This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
For 10 hours on Netflix, you get to see RuPaul perform. It is a treat, one that fans of the world’s preeminent drag queen haven’t enjoyed for years, with the Emmy-winning host spending the last decade preferring to preside over the stage as younger, fame-hungry queens show off for the world on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But at least once in each episode of AJ and the Queen, which launched Friday on the streaming service, RuPaul glams up in bombshell sculpted wigs and bedazzled gowns and performs a drag number. He does the Tina Turner “Proud Mary” dance. Dripping in a Bob Mackie gown and waterfall curls, he does the Diana Ross portion of “Endless Love.” He’s stitched into black leather and twists his pedal pushers as Sandy from Grease: “Tell me about it, stud.”
You get to watch an icon be iconic. It is one of the greatest endorsements any TV series in the tidal wave of original programming in 2020 can hope for: Sure, your show might be good and all, but does it have RuPaul performing Sia’s “Chandelier” as the chandelier?
It should be said that, as an actor, RuPaul is somewhat of a revelation to (thigh-high) boot. What is unexpected, then, about AJ and the Queen is that the show is also absolutely bananas.
The press notes for the series describe it as “part Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, part Touched By an Angel.” When I first read that sentence I shrieked. The thing is, that deranged pairing, as ludicrous as Elton John inviting Karen Pence to duet, is somehow an incredibly accurate summation of what in the name of Lady Bunny is happening on AJ and the Queen.
The basic plot is that Ruby Red, RuPaul’s character, has a fall from grace that turns what was supposed to be a farewell tour of gigs at clubs across America into a cross-country lifeline. On the eve of signing the lease on his own New York City night club with his business partner, played by one TV’s great hot idiots, The Other Two’s Josh Segarra, Ruby discovers that he’s been grifted. Conned. Gay Dirty John’d. The man who he thought was in love with him was using a fake identity to swindle him out of his life’s savings.
So Ruby packs up his dilapidated RV and dejectedly sets off on his road trip, only to discover that he has a stowaway.
AJ (Izzy G.), the 10-year-old upstairs neighbor in Ruby’s apartment building, is evicted alongside his mother, a drug addict and prostitute who has been missing for days, prompting AJ to want to travel to Texas where his grandfather lives. It’s her grandfather, rather. AJ, at this point a street rat who steals to live, styles herself as a boy because she “doesn’t want to be a girl” and has discovered that people tend to leave boys alone.
After begrudgingly agreeing to take AJ on the trip, Ruby helps her become more comfortable with rebutting gender norms, because if you can’t love yourself then how the hell you gonna love somebody else, can I get an amen up in here? AJ teaches Ruby a capacity for kindness he didn’t know he had. It’s a road trip series that’s literally about the friends you made along the way.
Oh, they’re also being hunted by Ruby’s con artist ex and his eyepatch-wearing associate (Tia Carrere, in full Bond villain drag). It’s already a lot, and we haven’t even gotten into the various microcultures and LGBT attitudes each episode explores at red-state gay bars around the country.
I can’t say that the show is... good. Bless RuPaul for finding gravity and soulfulness in some upsettingly saccharine dialogue, a contrast to the sassily-delivered one-liners he delivers with grade-A charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. I don’t believe in criticizing child performers’ acting, so we’ll move on from AJ and instead discuss this Priscilla-meets-Roma Downey-glowing-as-an-angel-sent-from-God tone.
It will be a test of patience for the hive of social media gays and toxic Drag Race fans, who maybe expected something more cutting from RuPaul. It will be interesting to see how long they give it before sashaying away, maybe even angry that the public figurehead of a discipline and culture rooted in transgression, grit, and subversion is sanitizing the message for something mainstream.
On the other hand, there are those who will argue the revolutionary value in RuPaul starring in a series like this, one that sees opportunity for empathy and understanding in the simplicity of hum-drum schmaltz.
Sure, those who have followed RuPaul might cringe at the broad, base-level ways it examines gender identity, a topic that RuPaul has navigated in recent years with the grace of a toddler playing Minesweeper. But something tells me that AJ and the Queen isn’t exactly appealing to those people.
It’s a series that might have appeared on the ABC Family or the Disney Channel a generation ago. Raunched up a little with the freedom of Netflix, it’s basically targeted to that demographic. Maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s bad. At least it’s RuPaul performing. Everybody say love.