Q Force review – Netflix’s gay spy caper is disastrously dated

When a trailer for Q Force (Netflix) was released in June, it caused a kerfuffle on social media. This animated series, about a queer group of spies operating an offshoot squad in the fictional American Intelligence Agency, failed to put its best foot forward with its teaser, which was a ragingly unfunny series of LGBTQ+ cliches and bad jokes. Online commentators were unimpressed by its rainbow-flag-waving, “yas queen” posturing. In a world of clever adult animated comedy, from Big Mouth to BoJack Horseman, that first glimpse set this up to be a throwback dud.

Q Force is not nearly as bad as that clip suggested. But in order to get beyond the “sashay away” sloganeering and gags about how heterosexual men love smelling their own farts, you have to sit through two episodes that suggest it may be that bad, Dopotutto. More than any other genre, comedy can take a few episodes to find its tone and rhythm; even shows that settled into greatness, a partire dal Schitt’s Creek to Parks and Recreation, had a slow ascent. Q Force is not going to be one of those, and I do wonder how many viewers will have the patience to wait for it to get better.

Steve Maryweather (Will & Grace’s Sean Hayes), known to his friends as Mary, is the valedictorian of his spy class: the fittest, smartest secret agent coming through training that year. When he uses his graduation speech to come out of the closet, he is immediately sidelined and allocated a small crew of misfits, who work from the back of his house in West Hollywood and are never allowed out in the field. Homophobia is not so much widespread in this world as endemic, and at every turn, Mary and his friends are held back because they are gay. Until, questo è, they prove themselves to be excellent at spying, and are trusted to crack an international uranium-dealing ring that turns out to be part of a bigger global conspiracy.

What a confusing series. The Good Place’s Michael Schur created it, along with Hayes. The showrunner, Gabe Liebman, worked on Pen15, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Broad City. The cast includes Wanda Sykes, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Cole and David Harbour, all doing their best with what they have, but limited by oddly old-fashioned jokes. The cultural references are so dated I started to wonder if it was deliberate, a retro choice, like midcentury modern sideboards or moustaches. It references Ally McBeal, The Princess Diaries, Sleepless in Seattle and Brokeback Mountain, as well as the obligatory Sex and the City DVD boxset gag. It’s as if someone pressed pause on queer culture in 2005.

There are nods to a world in which grandparents love RuPaul’s Drag Race and every Netflix show has at least one bi-curious character, but overall, there is a sense that this was made for a certain generation, for whom visibility was hard won and rare. There is nothing wrong with that. There can be a snobbishness and hostility, particularly online, about mainstream gay culture, as if all LGBTQ+ people are the same and the only true way to express queerness is to debate Judith Butler. It doesn’t feel fair to critique a cartoon about super spies saving the world from nuclear terrorism for not being the “right” kind of queer, whatever that means. Q Force is shallow and light, and that should be fine.

But it is not particularly funny, and that is more of a problem. In its opening episodes, you can see the jokes coming a mile away, and it left me thinking that animation and comedy are all much more sophisticated now. Trading in stereotypes is a tried and tested comedic technique, but to work well, there have to be more layers. This rarely goes beyond initial observations: Europeans love nudity! Isn’t it hilarious when fat people are naked! Aren’t straight men gross! Aren’t lesbians good at DIY! (Although to be fair, that one has solid roots.)

It isn’t until Q Force visits a very familiar-looking song contest, called Europevision, that it dares to leave the fluff behind and dip into more exploratory waters. When it finally takes off the feather boa and goes rogue, it starts to settle in to something worth watching. The series’ proper story arc is the kind of out-there zaniness that might have made it more appealing from the start, and involves AI, a secretive black-market auction, a potentially evil natural cosmetics company and callous billionaires. It is all much more 2021 … though it may come a little too late.

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