What is television? After watching Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness (Netflix), I don’t think I know any more. This series is a spin-off from the Queer Eye star’s podcast of the same name, in which Van Ness quite literally gets curious about a topic, then speaks to various guests about it. The podcast is long-running, well-established and very charming, but the question of whether it needed to become a more visual experience is yet to be answered.
Van Ness is clearly a star. The former hairdresser made their name with the extremely funny Gay of Thrones online recaps, and went on to become part of the new Fab Five on the updated, much improved Queer Eye makeover series, which is always good for a cathartic cry and a renewed sense of faith in humanity. Van Ness is the one participants often open up to, usually while having their hair spritzed. Amiable, warm and an impressive interviewer, they give the impression of someone who genuinely wants to listen and learn. They are also excitable. All of this sets them up well to host an all-sorts, magazine show.
The first episode, Are Bugs Gorgeous or Gross? (we’ve all wondered), makes it seem as if the whole thing will play out like a high camp, low-budget take on The Green Planet. It sees Van Ness speak to a range of experts and entomologists about the importance of insects; if you can maintain a sturdy stomach while watching a termite queen do her thing you have more resilience than me. “That’s really cool,” coos Van Ness, though I’m not sure I believe them. It’s a high-octane mix of facts, footage and parody. Van Ness regularly pops up dressed as an angel or a devil, to declare that a bug is “Gorgeous!” or “Gross!” At one point, Drag Race star Monét X Change appears to co-host a spoof red carpet event, shouting about the “realness” of the bugs who are walking it.
It is busy and discombobulating, but finds its voice pretty quickly. For all the fun snippets about insects and Van Ness’s willingness to get stuck in (he actually does get stuck in, when a chef serves him insects), it eventually swerves into a more nuanced zone – if you can call a choreographed dance routine about the cultural history of hairstyles featuring Angela Davis and Elizabeth I nuanced.
The rest of the episodes are more suited to Van Ness’s open-hearted and zany approach to learning, with frank discussions on, officially, hair, snacks, the gender binary, skyscrapers and figure-skating. Below the surface, though, these end up as empathic explorations of identity. The episode about gender – Van Ness identifies as non-binary – features that rare thing, an onscreen discussion about non-binary people, between non-binary people, that is not adversarial. “Literally can’t talk,” Van Ness manages to say, clearly moved by the experience.
There is much to recommend. Academics with unusual specialisms are great value on television, and seeing people’s unbridled dedication to wigs or spiders or 18th-century paintings is always entertaining. Van Ness is a delight to watch, so easy in conversation with strangers, and their wide-eyed enthusiasm is infectious. Their conversation with the congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, about Pressley’s relationship with her hair as a Black woman, and her experiences with alopecia, is unusually intimate for an interview with a politician. Perhaps a guest spot on Newsnight would not be a terrible idea.
What’s curious, though, is that as a podcast, this format is fantastic, and if Van Ness released this show on YouTube, I would fully accept its giddy, scattergun energy. I watch Netflix on the same browser, and the same screen, but something about it here feels like a less easy fit. Does that mean this is television or not? I still don’t know. Maybe Van Ness can answer that one in another series.