Created by: Michael Patrick King, RuPaul Charles
Written by: Michael Patrick King, RuPaul Charles, Eric Reyes Loo, Stephen Soroka, Jhoni Marchinko, Drew Droege, Jon Kinnally, Tracy Poust
Starring: RuPaul Charles, Izzy G., Michael-Leon Wooley, Josh Segarra, Katerina Tannenbaum, Tia Carrere, Matthew Wilkas, Jane Krakowski
I came to AJ and the Queen semi-excited to watch RuPaul in a different scenario other than RuPaul’s Drag Race. Why only semi? Because while I love and have watched every season of Drag Race, I’ve always been wary of RuPaul’s acting ability.
Also, I was coming to AJ and the Queen hoping it would at least be half as good as Drag Race. Drag Race is a show I love so much that I don’t even review it on my site, because that would mean I’d have to treat it like work. I use Drag Race as an escape from any issues going on in my mind or in my life. Drag Race is like an hour’s worth of therapy for me—it’s artistic, it’s funny, it’s glamorous, and it’s dramatic. It’s one of my favorite shows. So AJ and the Queen had a tall order to fill.
I didn’t expect the show to be as great as Drag Race, but I still expected it to be entertaining. Instead, what I came away with was low-grade aggravation. It’s a shame the series has been cancelled from Netflix, since it ended on a slight cliffhanger. But after watching the series a few weeks ago, I can see why Netflix pulled the plug.
At first glance, the series seems hard to mess up. Like Holiday Heart meets Priscilla, Queen of the Desert meets Too Wong Foo, AJ and the Queen follows a popular drag queen named Ruby Red (RuPaul) who is finally ready to open her own club with her loving boyfriend Damien (Segarra). However, turns out her “loving” boyfriend is a grifter who stole all of her money, so now Ruby must go on the road to raise enough to achieve her dreams. At the same time, she unwittingly becomes the caretaker of a runaway child, AJ (Izzy G.), who wants to live with her grandfather to escape her negligent mother Brianna (Tannenbaum). Bonding and learning happens on the road while Ruby and AJ must outrun Damien and illegal silicone pumper Lady Danger (Carrere), who want them dead.
But while the synopsis sounds fun and exciting, the execution falters in many areas that equal a huge mess. Let’s get some of the smaller problems out of the way first. Segarra’s character Damien is weirdly written. I understand he’s a man who has internalized homophobia because of his own interest in men, particularly Ruby. But he’s written so haphazardly that it’s clear there was not a solid grounding in what Damien was about or what his goals are.
The writing was also haphazard, but less so, with Ruby’s best friend Louis (Wooley). Louis, who also performs as drag queen Cocoa Butter within the show, is blind from a diabetic stroke. First of all, this is a blind character played by a sighted person, so the overwhelming amount of “I’m blind” jokes are tasteless as well as annoying. Secondly, the show routinely makes light of the health aspects of diabetes in a way that is highly uncomfortable. Louis is shown never taking care of his health, eating hunks of chocolate cake and other rich foods despite it making him sicker in the long run. His stroke, as a result, is caused by his lack of care.
This lackadaisical treatment of diabetes got under my skin for personal reasons. I realize RuPaul might have been trying to make light of how diabetes can sometimes be treated by African-Americans, but the issue isn’t funny when you’ve actually seen a family member’s health degenerate because of not respecting the ruthlessness of diabetes. I’ve had an aunt who lost her sight from diabetes, and later her life, because she wouldn’t eat in a way to keep her diabetes in check. By showing Louis feeling like food is more important than health is rather annoying, and is one of the many low blows the series makes for literally no reason.
Another oddity regarding Louis is his joke about liking only white men in one of the early episodes. Not that he can’t, but the joke seems to make light of the colorism issue regarding fetish and desire in the gay community, as well as in every other community.
Other weird points came from some of the Drag Race drag queen cameos. One such weird cameo was Jinkx Monsoon’s Edee. While it’s fun to see Monsoon on screen (with a name that references their love of Big and Little Edie from Grey Gardens), it was disconcerting to see Edee call AJ—a child—a “top,” a sexual reference. Edee’s other problematic joke was saying how they had roofied someone in the past, leading the audience to wonder if she’s committed sexual assault of some kind. Now that we are in a post #MeToo world, those kinds of jokes are hard to overlook.
Another Drag Race fan favorite, Latrice Royale, who played drag queen club owner Fabergé Legs, was actually one of the brighter spots of the series, alongside Monique Heart, who played Fabergé’s drag daughter and biological nephew Miss Terri Tory. But Fabergé is introduced flanked by two nameless Asian women who never speak, but only serve to fan Fabergé and provide her with food and drinks. Why? Why are we utilizing the “submissive Asian woman” trope to showcase how successful Fabergé is?
Last, but not least, is the character of AJ herself. I understand AJ is a troubled child, and I would expect her to be a little prickly when we first meet her. But Izzy G.’s acting in the role is absolutely grating. I don’t like speaking ill of children, so hopefully Izzy G. was simply given poor direction. But regardless, AJ comes off as annoying and unsympathetic. There’s no proper growth for her character, and there’s no reason why Ruby would feel compelled to want to continue to be in AJ’s life after AJ’s mother comes back in her life.
Now the big part of why I’m uncomfortable with AJ and the Queen is because of the strange narrative the series is portraying regarding white people living in middle America. There’s already been talk online about if RuPaul caters too much towards her white audience to the extent that she doesn’t realize she has a platform that can speak to certain truths her Black audience live with. AJ and the Queen isn’t going to help refute those concerns. Throughout the course of the series, Ruby consistently gives speeches about how the other half lives, but those speeches are from a strangely naive, “#notallwhitepeople”-type of perspective.
While it is true that not all white Americans are racists and judging books by their covers isn’t great, it is true that Ruby probably wouldn’t have been welcomed as heartily as she was in at least half of the places she visited, either because she’s gay, Black, or both. The only reason a fantasy like Too Wong Foo successfully allows the audience to suspend their disbelief is because the town’s sheriff is deeply homophobic and several townspeople have varying issues regarding the drag queens, as well as issues within their own lives that paints them as more realistic. Even the queens, played by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo, have issues with each other. The Disney-like ending, with everyone running the sheriff out of the town, is allowed because of the journey we’ve been on with the queens and the townspeople.
Meanwhile, we never get that type of journey with Ruby, AJ and the people they run across. Everyone is somehow unrealistically accepting of a 7-foot-tall drag queen in the middle of nowhere. The ability to suspend disbelief is gone, because the entire premise of Ruby winning a wet t-shirt contest in a largely white and possibly homophobic town is already unbelievable. The narrative showcased in the series also seems like it’s meant to coddle white viewers, particularly those who have learned about the LGBT community through RuPaul. It’s as if RuPaul is saying, “You’re okay with the LGBT community if you’re okay with me.”
Case in point is when Ruby meets up with her childhood friend Beth (Jane Krakowski). Beth is written in a way where she’s clearly uncomfortable with Ruby when they’re with other people; Beth seems to rather have Ruby be herself when she’s alone with Beth. But Beth’s seeming homophobia is clumsily written as Beth actually being uncomfortable with the lies she’s been living with throughout her life. That’s confusing to me. If Beth was envious of Ruby’s ability to be herself, why not write Beth that way? Why gaslight the audience into thinking Beth’s clear homophobia isn’t actually homophobia? I don’t understand.
There’s also the issue that Ruby’s actual name is Robert Lee. As in Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general? Is that a callback to RuPaul’s Too Wong Foo drag queen character Rachel Tensions or what?
Overall, there were so many strange choices and concerns that I couldn’t truly enjoy AJ and the Queen as much as other diehard RuPaul fans could. What I came away with was the sensation of visiting with an uncle who is stuck in his time period and can’t move into the present. The series is rife with 20th century references that maybe once defined LGBT culture, but don’t matter as much to today’s youth. The series’ sometimes clumsy humor seems to harken back to a time when Paul Lynde-esque humor was the way for gay performers to be accepted. Indeed, the entire #notallwhitepeople narrative—the idea that the show must not challenge its audience in any real way—showcases a “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” mindset that is stuck in the ‘90s, when RuPaul became a household name.
RuPaul is a revolutionary, but it’s clear that her star status—and perhaps her age—have blocked her from advancing her ideologies about certain things. We’ve already seen RuPaul’s ability to get stuck in her ways bite her in the butt when it comes to allowing trans Drag Race contestants, or when it comes to talking about certain racial issues within the Drag Race community. Unfortunately, RuPaul continues to get in her own way in this series. Pretty annoying, since I wanted to love this series as a longtime RuPaul and Drag Race fan, a fan who sees the good and the bad of RuPaul’s reign.