HBO brings three drag queens to small-town America for a heartwarming, albeit surface-level, primer on queer culture.
We all need a few fairy tales to get through these trying times. For their new reality series We’re Here, HBO has sent us three fairy godmothers — popular drag performers Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka O’Hara — to drag us up and get us to the ball. It’s an enchanting show, but when the clock strikes, everything reverts back to what it was and the pumpkin continues to rot.
The three episodes made available for review, directed by Intervention’s Peter LoGreco, follow our three queens as they visit small town America changing lives through drag and putting on a show. It’s a familiar tale for those who watch similar programming on A&E or TLC, which has another show where queens change people’s lives through drag.
We’re Here feels like an updated To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar meets Queer Eye (formerly For The Straight Guy) with all the same stories and problems. Where the Fab Five came to “fix,” the Three Wise Queens roll into each new town “purse first” in their personalized glamor vans ready to “help.” They set up camp on the edge of town, marking out their queer liminal space where they will heal all inner and interpersonal wounds through drag. Here, small contests for acceptance can take place, and families and self-identities can emerge changed.
In every new town, Bob, Shangela, and Eureka match with a local who is interested in participating in a drag show. HBO has worked hard to gather a diverse array of the LGBTQ+ experience. There are baby gays, queens in need of community, trans men looking for acceptance, and queer adults struggling with their faith. The series also features family members trying to be more accepting of their queer children or relatives, cis-hetero men exploring alternative masculinities, and loving grandparents supporting their families. As the first act begins, we learn about these micro-melodramas happening within the town’s stormy relationship with its LGBTQ+ citizens. It’s all very heartrending.
The mages then usher their apprentices through the trials of the second act. There are heels to be walked in, faces to be beat, junks to be tucked. Isn’t drag difficult? Does not its suffering signal virtue?
This self-transformation is of course paralleled with a group-transformation plot that takes up the majority of the middle of the episode. The troubles from the introduction boil over and the emotions come to a head. Bonds are tested.
So it all comes down to the drag show at the end of the week. Friends, family, and community members come to the ball to affirm new self and group cohesions. And Lo there be drink, dance, and death drops. All present do “yasss.”
…in celebrating individual, isolated victories over uplifting (or even establishing) a distinctly queer community, the show fails to be the revolutionary show it purports to be.
This is good folkloric storytelling and helps direct the emotional dynamics. If you’re a fan of this television genre, the stories presented in this series are very effective. If you’re not, know they’re as cringy and uncomfortable as all the other shows of this ilk. This is especially true for queer viewers for whom these stories might hit too close to home. As someone who has experienced some of the things discussed, I wanted as much distance from the screen as possible. But, for those who feel isolated by their experience, it might help to see this representation.
And this is supported by how clean and earnestly the series is shot. We have never seen these queens shot so grounded and matter of fact. In all their appearances on RuPaul’s Drag Race and multivarious mixed media from its production studio, World of Wonder, these queens have been filmed with lots of hypergloss and hypertext. It’s nice to see a series film them as people first, rather than characters.
We’re Here‘s biggest strength is its innate humanism, telling stories that cut deep and show real ugliness present in American society. It’s hard to see the pain in these people’s lives. And, bless them, all three of the queens bring a refreshing warmth and humor. Bob’s dry wit is sharper than ever and dearest Shangela is still mistress of the comeback. Eureka remains the “Elephant Queen” in the room. But is this enough?
“We are here to celebrate individuality, love, and acceptance,” says celebrity drag entertainer Shangela. And “halleloo,” celebrate the individual they do. And herein lies the fatal flaw: in celebrating individual, isolated victories over uplifting (or even establishing) a distinctly queer community, the show fails to be the revolutionary show it purports to be.
From what we have seen of the series thus far, underneath this shimmering easily-marketed rainbow tearaway is just another bedazzled neoliberal bodysuit. The queers and queens in the show are sanitized and desexualized and (in the episode set in Branson, MO) are even gracious to be so. The show feels integrationist, appealing to respectability and tolerance rather than troubling desire and discourse.
Though We’re Here claims to be a bold proclamation of existence, the show does not engage with a larger discourse on the difference that is necessary for larger equitable societal change. For the show to be effective, it needs to readdress its audience.
This is a show that is going to be watched by fans and allies of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the immense number of satellite pretexts that surround it. As such, it shouldn’t be afraid to make this show by, about, and for queer people. I would have liked to have seen queer community spaces being created and built. There could have been larger community discussions about queer citizenship.
The episode in Twin Falls, Idaho gives us a glimpse at the show’s potential to be this revolutionary queer project when Bob, the most politically-conscious, of the queens, tries to build a sense of sisterhood amongst the local queens. This is the kind of work that actually changes queer lives. Hopefully as the series goes on, more material changes are made in the towns they visit and the pumpkin can stay a golden coach much longer than a week.
If it doesn’t, We’re Here remains a mere fairy tale, a pluralist fantasy sold to bourgeois consumers to reaffirm their social ideology. It will maintain their liberal cosmopolitanism, which upholds their social position as true cultural and moral judges. It will continue to preach tolerance to a choir that has sat through the same sermon so many times before. Never before has lip-syncing for one’s life felt so literal, and it’s time we start thinking about a material magic that lasts a bit longer than the stroke of midnight.
We’re Here sashays away Thursdays at 9PM EST on HBO.