrying over into the fans."
As Collins begins to look towards season two, which he promises will have some surprises in terms of the episodic Heroes and the conversations the Fab Five find themselves in down in Georgia, he admits he's humbled by the way the revival has connected with audiences. "It chokes me up because it's been amazing. I was a little gay boy in Ohio growing up," he said. "So for me, I think a lot about my youth and what an amazing moment in time it is for all the kids, people of all ages, but I think about that early pre-teen, teen kids who are getting to watch this show and go, ‘Wow. Look at Antoni. Look at Jonathan. Look at Karamo.' There's this simple connection there. And that's on the LGBTQ rights front, right? Just equality overall and just seeing mirrors and mentors and friends on TV that you can connect to."
But beyond that, Collins is moved by the greater conversation that is happening thanks to the bridges being built between the Fab Five and these traditionally conservative Heroes. "While the makeover's still really important, the cool part is that people are connecting to the conversations. And we're getting to be really real with each other and sometimes those conversations are a little scary and funny at the same time, but it really is amazing. I am blessed and humbled by all of the attention this is getting, but more importantly, the reaction that people are having to A. feeling really good about watching the show, having an experience when they watch it where they are being vulnerable and crying and letting loose," he said. "This idea that if we're able to kind of step into the conversation, the bigger conversation, and not be scared to look at each other and find the similarities instead of all the differences constantly, which is where we kind of live. It's those kind of emails and conversations that are happening…it's amazing. Bottom line, it's amazing what's happening."
A New Kind of Baking Competition
When you think of reality TV baking competitions, you don't generally think of Netflix. Not unless you're looking for a way to watch The Great British Bake Off in the States. And that's exactly why the arrival of Nailed It on the streaming service has caused such a stir. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the series, hosted by comedian Nicole Byer alongside head judge French pastry chef Jacques Torres, is an irreverent take on the traditional baking show, with novice bakers attempting Pinterest-worthy bakes to often hilariously disastrous result.
For executive producer Jane Lipsitz, whose production company Magical Elves created the series, Nailed It was an opportunity for the company responsible for Top Chef and its many off-shoots to let loose and have a little fun. And laugh a lot. "We were just having an informal brainstorm in our development department, sitting in our conference room and we've obviously been in the culinary space for a long time. And it's hard as this unscripted and competitive genre of reality TV goes on and on, it's harder and more challenging to think of new things, so we were really just trying to push ourselves to come up with something completely—it was a ‘no idea is too crazy' kind of brainstorm," she told E! News over the phone. "One of the guys on our team brought in images from Pinterest and we just started laughing, as you do. You just see all those images of fails and Nailed It images and the whole room was laughing. We were like, ‘How do we turn this into a show?' Exactly what happened in that conference room ultimately has translated, thankfully, in the process turning it into television because I think that's the thing. People are just seeing it and laughing and feeling good, so we wanted to definitely preserve the things that we knew worked about a baking show and culinary show, but really wanted to have the creativity and freedom to really turn it on its head, which is why Netflix was such a great partner in this."
Having partnered with Netflix once before on the 2016 docu-series Chasing Cameron, Lipsitz and her partner Dan Cutforth knew the streaming service would be a perfect fit. "It felt like if we're gonna do a show that pushes the boundaries of traditional baking and culinary, it felt 100 percent the right home because Netflix is breaking similar boundaries in the world of platforms and consuming content," she explained. "It was a great match…It was just sort of like all the stars aligned." Indeed it was, as Netflix bought the pitch right in the room.
With their experience creating for the platform in their back pocket, they knew that they couldn't approach Nailed It the same way they would if the show had sold to, say, Food Network. "Everyone's gonna watch it as a continuum, so we had already gone through the process understanding how binge-watching impacts storytelling or certain creative choices we're making. So when we got to Nailed It, even though they're self-contained, we still were mindful of…not repeating things and making sure the jokes are super individual and clear and original so when someone's watching the next episode, they're not like, ‘I just heard that' or ‘I just saw that,'" Lipsitz said. "And then we just had a lot of fun with Nicole at the end of each episode, playing with traditional throw-to-exit lines. Instead of ‘See you next week,' she's like, ‘See you in six seconds'...Having a host who wasn't in the culinary space, who was just a brilliant comedian, also allowed for a lot of that."
The hunt for the perfect host began a bit more traditionally, Lipsitz admitted, before they turned their attention to Byer, who'd just come off her MTV-turned-Facebook original comedy Loosely Exactly Nicole. "We were thinking of it a little bit more traditionally, but then as we started to think about the show and how do we give it a really distinct voice because it's a distinct show and it's so funny, we just really wanted to find…a comedian," she explained. "So were looking at a bunch of people and Nicole just totally popped. We just felt she was so quick on her feet and she actually doesn't know anything about baking, so we wanted to appeal to people who like baking or aspire to be bakers or actually don't and are just going to enjoy the show from a more comedic perspective."
Of course, pairing the hilarious baking novice with an experienced pastry chef like Torres allowed for an element of the show that took even Lipsitz by surprise. And we couldn't even imagine how great their chemistry would be," she said. "It was surprising. You hope each episode is filled with surprises and the joy of surprises, and that's why kids are loving it, parents are loving and it's an incredible social media response."
And if you walked away from the first six episodes wondering just how that rotating panel of guest judges was selected, especially when it comes to episode six's Jay Chandrasekhar, who, unlike the five guest judges before him, comes from the comedy, not culinary, world, allow Lipsitz to explain. "We would look at the theme and then we would think about do we want a culinary voice here? Do we want a comic voice here? But then we just found out that Jay was a huge baking fan and, again, we wanted to have a continual surprise," she said. "And honestly, that moment when he got the call that he had to go pick up his kids, we were just like, ‘It is like the Nailed It version!' We just had to go with it. He was like, ‘I've really got to go pick up my kids.' So honestly, I always feel like these choices happen for a reason and it worked out really well because it gave us a surprising moment. It was just the Nailed It version of making television."
As for this next round of episodes, if you've been wondering when the cakes and guest judges seen in the intros of the first six episodes but never in the actual episodes themselves—like that amazing unicorn cake, for instance—they're coming. "Well, you're very observant," Lipsitz said when asked where those challenges were. "You will see that. You will see that coming in the next round."
While the immediate future of the series will stick pretty close to the format seen in the first six episodes, Lipsitz said that nothing is off the table as they look ahead. And that includes a potential celebrity edition. "We'd love to do something like that," she said. "That would be really fun."
As for her dream celeb gets, Lipsitz wasn't too sure. "It's hard because it's like who knows how to bake enough? I'd have to think about that," she said. "I'd have to do some research on which celebrities know how to bake—badly." Though when reminded about episode three contestant Sal, who just added tap water to his cake batter without even checking a recipe, she admitted that the potential stars wouldn't need too much skill.
"No, that's true," she said with a laugh. "The bar is pretty low."
Queer Eye, Nailed It, Dope, Drug Lords and The Toys That Made Us are all available to stream now on Netflix.
(This story was originally published on March 26, 2018 at 9:45 a.m. PST.)