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Early in the first season of "Q-Force," Netflix's raunchy and heartfelt new animated comedy (now streaming), there's a poignant exchange between novice gay spies Steve (Sean Hayes) and Deb (Wanda Sykes).
"We're the first queer agents in the field ever," Steve says. "I feel so much pressure to show I'm the best because if I mess up, I don't know if anyone else like us will ever get a chance."
The line takes on added meaning coming from Hayes, 51, the Emmy-winning funnyman whose NBC sitcom "Will & Grace" brought groundbreaking LGBTQ+ representation to network TV in the late '90s. But the openly gay actor, who played the unapologetic Jack McFarland for 11 seasons of the sitcom (including its recent revival), demurely dismisses his "trailblazer" status.
"I try not to load myself up with any pressure," Hayes says. "I think it's a much stronger example to lead with confidence than with any underlying pressure that's self-induced. The haters will hate."
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"Q-Force" is a longtime dream come true for Hayes, an avid James Bond fan since childhood. He initially envisioned the project as a feature-length movie in the vein of "Austin Powers" or Melissa McCarthy's 2015 comedy "Spy" until his producing partner Todd Milliner suggested an animated series instead. He pitched the show in passing one day to friend Michael Schur, co-creator of "Parks and Recreation" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and an executive producer on "Q-Force."
"I said, 'Mike, want to do a show together?' And he said, 'What is it?' " Hayes recalls. "I go, 'Gay James Bond.' He said, 'Of course I'm doing that show.'"
"Q-Force" follows the adventures of a misfit group of superspies led by Steve, a rising star in the American Intelligence Agency (AIA) who's punted to a low-level job in West Hollywood after coming out as gay. He assembles a motley crew of queer agents – mechanic Deb, drag queen Twink (Matt Rogers) and hacker Stat (Patti Harrison) – and desperately searches for cases to solve until AIA grudgingly pulls the squad into the field.
The series is notable for its nearly all-queer voice cast and writers room – a sad rarity in today's TV landscape.
"There's good ethics in that, giving queer actors the opportunities they deserve," says executive producer Gabe Liedman ("Big Mouth"). "I also think that actors do great work when they feel connected to the material. So it's not just a political statement, I think it really helps the product in the end."
The show is incredibly specific in its queer humor, with jokes about Sean Cody and not eating before sex that may go over many straight viewers' heads. For Liedman, it was a chance to make something "fun and stupid" and full of queer joy, forgoing the gay trauma we so often see in film and television.
"I wanted myself, but also the many writers I was working with, to have that freedom and say, 'Let's not be educational for a second,'" Liedman says. "It's not about holding everyone's hands. Let's make the jokes that make us laugh, and hopefully there's an audience out there that are on our level of knowledge and ready for it."
The adult-oriented series also doesn't shy away from nudity and graphic, although still stylized, depictions of gay sex. One episodes riffs on the 2005 Oscar-winning drama "Brokeback Mountain," as Steve seduces a supposedly straight man to get information.
"It felt great, because how many years have we been forced to watch straight sex in commercials, on TV, in movies, in magazines? Everywhere," Hayes says. "Everyone (in liberal communities) thinks we have accomplished so much, which we have. But there's so much more to do. As fun and silly as this little cartoon is that we made, hopefully it's another step forward. It's showing that gay people have sex too, and it can be just as sexy, if not more."
In the weeks leading up to release, "Q-Force" has gotten pushback from critics and Twitter users for its at-times dated gay stereotypes, which were on full display in the show's much-derided first teaser trailer. The flirty and flamboyant Twink obsesses over his appearance and female pop stars, while Deb plays into tired lesbian cliches of starting a joint bank account with her now-wife on their first date.
Hayes brushes off the backlash, simply saying, "I don't have time for that." Liedman, meanwhile, says he hopes that viewers will still give the show a chance.
"We were just trying to offer up something fun and happy and exciting, not trying to be hurtful. That's the exact opposite of the intention," Liedman says. "Obviously intentions only count for so much and it's really in the hands of the audience, so I understand the criticism."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sean Hayes hopes his Netflix gay spy comedy is 'another step forward'