'Queen America': TV Review

This aspiring pageant queen's talent isn't "consistency."
11/18/2018

Did you know Facebook Watch was about to premiere a beauty queen comedy starring Catherine Zeta-Jones? Probably not!

If you've been following the news recently, it's been hard to miss the stories about Facebook's possibly undue pervasiveness and influence, the social media platform's capacity to spread information and misinformation.

Apparently that warped power hasn't spread to promotion for Facebook Watch. The empathetic gem Sorry for Your Loss aired a full season without really imposing itself on the pop culture conversation and I have yet to talk to anybody who had a clue that Facebook Watch is about to premiere a comedy starring Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Just as I was a supporter of Sorry for Your Loss, allow me to do the best I can to sell the generally inferior Queen America: If you make it past the first two Queen America episodes, neither especially funny, you'll eventually get to watch some synchronized scenery-chewing from Zeta-Jones and Judith Light. I'll keep watching a few more episodes to see if that's the show Queen America decides to become, because the show it is for the first two episodes isn't as interesting.

From Smile to Drop Dead Gorgeous to Miss Congeniality to Little Miss Sunshine to Netflix's recent controversy magnet Insatiable, the world of beauty pageants has been well and truly mined and lampooned over the years to the point at which it's hard to know what's left to satirize, a question that remains after early Queen America installments.

Zeta-Jones plays Vicki Ellis, Oklahoma's most ruthless pageant coach. Lifted from rural roots by her own beauty queen past, Vicki's goal is to make women the best versions of themselves by any means necessary. When she isn't trying to improve her sister (Molly Price's Katie) and niece (Isabella Amara's Bella), she's cultivating Hayley (Victoria Justice), a Miss Tulsa with the potential to go all the way to the off-brand pageant pinnacle. Of course, Hayley is as spoiled and trashy as she is beautiful and talented, so Vicki's attentions may soon gravitate toward Samantha (Belle Shouse), a highly unrefined diamond-in-the-rough from Claremore.

There's a potentially good show somewhere in Queen America, but the show is fighting with itself.

Creator Meaghan Oppenheimer comes from Oklahoma and there's a regional specificity to the writing that would be quite wonderful if the series had been shot in Oklahoma, and if it had any sense of visual geography and space at all. Shot in Atlanta and mostly in completely generic "Southern-style" interiors, Queen America looks and feels bland and cheap and not in a "We want to depict Oklahoma as looking bland and cheap" sort of way, rather in a "We're sure nobody will care or notice that we're cutting corners everywhere" way. The cast is populated by a lot of people who come from a lot of places that aren't Oklahoma, and whatever native rhythms and tone are baked into Oppenheimer's dialogue get lost in an assortment of flailing and half-hearted accents.

There's a sour taste to the first episode, albeit not as sour as the bag of spoiled lemons that was Insatiable and its stabs at ubiquitous satire. The contempt directed at the world of pageants is facile and familiar, and Justice, wholly committed to a cartoonish degree, is stuck as the hard-working face of this questionable approach. Oppenheimer generally avoids looking down her nose at Oklahoma as a whole, concentrating on how Oklahomans see each other and how they see outsiders, including a string of insults directed at a random Australian that aren't necessarily funny as written but become amusing based on Zeta-Jones' pleasure at their slightly sanitized nastiness.

Subsequent episodes tone down the arch tone on all sides and even find compassion for certain characters and their personal challenges — Vicki battles an eating disorder, Katie battles economic anxiety, etc. — without finding a source of humor to fill the void. You'd come away from the first episode thinking Queen America was a broad comedy with a questionable set of targets. You'd watch the next two without really knowing what it was going for.

Ostensible messages about homogenized standards of beauty, personal reinvention and how the pageant circuit relates to the American Dream are hinted at and left for presumable exploration in future episodes.

The performances are similarly all over the place. Without coming close to nailing the accent, Zeta-Jones enjoys Vicki's feral contempt for anybody who doesn't live up to her standards and once certified national treasure Light shows up as Vicki's pageant mentor, she gets a worthy foil for future cattiness, assuming that's where the show chooses to go. Even if she's pushing too hard at Katie's blue-collar fatigue, I found Price believable and I liked the dynamic she and Amara have with Zeta-Jones' Vicki, one that avoids the shadings of embarrassment and contempt you might be expecting. Rather than going full rube, Shouse underplays her character, possibly in contrast to Justice's larger-than-life quality, leaving her softly likable and undefined. Vicki has a pair of assistants and since they've been given only one characteristic apiece — Rana Roy's Mary is mean and Teagle F. Bougere's Nigel is gay — neither actor has much to do.

Sorry for Your Loss had trouble making a ripple — this is based on my anecdotal perception and the lack of a deserved second-season pickup, since it's not like Facebook is giving "ratings" — despite its quality and a hook that tied directly to Facebook's community-building, feeling-sharing M.O. I can't tell if Queen America is meant to entice the same Facebook parents who post endless pictures of their children aging up through various competitions or if Zeta-Jones is supposed to be a sufficient hook. For now, the show may not be good enough to keep viewers around, even if the Catherine Zeta-Jones/Judith Light version just might be.

Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Belle Shouse, Teagle F. Bougere, Rana Roy, Isabella Amara, Molly Price, Victoria Justice, Judith Light

Creator: Meaghan Oppenheimer

Director: Alethea Jones

First three episodes premiere Sunday, Nov. 18, on Facebook Watch