'Q-Force' Trafficks In Queer Stereotypes — Then Drives Through Them
Q-Force is nicer than Archer.
By "nicer" I mean exactly what you think I mean: It's warmer, kinder, more interested in showing how much its characters care about, and look out for, one another.
If that surprises you, you're not alone. Come sit here by me.
Consider: Both animated series are about spies, are made for adults, feature a motley assortment of characters with differing skill sets, and come heavily outfitted with jokes, pop-culture references, and the deployment of the occasional stereotype. Both, interestingly, feature a sharp-tongued older woman with a Sontag-stripe in her hair, who mentors the team, or tries to. (Archer's version was voiced by the late great Jessica Walter, while Q-Force's is voiced by the living great Laurie Metcalf.)
It's perhaps unfair that I, a queer man, went into the first episode of Q-Force expecting a caustic, withering tone and sharp, jugular-targeting humor. I anticipated the joke-density of Archer combined with the combative fierceness of RuPaul's Drag Race: Untucked. And finally, given the show's premise — a hugely promising young man outs himself at his graduation from spy-school, causing his homophobic boss to relegate him to a low-stakes agency outpost in West Hollywood — a bit of good, old-fashioned queer outrage.
As I say: unfair assumptions, all. Reductive.
Also, as it happens, completely wrong. From its opening moments, Q-Force's jokes are surprisingly gentle and humane, and they come at a steady, even measured, pace. The absence of an unceasing gag fusillade gives each episode more time for the kind of emotional beats that seek to establish and build on the ensemble's interpersonal relationships. There's some lip-service paid to the notion that the team works as a microcosm of the queer community, but the practical effect is to allow the main characters, who initially slot into very broad queer stereotypes, to add extra layers and evince the occasional nuance.
All through the queers
Co-producer Sean Hayes voices Q-Force leader Steve "Mary" Maryweather, a blandly handsome muscle queen who's deeply determined — perhaps too determined — to succeed as a spy. Wanda Sykes voices Deb, the team's mechanic/inventor, who's adamant that her life as a spy never intersects with her marriage to her wife (three guesses that how that plays out). Patti Harrison voices the team's sardonic resident hacker Stat, Matt Rogers voices Twink, a mistress of disguise/drag queen, and David Harbour voices Buck, the belligerent, egregiously and disgustingly straight spy that HQ sends in to monitor the team.
The series is the product of many queer creators, both behind the scenes — as writers, producers and animators — and behind the mic. (Does it make a palpable difference that, in most cases, queer characters are voiced by queer actors, and straight characters by straight actors? Maybe, maybe not — but it is at least novel, and interesting to watch.)
Q-Force's creator and showrunner is Gabe Liedman, a gay man who's written for Kroll Show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and PEN15, among other things. It was co-produced by Hayes and Michael Schur.
It's tempting to attribute the show's more-humane-than-expected sensibility to the influence of Schur, who's made a career out of sitcoms known for their warmth and positivity (Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, Rutherford Falls). But that wouldn't be fair to Liedman, because while, for example, PEN15 is often as vicious as the teenagers it depicts, the relationship between its two leads is grounded in deep emotional truth. It's also not fair to Schur, whose work on The Comeback was brilliantly barbed and uncompromisingly dark. In the end, we can't know who's responsible for the show's penchant for steering so deeply into character moments, going for the emotion of a scene as much as its humor.
Types, in stereo
Does all of that humor work? Of course not. A character based on Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries hangs around long after her joke's been made, and made again. Gags about lesbians' tendency to shack up quickly may maintain an air of truth, but not an air of novelty.
But for every joke that falls flat or plays into tired stereotypes, there are many more that mine those same stereotypes to find something surprising. Some queer viewers, for example, may find the show's depiction of the fabulously effeminate Twink an offensive one, but it should be noted that the character's a great deal more confident, self-assured and comfortable in their skin than the show's ostensible main character. That counts for something.
It might be useful to point out here that stereotypes are harmful when they are flatly asserted by those seeking to keep marginalized groups out. But in the hands of a marginalized group, stereotypes can be deployed usefully — they can act as Trojan horses, sneaking us past the defenses of a bigoted system, to get us in the room. No, it's never ideal — one always hopes to be welcomed. But when thoughtfully, cannily exploited, even the broadest stereotypes can help to undermine the prejudices and hatred they seem, on the surface, to embody.
Also, perhaps more importantly, given how queer characters have been depicted in media over the years: These queens aren't neutered. They, like any other superspy character in the culture, have sex onscreen. Joyfully (and occasionally full-frontally), without the camera panning away to gently wafting curtains.
Should Q-Force get a second season, it'd be interesting for the series' spotlight to shine a bit more often and a bit more brightly on members of the team besides Maryweather. Hayes is great at voicing Mary's sundry inner conflicts, but for the show to truly become the ensemble it seems to want to be, it will need to explore the inner lives of its supporting characters (a subplot involving Stat's dalliance with an A.I. did a lot of very good work fleshing out their whole deal).
So, no: Despite their many surface similarities, Q-Force isn't simply a queer version of Archer; it is its own, special creation — one that values a sense of community, and a sense of belonging, at least as much as it values a sense of humor.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.