'Legendary': TV Review

Legendary - HBO Max - Publicity still 1 - H 2020
Zach Dilgard/HBO Max
Meh, meh, meh across the board.

Ball culture comes to HBO Max via a vogueing reality competition series.

There's certainly something noble about the refusal of the new vogueing competition series Legendary to hand-hold. One of HBO Max's two reality competitions to drop on the streaming service's first day (the other being the kid-targeted Craftopia), Legendary expects its viewers to arrive with at least some familiarity with ball culture. To be fair, the show does begin with a brief explanation of the "houses," or teams, that contend for trophies and prizes, as well as a blink-and-you'll-miss-it tribute to the "black and Latina transgender women" who helped make the pose-based, fashion-heavy dancesport what it is today. But it's incumbent upon the audience to do some legwork to get a firm sense of this decades-long tradition.

That's the generous take, anyway. A more cynical one would suggest that the series' creators are wary of defining the phenomenon, which is why we get vague, feel-good soundbites like "ballroom taught me how to be me" and "the ballroom scene is a community" in lieu of an actual explanation. That fuzziness makes it hard to discern what we're supposed to be watching for in the performances, and even harder to understand why certain contestants are cut while others triumph.

Despite its queer-friendliness, Legendary hews much closer to America's Best Dance Crew than RuPaul's Drag Race. The first two episodes of the series (the only installments allotted for review) have to introduce eight houses with five members each, with nearly all the teams describing themselves as some variation on sexy, glamorous fighters and the majority of them named after fashion brands like Gucci and Lanvin. Individual contenders get even less characterization, though this being a reality series, their personal traumas are regularly trotted out in an unconvincingly tidy manner.

Considering vogueing's roots in LGBTQ subcultures, the prevalence of trans participants is a lot less unusual than the occasional plus-size contestant in the dance troupes. Unfortunately, that normalization of trans individuals — still so needed in all aspects of our culture — makes the most immediately notable group the House of Ninja, comprised only of cis women, whose participation underscores the haziness of what vogueing is 30 years after Paris Is Burning.

The similarities between the teams — and the announcement at the beginning of the pilot that there will be no elimination in the first episode — makes that hour a particularly repetitive slog. But Legendary's real Achilles heel is its judging. The panel itself is fine, consisting of hip-hop star Megan Thee Stallion, celebrity stylist Law Roach, actual ballroom legend Leiomy Maldonado and, somewhat controversially, The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil.

The more famous judges, Jamil and Megan Thee Stallion, play nice and make for infectious reaction shots, while Roach and Maldonado are quick to nitpick. But because contestants are to leave the runway stage as soon as one of the judges gives the cue to cut, with no explanation offered or opportunity for recourse, the verdicts, while excitingly and cattily abrupt, also often feel confusingly arbitrary.

And because each judge seems to have a different rubric in mind, with, say, Roach attuned to the costumes and Maldonado in search of a platonic ideal of group choreography that's in perfect lockstep yet doesn't feel too rehearsed, there's little coherence about what Legendary's version of vogueing is — let alone what it should be. Houses that feature more avant-garde fashions or a greater sense of gender-play, for example, aren't necessarily rewarded for thinking outside the box. No wonder the behind-the-scenes interviews of the rejected competitors find them so jilted.

It's entirely possible that characters and storylines will gradually emerge as the season goes along. But in their absence, Legendary is best enjoyed as a series of slick but uninvolving spectacles, aided by restless editing and a truly great set that's part-industrial, part-Lisa Frank pink and purple. (Credit for the latter goes to production designers Anthony Bishop and Rob Eric.)

Host Dashaun Wesley (Pose), who splits expository duties with Jamil, might well be the series' secret weapon, conveying even better than the studio audience could a sense of momentum and being-there-ness. But not even Wesley's talents can turn these muddled proceedings into an event.

Cast: Jameela Jamil, Leiomy Maldonado, Law Roach, Meghan Thee Stallion, Dashaun Wesley
Executive producers: David Collins, Michael Williams, Rob Eric, Jane Mun, Josh Greenberg, Renata Lombardo, Shant Tutunjian
Showrunners: Jane Mun, Josh Greenberg
Premieres: Wednesday (HBO Max)