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.