RuPaul, my dear, you may be the Queen of Drag Race. But when it comes to scripted programming, you stall out at the starting line. I’m sorry, my dear, you are up for cancellation.
As a host of the groundbreaking reality competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” RuPaul Charles ushered drag into the mainstream. In the process of making history, he also crafted the brightest, shadiest and wildest TV creation. As host of the show, RuPaul displays a patented range of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. None of those four qualities materialize in his performance on “AJ and the Queen,” the latest Netflix dramedy which casts RuPaul in the lead.
RuPaul slips into the role of Ruby Red, a legendary New York drag Queen on the precipice of opening up her own club. Things aren’t just going well on the drag circuit. Ruby (Robert by day) is also in a loving relationship with Hector (Josh Segarra), who’s helping Ruby open the club. However, on the day of the lease signing, Ruby discovers that Hector has taken all of their money and run away. Heartbroken and just plain broke, Ruby packs up their motorhome and takes off on a drag tour across America to earn money. Every road trip has to have an unlikely accomplice. In this story, Ruby finds a young stowaway named AJ (Izzy Gasperz), a grifter who lives in Ruby’s building. Together, the odd couple form an unlikely friendship as Ruby tries to help AJ get to family in Texas.
At first glance, “AJ and the Queen” appears to be a middling comedy. However, it frequently veers into dark territory that never finds the right tone. Every episode starts with a stilted voice-over from AJ taking us through increasingly more tragic elements of their situation. Their mother is a prostitute that is addicted to heroin. Her addictions led to their eviction from Ruby’s building, leaving her homeless and AJ stuck in foster care. AJ breaks out of foster care to stowaway in Ruby’s motorhome. The show tries to milk AJ’s situation for tears. Moments after though, it directly shifts to Hector, actually named Damien Sanchez, and his accomplice Lady Danger (Tia Carrere) chasing after them with gay jokes and pink guns a plenty. Every scene feels ripped from a completely different, overblown series.
No matter how many favors Mother Ru calls in, the drag world never feels as specific or detailed as in “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” or “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” It’s great fun to spot all the “Drag Race” alums throughout the series. Stars like Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, Kennedy Davenport, Valentina, Monique Heart, and much other pop in for two to three lines (if that). Out of all of them, Latrice Royale fares the best as Fabrojae Legs, a drag queen with a criminal streak. However, the show misses the opportunity to fully delve into what it means to be in a smaller town for drag. Since each episode travels to a different city, it would make sense to get a little local flavor. Yet, other than some lip service tension around a “Tina Turner off,” these plots are only skin deep.
Still, the drag shows are the few moments where the tone somewhat congeals. RuPaul feels more at home as Ruby Red on stage than as Robert in the more dramatic scripted scenes. There are some fun antics in the clubs, like when some queens sabotage Ruby’s performance of “Chandelier” by Sia. The fun continues in the interplay between Robert and his thirsty, blind best friend, Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) who lusts after a cop assigned to Robert’s case. Still, even after just a few episodes, Ru sticks to the same songs and same performances. Compared to the innovative drag done on “Drag Race,” one expects more from the fictional Ruby Red.
The fatal flaw comes 30 minutes in when one realizes that the episode isn’t over, but merely halfway. Every scene, every joke, every line feels elongated to vamp for time. It’s in these moments of breathing that perfectly fine jokes starve from too much oxygen and die. One can see the zippy and zany comedy this could’ve been. There’s an outlandish undercurrent that feels akin to “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” though that show tipped fully into cartoon territory. While that show had a joke a second, “AJ and the Drag Queen” barely features a line a minute. Executive Producer Michael Patrick King’s previous masterpiece, “The Comeback,” used quiet moments to be jokes themselves. Unfortunately, RuPaul doesn’t have the timing or comedic skill that Lisa Kudrow has (though few people do).