×

TV Review: ‘AJ and the Queen’

With:
RuPaul Charles, Izzy G., Michael-Leon Wooley
Release Date:
Jan 10, 2020

RuPaul is one of the single most impactful TV stars of the decade just concluded, thanks to a funny sort of double performance. As the host and presiding judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the performer is “himself” in a sort of emcee drag of tailored suits and black-framed specs before emerging, each episode, as the character “RuPaul,” defined by big wigs and high dudgeon. It’s a bombshell of charisma that’s so well-deployed it looks quite a lot like art, playing off of RuPaul’s long history in the public eye and the conventions of unscripted TV to create an elaborate pantomime that, moment-to-moment, feels realer than vérité.

RuPaul has been so adept at defining the emotional texture of the series — easily toggling from humane interaction with aspirant drag queens to superhuman ringleader of runway chaos — that it’s easy to see why he’d seem like a fit for a scripted series. Unfortunately, Netflix’s “AJ and the Queen” has little to recommend it other than Ru himself, bringing to bear the star’s charisma on a tonally uneven, shaky story and trusting that glamour will carry the day. Even RuPaul has his limitations.

Here, the star plays Robert Lee, a performer who takes the stage as Ruby Red. Finally ready to pursue his dream of opening a club of his own, he realizes that his boyfriend (Josh Segarra) has grifted him and stolen his money; this fellow, in league with a villainess in an eyepatch (Tia Carrere) then pursue him across the country to get their revenge for Robert’s dropping the dime on them to copes. Robert’s escape from them coincides with a national tour of small drag bars (his full name’s resonance with some Deep South cities he visits going oddly unmentioned), as well as with a lengthy process of bonding with AJ, the urchin who’s stowed away in his RV (a young performer who goes by Izzy G.).

That’s a steamer trunk’s worth of baggage for a new show to take on, and it doesn’t wear well. Carrere’s character, a snarling vixen who feels taken from Carmen Sandiego’s league of cartoon crooks, has to share space in the narrative with AJ’s trauma over her mother’s struggles with addiction. There’s hardly enough space even in generously padded episodes for Robert to show much dimension at all.

It’s as if, in telling the story of a drag queen, Michael Patrick King, who created the show with RuPaul, overindexed just how much we see drag queens as avatars of exaggerated emotional control. (King, notably, lost the plot of “Sex and the City,” as screenwriter and director of the two theatrical movies based on a show whose complex, threaded relationships didn’t show up on the big screen.) Robert is perfectly, wittily together throughout his ordeal — breaking down in a hospital, for instance, only to admit that he’s only doing so because it’s fun to reference Shirley MacLaine’s similar work in “Terms of Endearment” — until, every so often, he isn’t, and we get a fleeting scene pondering his wounds. RuPaul carries these well, but they’re so discontinuous from the character we see for so much of the series, and inserted so hamhandedly, that they float away. A late-series episode about Robert’s bond with a childhood pal (played in adulthood by Jane Krakowski) introduces ideas of shame around queer sexuality that are not uninteresting, but that don’t feel true to the story this show is telling.

A show about overcoming loneliness and isolation through performance would be an interesting and worthy one. But tasking a show about a cross-country chase and drag tour starring a mouthy kid to take that on, too, is more than King and his queen can handle. Drag is, as RuPaul has proven on reality TV for years now, a very serious subject — it’s all about the manner in which we approach the world, and Robert’s reflexive wittiness and embarrassment at being seen in drag in daylight provide character shading that moves the show in an interesting direction, for fleeting moments. But the world around Robert — Carrere’s untrammeled performance, the overwritten wisecracks Izzy G. is asked to sell — feels unfinished, chaotic to a fault, sloppy. It consumes even a performer as big as RuPaul, and swallows up ideas. It drags an ebullient and even, perhaps, a potentially emotionally acute performer down.

TV Review: 'AJ and the Queen'

Netflix. Ten episodes (nine screened for review). Running time: 60 MIN.

Production: Executive producers: Michael Patrick King, RuPaul Charles, Jhoni Marchinko

Cast: RuPaul Charles, Izzy G., Michael-Leon Wooley, Tia Carrere, Josh Segarra, Katerina Tannenbaum.

More TV

  • 'The Bachelor Summer Games' Shelved at

    'The Bachelor Summer Games' Shelved at ABC Due to Coronavirus

    ABC has made the decision to shelve its planned “The Bachelor Summer Games” spinoff, Variety has confirmed, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the entertainment industry. The prospective series, which had yet to be officially announced, was slated to air during the Olympics this summer, however, news of the show being scrapped for the [...]

  • V Wars Season 1

    'V-Wars,' 'October Faction' Canceled at Netflix After One Season Each

    Both “V-Wars” and “October Faction” have been canceled at Netflix after airing just one season apiece, Variety has confirmed. The two shows are both produced by IDW Entertainment, which is also behind the Netflix series adaptation of “Locke & Key.” News of the twin cancellations comes just after Netflix announced a season 2 pick up for [...]

  • FOX PRESENTS THE IHEART LIVING ROOM

    Fox, iHeart Execs Reveal Secrets Behind 'Living Room Concert' Performances (EXCLUSIVE)

    As recently as last Tuesday, just three artists had signed on to “Fox Presents the iHeart Living Room Concert for America.” But after a week of scrambling and all-night editing sessions, the producers and executives behind the special managed to put together a one-hour event on Sunday night that attracted at least 5.5 million viewers, [...]

  • Steve Carell John Krasinski

    John Krasinski and Steve Carell Hold Mini 'Office' Reunion

    John Krasinski and Steve Carell virtually reunited for an “Office” reunion as part of the first episode of Krasinski’s new YouTube series, “Some Good News.” In an effort to brighten up spirits during the Covid-19 pandemic, Krasinski launched his new YouTube series on Sunday — and there was no better inaugural guest than his former [...]

  • HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER

    'How To Get Away With Murder's' Death Cover-ups, Ranked

    The road to “How to Get Away with Murder” is lined with dead bodies. Twenty-eight to be exact. Over the years, the series showed that there’s no shortage of ways to die. Suicide, poison, overdose, suffocation — you name it. The most shocking deaths, of course, are the “anchors”: In the season’s first half, each [...]

  • 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' 'A Discovery of

    'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' 'A Discovery of Witches' Writers Set Projects at Quibi (EXCLUSIVE)

    With exactly one week left until its launch, Quibi has put four new shows in development, Variety has learned exclusively. Among the additions to to the platform’s swelling slate are an animated comedy from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” writer Steve Leff, and a thriller from “A Discovery of Witches” showrunner Kate Brooke. The Leff-created comedy is called “God’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content