Queer Eye

I love a baseball team named after a hosiery product.
— Carson Kressley, Queer Eye for the Red Sox

Never mind the straight guy: it’s just Queer Eye now. Those two words have “become part of our everyday vernacular,” Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick explained in a statement last week. “The new abbreviated title for the series is a nod to the show’s status in the world of pop culture.”

In other words, that first heady thrill is officially long gone. For proof that Queer Eye‘s gaze has shifted, one need only tune in tonight’s very special Season Three premiere. The hour pits Bravo’s Fab Five against Red Sox players Kevin Millar, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, and Doug Mirabelli in a half-hearted attempt to make these world champs of baseball look and dress like winners, too.

Carson, Ted, Thom, Jai, and Kyan roll into spring training with typical enthusiasm (“Is this where we tackle you?”), but as you might expect, the athletes are hardly needy. The ensuing afternoon feels indulgent on both sides: The Red Sox are pampered, waxed, and exfoliated while four spouses look on (Millar’s wife was home pregnant in Boston), and their gay advisors do their best not to look like the drop-in hired help. It’s a hard act to pull off: Thom’s interior design contribution (mentioned in passing) is to turn the stadium’s press room into the players’ spa, complete with hot female staff (“This is kind of how I pictured it, after winning the World Series, how it would be,” says Mirabelli), and Ted organizes the catering.

It’s mostly grooming guru Kyan’s show. But while he scores points with Millar for his adorably school-marmish reasoning (“You talk manly to me. I like that”), “Caveman” Damon brings in his own stylist to update his highlights and admits he’s no stranger to the paraffin wax. That must be one pimpin’ cave.

Really, what’s not fun about watching grown, ostensibly macho men suffer back and neck waxes? The idea here is simple: take Boston’s studs out of their element, then throw them back on the field — with the Fab Five. For the feel-good happy ending, the show drafts as pinch hitters a local little league whose fields were destroyed by Hurricane Charley. The kids are surprised with the chance to play an exhibition game with the Sox — along with those goofy guys from Bravo — and a big check (and many sponsor shout-outs) to help repair their fields.

The game is edited for maximum laughs (see Jai plea for leniency as he steps up to bat, see Thom counsel a kid to hit the ball straight to pink-jerseyed Carson) — and maximum Awww (see the champs goof around with the kids). Still, some non-cookie-cutter moments slip in, such as Millar’s turn at the plate. Gripping the bat with purpose, he invites the catcher’s counsel. “What, you’re serious right now?” Mirabelli mocks. “I don’t know, should I hit left-handed?” Millar asks. There is fun in watching the It boys of Boston and Bravo square off, as when Wakefield explains the finer points of his pitching technique and Carson is quick with a rejoinder: “In my line of work, they get mad when you hold the ball with your fingernails.” And yet: This is not the Queer Eye you used to know.

Remember Butch, the artist/contractor “made better” in the inaugural episode way way back in July of 2003? And John B., the Jersey cowboy so nervous about proposing to girlfriend Tina that you thought he might dissolve into a puddle before he got the question out? Alas, these hapless everymen appear to be gone for good, replaced tonight by stunt casting and in future episodes by unique personal stories — i.e., serious charity cases. Upcoming hours will champion a “super dad” with eight foster kids, an Iraq war vet adjusting to life in a wheelchair, and a 40-year-old cystic fibrosis survivor. Oh, the tears, the bittersweet laughter.

“If you bedazzle it,” Carson says in tonight’s episode. “They will come.” But if Bravo turns my guilty, funny pleasure into Total Man Makeover, I will shed a single, stylish tear, and swiftly leave the Fab Five behind.