In 2011, the United States Federal Government officially repealed their ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ military policy – infamous for prohibiting military personnel from discriminating against closeted queer service members, yet actively banning openly queer people from joining the military. Translation: keep quiet or get out.
Q-Force, created by Gabe Liedman and starring Sean Hayes and Wanda Sykes amongst others, is a comedy spy series about a group of queer superspies that follows the repeal of DADT. We sent our writers on a top secret mission – watch episode one and report back, stat!
‘Bye, bitch!’, the first line of Q-Force’s pilot episode, ‘Rogue’, is spoken just as Steve Maryweather, spy-in-training, guns down three goons in what is soon revealed to be a training exercise.
The whole opening scene is a minute-and-a-half of 007-esque badassery and quips, with the usual campness of the spy genre turned up to 11 (contrast Raul Silva and Bond flirting in Skyfall to a montage of Maryweather’s fatigue-donning butt). Through the magic of queer-coding, the audience is left in no doubt by the end of the sequence that Maryweather is not a straight man. Yet, when he comes out as gay to the rest of his class, he is renounced and humiliated before everyone in attendance, who instantly take to feminising him into ‘Mary’ in reaction.
An accurate depiction of the homophobia within the security services of the world? Perhaps, but systemic homophobia is only part of the story.
When the titular Q-Force is introduced, we meet Maryweather’s team of LGBTQ+ dysfunctionals: Twink, a stereotypically camp, young gay man (no prizes for guessing where the nickname comes from) with a penchant for disguise; Deb, the POC butch lesbian mechanic; and Stat, an introverted hacker whose place in the queer multiverse is left ambiguous. At first glance, these characters are nothing more than archetypes the writers can use to explore the issues at hand, while also providing a few laughs; but isn’t that the problem? They’re archetypes – these characters, while perhaps relatable to some queer people, are also designed to be recognised by straight people. Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing a show about queerness that’s also designed to be accessible by straight people, but there’s a fine line between between representation and caricaturism, a line I’m not sure Q-Force is on the right side of all the time.
The show’s ‘antagonist’, Buck, is introduced as the homophobic jock bully, a character who you can almost guarantee upon meeting will have some kind of discovery arc through his interactions with the team. In the pilot episode however, he’s a one-dimensional brick that only tries to make the characters feel bad, even after their success in bringing down an attempted nuclear arms sale using a Grindr rip-off, a story I’m sure every queer person can relate to.
Admittedly, there is something wonderful in the style the show displays, mixing an animation style I’d recognise from any mid-2010’s Disney XD or CN show, bringing in a healthy dose of Archer-esque black comedy and mixing it to create a chaos that, despite how it might first seem, is very proudly queer. Even the lip-synching, often out of time with the audio, is a charming reminder of the cartoons we watched as children, a genre a show like this allows us to claim as our own.
Q-Force is a complicated one, then. On the one hand, there’s no denying that the characters, at first glance, come from the Big Bumper Book of Queerness, most likely in the first chapter. On the other, it approaches the characters and its own ridiculousness with such a self-awareness that it draws you in. The episode was at its best when making jokes about the queer experience itself, rather than caricaturing it for a straight audience, a habit it unfortunately dipped into a few too many times to discount. Time (and the following episodes) will tell if these are merely teething problems or a key part of the shows identity, but after the pilot, I was left asking only one question: Who is this meant for?
From first hearing about Q-Force, I was excited to see a new queer show and potentially find my own joy in the niche that is the adult animated series. Having had enough macho ego with a poison dart pen to last me a lifetime, I loved the concept of showcasing the secret agent archetype through a queer lens. However, as the credits rolled on this first episode, I was disheartened to feel that any praise given would likely have a side of grumbling to follow.
With Emmy winners like comic actor Sean Hayes of Will & Grace fame and comedienne Wanda Sykes, I felt confident that laughs would ensue. This I found to be relatively true, but more in hushed giggles than great guffaws. This is largely due to a combination of the comedic content and the characters themselves. As seen-before stereotypes, it is hard to fully connect with the characters; main guy Steve Maryweather lacking enough depth to really root for. However, despite their familiar depictions of LGBTQ+ individuals, one does have to consider the intention behind their creation. With both creators and writers being self-aware in their decisions, this can turn seemingly lazy choices into ones that mock the predictable. Though it is easy to see stereotypes and automatically launch into the negative, one must also remember that there are these people out there who help make the queer community. Whether we’ve seen the butch lesbian or femme gay plenty of times before, they still exist and shouldn’t be banished entirely from all media representation. Instead, I’m hoping that the episodes to follow will cast a wider net to showcase who else sits beneath our rainbow umbrella.
Though the writing itself is admittedly rife with anticipated quips and cliché one-liners, they still produce just enough of a bite at times to inspire a smirk. There are also some clever moments too; playing on the incredible transformation that is drag to make Twink Q-Force’s ‘Master of Disguises’ was a simple yet effective touch. When Twink is disguised as Ariana Grande, I cackled at the line “Shoutout to my gay brother Frankie, who is gay!” – lightly dragging the way in which celebrities will sometimes cash in on the pink branch of their family tree for the fanbase.
Another thing to note in the show’s favour is the way it does manage to include little moments that, though a tad expected, only are because the points are sadly still relevant today. With a line like “The powers that be don’t see us as valuable just because we’re queer”, the show still manages to maintain its overarching theme; the struggle to prove oneself when white, cis, heterosexual male aren’t the boxes you’re ticking. With that in mind, the moment of ‘Q-Force’ embracing their name in the great minority tradition of reclaiming a negative slur and imbuing it with new power was a nice touch.
Now, is it true to say the show so far plays as obvious and potentially reductive? Perhaps. But was I still mildly entertained and noticed a glimmer of potential? Yes. If only for the sake of wanting to give something overtly queer a chance, I have every intention of seeing the series through. With a well-meaning if slightly misguided start, plus a hint of romance to boot, I’m open to seeing what happens next and where the show might go. At just under half an hour for each episode, what’s the harm in having it accompany your morning tea and toast?
“When you found me, I was at rock bottom. Look at me now, I’m in a garage!” When Twink (yup, you heard me) exclaimed this one liner, I laughed. Unfortunately for a comedy series, that was one of the only times I did. Q-Force is the Sasha Belle of queer content – thinks she’s cracked the code, but ends up being annoyingly cringe.
The most frustrating aspect of episode one of Netflix’s new animated spy series was that the jokes only seemed to land when they deviated from the suffocating ‘queer’ humour. The whole episode has an on-the-nose energy of trying to be a fun house mirror for the queer community to laugh at its own stereotypes and culture. If only showrunner Gabe Liedman had eased into it with a bit more finesse, it might have worked. I can’t be in on the joke if you don’t take the time to earn my trust as a viewer, particularly with jokes like these. I’m also not a white gay man, to whom most of the humour catered.
The poor humour pretty much fell into two categories: a shitty garnish or a hidden chilli. The shitty garnishes littered the episode in the form of generic pop culture references that added no flavour to the characters or setting. We get it, they’re gay. We knew that the first time you mentioned Ariana Grande’s brother, and the second, and the third. But far worse were the hidden chillies. Just when I thought I was easing into the plot WHOOP there it is. One such example would be the use of “sodomite” in a rant by the main antagonist, Chunley. He’s clearly being painted as the homophobic misogynist of the series, but moments like this were too jarring for 20 minutes into a comedy series. If the creators had trusted in their characters more and paced out these moments, the episode wouldn’t have left such a bitter taste in my mouth.
I think Q-Force contains an important warning for writers. Being gay doesn’t give you a golden ticket to create queer content. You can be in a minority and still offend the people in that community if you’re careless with your comedy.
Having said that, I have a confession. I went back and watched the whole show. Sue me. To be honest, I’m really glad I did. Q-Force quickly develops as the episodes run, becoming more concerned with the plot and characters than pandering to a fictitious gay viewer. The humour finds a natural place amongst the action that compliments the later episodes really well. Plus, they confront the biggest queer issue in modern society: who is the rightful winner of Eurovision. By the second half of the series, Q-Force had undergone a full West Hollywood makeover. She looked goooood.
It’s a privilege to be at a point where we don’t have to say thank you for queer content just because it’s queer. We can be fussy and demand better. I didn’t think Q-Force was the ‘better’ I was looking for, but now I’m starting to want it to be. There’s definitely a space for a show like this if it can iron out the kinks. Let’s hope that’s a mission Q-Force is ready for.