Why did Netflix’s Q-Force flop so hard?

Q-Force is a 2021 adult animated comedy, created by Gabe Liedman, which began airing on Netflix in September 2021. On the surface, Q-Force should have been a hit. It follows the Queer Force, a group of LGBTQ+ superspies fighting both criminals and homophobia within the American Intelligence Agency (AIA), a fictional intelligence agency.

Q-Force features a star studded voice cast – including Tony, Golden Globe and Emmy winners and nominees Laurie Metcalf and Sean Hayes. It has a great  concept, and its titular Queer Force takes well known LGBTQ+ archetypes and cleverly transform them into super-spy archetypes.

Maryweather is the handsome gym freak filling the roll of the suave James Bond field agent; Twink, the French-Canadian drag queen is the Master of Disguise; Deb, the lesbian mechanic is the gadget master in the vein of James Bonds’ Q; and Stat, the gothic transgender lesbian acts as the team’s super hacker.

Four members of Q-Force stand in front of a garage, three look despondent while one tries to cheer them up.

Unlike many productions that profit off queer people, Q-Force’s cast and production team are primarily LGBTQ+, and it draws on a successful formula – another animated comedy about spies, Archer, has been a smash hit for years. Queer people have a long history with animation and a deep love for the medium – from the work of Howard Ashman, the pioneering mind behind the Little Mermaid, to the fabulous animated music videos of modern drag queens such as Jinx Monsoon and Manilla Luzon. Arguably, we’re also in a golden age of animated LGBTQ+ representation with shows like The Dragon Prince or She-Ra. It’s clear the queer community has always embraced animation.

Yet Q-Force stumbled at release and managed to pull only a 23% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So far, we don’t know if it will even get a second season.

So… why did Q-Force struggle to stand up?

While the jokes fall flat more often than they probably should, Q-Force’s sense of humour is a league ahead of other recent Netflix adult comedies such as the painful Hoops, The Prince, or my personal least favourite, Paradise PD. You will get a chuckle from time to time, and jokes that failed for me rarely did so in such an egregious manner that I wanted to turn it off (unlike the aforementioned Paradise PD). But this isn’t the first time that a Netflix queer comedy landed with a splat – controversial series Super Drags met with a disastrously lackluster response at release in November 2018, and was officially cancelled just a month later.

Super Drags also tried to tackle homophobia – though its conceit was a super-powered team of drag queens fighting an evil villain, Lazy Elza, who was responsible for encouraging (or outright causing) homophobia.

Three drag queens in primary colour outfits pose dramatically like superheroes
The titular Super Drags

This growing pattern makes me think Netflix doesn’t really understand homophobia. In both series, the emotional heart of the story focuses on fighting back against homophobia. The only problem – it’s the type of homophobia that makes allies feel comfortable. 

The homophobia Q-Force’s super-spies face is isolated bad apples in a position of power, who dramatically scream slurs while being recorded. But rest-assured, their immediate supervisor (and Merryweather’s mentor) V is on their side, she just needs some time to overcome the bigotry of the AIA Director! In the end, they overcome the Director’s homophobia by trying really hard and proving themselves when they intercept a nuclear smuggling ring. Director Dirk is pissed, but he has to admit they did a good job, and lets them continue to work.

The emotional core to Q-Force, which is supposed to bring the characters together and unite them to fight against injustice, rings hollow. In real-life queer people face constant, systematic discrimination. Violent abuse from particular vitriolic bigots does happen – I’ve faced it myself. 

But the real battle against discrimination is a constant, slow war against discriminatory laws and systems of power. The discrimination we face is often more mundane. It certainly isn’t like Super Drags’ supervillain, a single person responsible for all homophobia in the world. 

Queer discrimination includes school boards banning LGBTQ+ books, sex education programs omitting queer people, transgender people being misgendered at work, job recruiters subconsciously favouring straight or cisgender people. It is about LGBTQ+ teens facing homelessness, and LGBTQ+ people facing higher barriers to careers in Hollywood, the publishing industry, or just about anywhere else. It is about the fact gay teachers can still be fired for their sexuality, and queer life partners’ not having rights when their partner dies.

These aren’t solved by overcoming one bigot. The fact Super Drags takes the concept of discrimination and blames supervillains is absurdist, but also insulting.

In the same manner, the homophobia that Q-Force’s super-spies confront isn’t the lived experience of queer people. It is a parody of homophobia, presented in a way that has no emotional heart, and which allows people to remain comfortably unchallenged while watching.

a woman with purple hair, worn makeup and beauty spots angrily scowls
Lady Elza, the supervillain antagonist of Super Drags

Homophobia, queerphobia, transphobia, biphobia – these aren’t just the domain of self-parodying bigots. They are committed every day by straight people, by cisgender people, even by queer people, often without even realising they’re doing it.

The issue isn’t isolated to Q-Force’s themes and story. It characters rarely grow beyond their beginnings as simple archetypes, and stray into harmful stereotypes more than once. Yet perhaps the most unfunny character on the show is Rick Buck, a “token straight” agent assigned by the director to keep an eye on Queer Force. He is little more than a parody of a masculine straight man – football, lackluster hygiene, beer drinking, with a single minded focus on attractive women – taken to an extreme that quickly loses any sense of good natured fun.

When you decide the emotional core of your story is homophobia – and try to build your comedy around a satisfying clap-back at bigots – you better check if the way you’re portraying it has any depth at all. Queer people’s lives are more than just fighting discrimination and discrimination is more than just some bad apples.

Q-Force’s take on homophobia might’ve felt fresh a decade ago, but today it’s like that wilted lettuce you left in the fridge too long. Not quite rotten, but if you make a sandwich with it, you’re just going to be left sad and unfulfilled.

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