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Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness

Now that we’ve all dabbed our eyes dry after the release of the latest season of Queer Eye, what more could one ask for than some concentrated time spent with JVN, the beloved and bubbly hairstyle guru and curious soul? Enter Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness, based on Van Ness’s original podcast of the same name. In this series, JVN spends some time with people from a variety of professions, in the hope that they will answer their giddily asked questions. What did our writers make of this series? Endearing, or just a bit….much? Read on to find out!

Jonathan Van Ness peers down a microphone with a shocked expression on his face

Isaac

 Warm, charismatic, and open-minded, Jonathan Van Ness seems like the perfect host for a show celebrating curiosity and learning. The format of the show really is just a celebration of curiosity with the “talk for half an hour about whatever Jonathan is interested in ”approach. ending up as an exciting format for exploring topics as diverse as biology, sociology, architecture, sport, and anthropology. This broad sweep, combined with Jonathan’s energy and charisma made for a fun show to watch that I came away from having learned some things, and filled with a desire to learn more.

 Sadly, this fun is undercut with a major disclaimer: in between the interviews and talking head segments that make up the bulk of the show, this show throws in some of the worst comedy I’ve ever had thrust upon me. Weird cutaway gags with squeaky cartoon mice, abrasively loud screaming, garish sets, and horrific acting: these jokes hold together worse than a sandcastle in a tsunami, and more than once I considered giving up entirely. Luckily, I’m a big enough fan of Jonathan, and these segments made up a small enough chunk of the runtime that I was able to repress them and keep on enjoying the show as a whole.

 So there’s something to love and something to hate. But then there’s something in the middle. It doesn’t ruin the show, it’s hardly even noticeable, but it’s something I can’t shake, and it leaves me unsure about this show. Jonathan’s friendliness and open mind makes him an engaging host, but they also shape his greatest weakness: he doesn’t ask challenging questions. Sometimes this is benign; in one episode he asks an engineer, Preetam, how much sand it takes to make glass? “I don’t know.” says Preetam. And then, nothing, Jonathan doesn’t ask for an estimate, there isn’t a voiceover with the answer. It just gets dropped.

 This wouldn’t be a huge issue in itself, but immediately afterwards we’re told that the world is running out of sand. In this light the resource intensity of construction becomes far more pertinent, but there’s still no scrutiny; Jonathan doesn’t ask what sand dredging does to ecosystems, or mention how much CO2 concrete produces, the harm to birds is played off as a fun song. It’s as if the show is so desperate to be feel-good that any moral complexity gets totally flattened.

 Nowhere does this feature more prominently than in gargantuan failure of science communication that is the snack foods episode. Jonathan starts off hyping up a donut factory without asking any questions about health or social impact, hangs around with a scientist who makes a few comments on sugar addiction, then goes to a “natural” bakery and doesn’t ask them any questions either, ending on a trite note of “enjoy sugary snacks in moderation”… groundbreaking stuff. 

 I get that all the topics here are too complex to cram into thirty minutes, but the show presents us with the idea that ingredients with long names are bad without asking what they actually do, and “natural” ingredients are good without asking how they’re sourced or if they’re actually healthy (Himalayan salt? really?). This isn’t curiosity, it’s an advert.

This isn’t to say the show is without nuance, just that the nuance is often glossed over in an attempt to keep everything upbeat and optimistic. It’s a shame because I really did like this show and would be interested in a second season. But only if it does away with the sketches and demands tougher questions from its subjects.

Jonathan and three other people sit around a table in a room with 1920s-looking decor, accented with atmospheric purple lights. The person to the right of Jonathan is speaking, and everyone is looking at them intently. The person speaking is dressed fairly extravagantly, wearing a bright blue shirt that matches their pink hair, earrings and long false lashes.

Lucy

When I’m listening to a podcast, I like to be able to do something at the same time (Resting? Don’t know her). I’ll scroll through the list of episodes until I find something that draws my attention, but with TV programmes, I HAVE to watch every episode, in order. Possibly this is some kind of psychological phenomenon, linked to the way Netflix shows you what shows you’re watchingand how far through you are. It bothers me. So, although I was most interested in the ‘Can We Say Bye Bye to the Binary?’ I was patient and watched all the ones that came before it.

I was anticipating each episode would be around an hour, like the podcast. Admittedly I did have mixed feelings initially about the half-hour length of the show – How on EARTH can you expect to cover topics like gender in only half an hour? – but this is Jonathan Van Ness. They can do the impossible, and they can do it with sparkle. Getting Curious in snappy half-hour slots is something I am willing to go with, just for them.

Did I mention the sparkle? This show is very sparkly indeed – which is wonderful, of course, but at the risk of sounding like a miserable old woman I have to say I’m not always a fan of the silly sketches that break up the show. A hair musical? An insect…whatever that was? Okay, that’s nice. Back to the info. I was by no means expecting a Louis Theroux documentary, but the 50-minute podcast format really lets JVN and their guest sink intothe nuances of each topic. I felt there was a lot more to each episode of the show that simply couldn’t squeeze into half an hour. The sparkly little sketches in-between only detracts from this further, and the light-hearted format simply doesn’t allow us to attack the nuances of important topics in depth. Think how much more we could have learned about leaf bugs!

This being said, some of the sketches are excellent: Do you ever find yourself having conversations with, or about, people?! Try pronouns! The almost-ironic tone of this particular sketch is bang on, and I can imagine that short clip being used perhaps in a classroom or shown to a grandparent. It sparked me to wonder whether this is a family show or not – the overall, light-hearted tone suggests a child could watch it with you, and there’s no swearing or inappropriate references. Then again (and perhaps this is my ignorance), I’m not sure if JVN is currently a celebrity who is branded as FOR CHILDREN – they are an individual who is popular, in my experience, amongst peers my own age, most of whom are yet to start families. I like to think that once there are small children running around us, we show JVN to them proudly and encourage them to learn from this role model. 

Educating its audience is exactly what I hoped Getting Curious would do, and I think this goal is certainly achieved as JVN uses both podcast and show to de-stigmatise a massive variety of topics. Personally though, I was itching for a bit more depth in places. Netflix, if you’re reading this (which obviously you are) Jonathan Van Ness has a massive platform that we’d love to see taken thorough advantage of, please and thank you very much.

Jonathan is in a black tshirt, with a colourful backdrop behind him. He’s holding a piece of paper in one hand and a cup on the paper with the other. Inside the glass is a bug. On his left shoulder sits a small Jonathan, dressed as an angel. On his right, another small Jonathan though this time dressed as a very fashionable devil.

Becca

As I have rambled (excuse the pun) on about multiple times before, I am quite the fan of a podcast. I have dabbled with everyone’s favourite Jesus look alike, Jonathan Van Ness’ podcast Getting Curious and have to admit that I have to be in a very specific mood to tolerate it. His wholesome, chaotic, and childlike energy is undeniably charming in the visual medium of Queer Eye – perhaps because the remaining Fab Five dilute his intensity – but I found him a little more exhausting in this alternative audio format.

All of this waffle is to say, I had my apprehensions about how Getting Curious might translate onto Netflix’s big-ish screen. I am pleasantly surprised to report that I found it a much more enjoyable and binge-able experience than I had ever anticipated. I watched the entirety of the 6 episode series in one evening: we’ve gone from a one hour podcast being a little bit of a stretch of my attention span, to easily getting through three hours in a single sitting. I found it the perfect ‘put it on in the background while I finally tidy my room but genuinely learn something in the process’ kind of watch. A niche category, but one I’m pretty sure we can all relate to, whether we like to admit it or not.

I’m unconvinced it was really doing anything all that new or ground breaking; quirky host who claims not to know much about anything goes on a journey to satisfy their curiosity, pre-armed with all the right questions and the resources to ask all the right people. I was slightly fascinated by the topics of choice for each of the 30 minute episodes. Titles range from ‘Are Bugs Gorgeous or Gross?’, ‘Can We Say Bye-Bye to the Binary?’, and ‘Are Skyscrapers Huge Divas?’. There’s most definitely no rhyme or reason to the subject matter on offerand I’m undecided over whether or not this is slightly jarring. Maybe I need to lighten up a bit, but I did expect there to be some kind of over-riding theme. Perhaps JVN has done something new then – before Getting Curious I would never have sat and watched what is essentially an informal documentary on skyscrapers. Unashamed to say even the skyscrapers genuinely interested me. 

So, despite all my pre-conceptions, I guess I would recommend Getting Curious. I still maintain that in the scheme of things, it’s not all that original in its format, but that’s also not necessarily the point. The point is that JVN has cultivated a loving and supportive fan base of his absolute dedication to being wholly himself. He is the original aspect of the show. He’s no Louis Theroux or Stacey Dooley – who themselves fall into their own perfectly carved out niche – but offers us a delightfully light hearted and uncensored approach to acquiring new knowledge. Honestly, we should all hope to take even just a little of that attitude throughout our adult lives.

Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness is available to watch now on Netflix.

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