'AJ and the Queen': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Wobbly but charming.
1/10/2020

Netflix's buddy comedy stars RuPaul as a down-on-his-luck traveling drag performer who becomes temporary guardian to a foul-mouthed 10-year-old stowaway.

There are three certainties in life: Death, taxes and the clashing of divas.

Two big, demanding personalities will inevitably battle it out for supremacy. In Netflix's bitchy-wholesome road trip comedy AJ and the Queen, RuPaul's alter ego faces down a fellow attention-parched virago in the form of a lisping, prepubescent baby doll costumed in what appears to be 2001 Eminem drag (complete with Slim Shady's penchant for the word, "bitch," which I admittedly find hilarious coming out of a 10-year-old's mouth). Honestly, co-starring with a child would be the last thing I'd expect from RuPaul. Not because he's not a nurturer — as proven by his mentorship of younger drag performers — but because of the apocryphal W.C. Fields adage about how one should never work with children or animals. They tend to suck up all the air in the room.

Then again, the groundbreaking drag queen did play my all-time favorite onscreen guidance counselor, Mrs. Cummings, in the childhood classic The Brady Bunch Movie, so his natural rapport with youngsters has been evident for over 25 years. Indeed, my RuPaul fandom has been deeply rooted since that time: At our wedding reception, my husband and I introduced our bridal party — including several excruciatingly straight boys — to the tune of RuPaul's dance club anthem, "Supermodel: You Better Work." Sashay, shantay.

In AJ and the Queen, the Drag Race linchpin stars as Robert, a down-and-out NYC drag performer who is grifted out of the $100k he was going to use to start his own nightclub and thus forced to recoup his losses by taking his act from city to city across the U.S. The only hitch? A foulmouthed 10-year-old street urchin, AJ (Izzy G.), stows away in his R.V. to escape the brutal unknown of foster care after her sex worker mother overdoses on heroin. Over 10 hourlong episodes, Robert shepherds AJ to her grandfather's Texas ranch (with stops at nightclubs along the way). Naturally, because this is an action comedy, they're also dogged by the violent evildoers who scammed Robert out of his life savings. The story plays like a wobbly, if occasionally charming, amalgamation of La Cage Aux Folles, Every Which Way but Loose and Curly Sue.

Not to worry, however: This colorful romp, from creators RuPaul and Michael Patrick King, is retrograde by design instead of by default, an '80s-style comedy crafted for an age when a gay man/gender-mocking entertainer acting as surrogate parent to a little kid should hardly make anyone bat an eyelash. While born survivor Robert summons all his strength to look forward to the future, he's mired in the past, glued to ancient Oprah segments on the road and haunted by every fictitious kiss from hetero con artist Hector (Josh Segarra, fizzy), who he suspects may have genuinely loved him. Even his ever-present ringtone, a synth-heavy, Prince-style bop that also serves as the show's theme song, recalls the Decade of Greed. ("Ruby is red hot! Hot fire nonstop!")

The show is a throwback to the age of gender-bender comedies — when the idea of crossing the gender binary was seen as mere joke fodder and not a crucial matter of personal identity. (RuPaul has come under fire for transphobic comments, and his passive-aggressive mea culpa here includes a scene where he preaches, "You have to respect people’s gender issues.") Thorny ruffian AJ dresses as a boy, not because of a dysphoric internal world but because of the cruel external one: Boys are left alone. Little girls are not. ("I could be a beauty queen if I put on lipstick and shit," she argues.)

The show's nostalgia for slapstick, false identities, chase sequences and general "Let's get out of here!" hijinks may test some viewers' loyalty to RuPaul, but the narrative gradually evolves into a sensitive exploration of created families, a vital theme in the lives of many people in the LGBTQ community. And, indeed, it is refreshing to dive into a show centering the lives of queer people of color, as Robert travels the country meeting (and competing) with many other black and gay drag performers. (His drag persona Ruby Red, adorned in a flaming vermilion wig, completes at least one flawless lip sync performance each episode.)

In line with its '80s pastiche, AJ and the Queen relies on some tired stereotypes and Borscht Belt-y punchlines (this is Michael Patrick King after all, the punny ventriloquist behind Carrie Bradshaw). Robert's best friend Louis is a blind and diabetic drag queen, which at first seems an inclusive choice, until you're barraged with blindness jokes and then learn actor Michael-Leon Wooley is not disabled in real life. (Wooley otherwise sparkles as this snippy fretter, a scene-stealing joy.) Similarly, AJ's young mother, Brianna (Katerina Tannenbaum), isn't allowed much room for nuance, presented as a typical "tart with a heart" in search of her missing daughter.

While the circuitous high-concept plot begins to itch after a while, the rinse-repeat formula of "Robert and AJ share a weird adventure in some unwelcoming backwater" thinning by the end, the producers at least ground the characters' experiences in real emotions. For as independent as AJ claims to be, she's devastated by her mother's addiction, both furious with Brianna and missing her terribly. (Your heart cracks in two when the girl sobs about her abandonment, especially as you realize her trauma can be read as a metaphor for many queer people's experiences with estranged parents.) RuPaul, a well of warmth, cultivates natural bonhomie with the young actress, who plays AJ with alternating brattiness and protectiveness. They're both wounded birds trying to buoy each other in a harsh reality. The heartfelt cliffhanger ending had me tearing up completely against my will.

To balance the pathos, we get to delight in Tia Carrere's deeply looney performance as Lady Danger, an eye patch-clad black-market silicone dealer (and Hawaiian ex-beauty-queen-cum-sexy grandma) who worked with Hector to swindle Robert. Carrere is having the most fun of anyone in the cast, pumping Lady Danger with classic campy dastardliness, like a baddy straight out a John Waters film. In one of my favorite plots, and probably the silliest of the bunch, her character spends several episodes convincing people she's Lorraine Bracco so she can use up the actress' hospitality points. If RuPaul gets to channel the great divas, then I have no problem with Carrere radiating all the kinetic energy of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' Rita Repulsa.

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

Executive Producers: RuPaul, Michael Patrick King

Premieres: Friday, January 10th (Netflix)