Rupaul’s Drag Race has been a huge success, it’s been on for over a decade with 11 main seasons, 4 all stars seasons, and most recently the excellent UK version for BBC Three. Unsurprisingly Rupaul has been searching for another project to capitalise on this success, to strike while the hot glue gun is hot. And out of this we had a failed Ellen-Style Talk Show, which I found very stilted and underwhelming (I only suffered through one episode to be fair) and now AJ and the Queen, a Netflix series made in collaboration with Michael Patrick King, who is responsible for Sex and the City as well as cult favourite and Lisa Kudrow power vehicle The Comeback.
The rumours swirling around were that Rupaul was looking for a project where she could sit down a lot during filming. A project with a lot of driving then, would be ideal. I don’t blame her, being a drag queen is performing in uncomfortable shoes for hours on end, having already spent three hours in hair and make up. Another rumour, later confirmed by Rupaul on her podcast, was that they filmed the entire New York to Dallas road movie series within 20 miles of Los Angeles.
The show essentially wishes to reheat the road movie magic of Priscilla Queen of the Desert or even To Wong Foo and smear it across a multi-episode Netflix series, I think this is a good premise. The road movie convention is a useful form of narrative for a tv series. Each episode can easily be contained with its own unique plot, a stop along the way, whilst still advancing the overall season story. Time doesn’t need to be 100% consistent, as we can presume that we’re only being shown the highlights of the journey and it’s an easy way to show the audience a story with a resolution, each episode and each season, the characters are travelling towards something and we want to know if they ever get there. So far this is Screenwriting 101.
The bad idea came in the form of giving Ruby Red (Rupaul) a troubled and angry 10 year old stowaway child companion for the ride. I can see the creators also wanted to capture a bit more of the realism and gritty emotion of something like Transamerica, the fantastic trans road movie with a pre-prison and Oscar Nominated Felicity Huffman. Had AJ been a character in their early twenties, it would have raised eyebrows but would have been better. But other characters rarely question why Ruby has a ten year old child with her, and this dodgy arrangement only pokes through into the main plot a few times. It doesn’t always feel like the writers are all the way convinced that it’s okay so they just leave it.
The acting is at times catastrophically bad, whilst there are moments of tenderness and emotion from Rupaul (mostly when not speaking) a lot of Ru’s lines are delivered by someone who hasn’t read the script and is being fed them through an earpiece. There are jokes in the dialogue that are as worn out as the RV’s tires, not helped by the painfully wooden and expected delivery. If you’ve ever watched Drag Race, you know all these jokes already. The actor playing AJ seems to have attended the Daniel Radcliffe School of Child Acting. It’s all temper tantrums, over-reacting, and juicing those bad lines like a sous chef desperate to make enough fresh orange juice for a large Brunch party.
Congratulations must be given to Tia Carrere for her schlocky and Michelle Visage inspired portrayal of Lady Danger, one of the main baddies. Lady Danger is a character who would be at home in a John Waters movie, and in a way, I wish they had committed to making the tone of the show a bit more outrageous, as she is. Carrere manages to make the character funny and watchable with enough shades of menace. Unlike others in the cast, she is acting and it is believable which is a stand out achievement in this context. You can see there’s a struggle at the centre of the show about what it is, it desperately wishes to be earnest, to tackle big issues and make you cry, but it also can’t help but enjoy itself with campy big performances.
AJ and the Queen strives for the glossy look of The L Word and it succeeds in certain moments, however this look and this style is woefully out of date in this decade. Each episode starts with a glossy slow motion shot of something which is supposed to be grand and metaphorical, this is coupled with a voice-over from AJ explaining what you’re seeing. These moments don’t seem to connect with the content of the episode at all and serve as filler. It’s an odd choice and feels like something that the creators came up with and have stuck to and no one else on production had the heart to tell them that it wasn’t working and was a little outdated.
The cameos from Drag Race queens give us some of the most enjoyable moments in the show, although those without a literacy in the world of Drag Race will be bewildered by a lot of the references. I thought Chad Michael’s turn as another older queen who was swindled by the same man who romanced and stole Ruby’s/Rupaul’s savings was brilliant. You could sense the delight these queens take in acting with Rupaul, they don’t have to defer to her as they did when they were on her reality show, most characters are mean and bitchy and it’s fun to watch. At one point Kennedy Davenport shouts in Rupaul’s face: “YOU’RE BROKE GURL” with such hilarious glee, it’s like watching a sixth form variety show where the students are on stage mocking their teachers who are sat in the audience, in on the joke.
Ultimately AJ and the Queen is a slow-motion multi-vehicle freeway accident which I cannot and do not wish to shield my eyes from. Despite the awful things I have detailed above (I didn’t even get to the “Blind” acting by Michael-Leon Wooley) it is annoyingly compelling to watch. Having just heard a Season 2 is on the way, I hope they hire some new writers and maybe some new actors as well before we go on another road trip!
Watchable TRASH. I give it TWO Rupaul Party City Wigs out of FIVE