To say RuPaul Charles’ new year has gotten off to a mixed start is an understatement.
Last week, Fox executives announced the cancellation of the Emmy Award-winning “Drag Race” diva’s new daytime talk show after a three-week test run in seven markets. (LGBTQ-friendly South Florida wasn’t one.)
Called “a modern take on the talk show format,” RuPaul—sans drag—attracted A-list celebrities, all with a certain LGBTQ appeal, including James Corden, Ciara, Iggy Azalea, Adam Lambert, Lisa Vanderpump, Ricki Lake, Blac Chyna and Paula Abdul. And “Drag Race” judges Michelle Visage and Ross Mathews reprised their roles as regular studio sidekicks.
Industry media blamed the decision in part on downsizing by Fox following its acquisition by Disney, but ultimately the ratings apparently just didn’t stand up against other network programming. Perhaps audiences expecting a daily dose of over-the-top drag were disappointed by the subtle, soft-spoken man behind the makeup. They certainly seemed to prefer sassy Wendy Williams and straight-talking “Divorce Court” judge Lynn Toler.
RuPaul gets another shot this with the release of “AJ and the Queen,” a 10-episode comedy on Netflix, developed by Michael Patrick King (“Sex and the City”).
The plot of “AJ” goes something like this:
Robert Lee (RuPaul), better known as the drag queen Ruby Red, has big dreams of opening his very own drag club. After years of performing in clubs all across the country, he has scrimped and saved. Robert is one signed lease away from turning his dreams into a reality until he realizes he’s been swindled by a charismatic grifter Hector (Josh Segarra) and his eye-patch wearing partner-in-crime, Lady Danger (Tia Carrere), a shady silicone aesthetician. With his heart broken and money stolen, Robert has no choice but to pick up the pieces and start over, and a cross country Ruby Red roadshow provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.
But, when AJ (Izzy G.), a scrappy, streetwise 10-year-old escaping a difficult home life, stows away in Robert’s rundown RV, the consummate performer suddenly finds himself in a new set of shoes: de facto parent. Fabulously mismatched, yet perfectly paired, AJ and Ruby must find a way to navigate more than a few bumps in the road as they learn a few tricks from one another and roll on to brighter days.
Sound familiar? “AJ and the Queen” is part “To Wong Foo” and part “Bad News Bears,” served up with saucy RuPaul drag numbers in each episode. Episodes are peppered with more than 21 cameo appearances by “Drag Race” alums, including Bianca del Rio, Valentina, Jinx Monsoon, Ginger Minj and Latrice Royale, along with guest appearances by Mario Cantone (in drag!), Adrienne Barbeau, Jane Krakowski and a host of familiar Hollywood faces.
In pre-release publicity, RuPaul described the series as “edgy” with “some dark themes,” noting “this show isn’t about a drag queen in a kid’s show. This is about a kid in a drag queen’s show.”
In reality, “AJ” is closer to “Connie and Carla,” the 2004 big screen disaster starring Nia Vardalos and Toni Colette as two lounge performers who witness a mob hit and go on the run posing as drag queens. Hector and Lady Danger are bumbling, cartoonish villains and practically every move in the film is painfully predictable. It’s absolutely preposterous that they would go on a dogged pursuit of Robert when there’s absolutely nothing to gain.
In an early scene, Robert explains the transformation that occurs when he applies makeup and magically becomes Ruby. A mild-mannered man escapes the constrictions of polite society and becomes a boundless, larger than life bon vivant, a metaphor for the conundrum RuPaul finds himself in currently. Despite the fact that he “is” the soul of the iconic drag queen, audiences aren’t interested or engaged so much by the man (as with “The RuPaul Show”), but rather his alterego, the outrageous drag queen who has garnered a rabid international following over the past 30 years.
Among the “Drag Race” veterans, it’s fan favorite and South Florida resident Latrice Royale who literally steals the show with an extended “special guest” role a few episodes into the series. Unlike RuPaul, Royale (Timothy Wilcots) is authentic and appealing both in and out of make-up and clearly the breakout star, thanks to this opportunity.
Also, keep an eye on Izzy G., the compelling tween with more talent than many actors twice her age. She alternately infuriates and endears, captivating viewers just like her character manipulates Robert as their relationship develops. We’ll be seeing much more from her in the future.
“AJ” has many shortfalls. It’s predictable and silly, a modern television farce, but with Netflix so heavily invested on big budget dramas and thrillers, it’s also a fun escape. The blooming affection between AJ and Robert is heartwarming and the drag numbers are super campy—especially that Mario Cantone one, and that’s not a spoiler, but maybe a warning.
Watch “AJ and the Queen” at Netflix.com.