RuPaul and the creator of Sex and the City team up for Netflix’s lighthearted sitcom about a drag queen & a runaway kid.
What is it about drag queens on road trips that captures the imagination? Both Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar were cultural touchstones in gay pop culture, still being quoted and referenced almost thirty years after their release. Now, superstar show creator Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City) and legendary drag icon RuPaul’s new Netflix series AJ and the Queen is a worthy successor to this niche genre.
Life is going poorly for Robert Lee (RuPaul): after scrimping and saving to start his own club, he found out his partner Hector (Josh Segarra) is actually a grifter named Damien who stole his money. Now broke, Robert prepares to go on a tour as his alter ego Ruby Red in preparation for a drag competition in Dallas, in hopes of recouping his losses. However, unbeknownst to Robert, 10-year-old AJ (Izzy Gasperesz, shortened to Izzy G in the credits) has stowed away in his RV. As the unlikely pair make their way across America, they find themselves pursued by Hector and his accomplice, Lady Danger (Tia Carrere).
The plot is picaresque, focusing on AJ and Robert as they go to different towns on Robert’s tour. Most of the plot development comes not from the eponymous duo, but from the supporting cast, whether it’s Hector and Lady Danger trying to kill Robert; Robert’s roommate, Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), trying to keep the fort in New York, or AJ’s addict Mother, Brianna (Katerina Tennenbaum), searching for her lost child, the side characters are the main impetus on the plot while the emotional core stays solely on AJ and Robert. It’s a smart choice, as it lets the pair go on wacky adventures while the series still keeps its momentum.
While the main story is interesting, what keeps the audience binge-watching are the show’s many side stories. At first, it seems like the episodes will be formulaic, with Robert and AJ dealing with drama at the clubs on Robert’s tour stops. However, the show quickly subverts this with the pair’s many detours, some of the more memorable episodes featuring plots where Robert has to perform in a wet t-shirt contest to pay for RV repairs; AJ scams a Girl Scout parody for money while Robert visits a Bob Mackie museum; or Robert takes over an RV park’s talent show while AJ hunts for diamonds. It’s obvious from episode one that Robert and AJ will grow to love each other as a family, and that Robert’s sure to get over Hector by the end of their journey, but the series has enough hijinks and twists to keep you invested.
RuPaul is arguably the most famous Drag Queen in America, known for his sassy personality and powerhouse performances. The showrunners know that Ru’s drag is the main draw for viewers, and each episode features him doing a performance at least once per episode. While it may be unfair to say that RuPaul is playing himself, Robert’s character doesn’t seem far off from his public persona. Add in the fact that Ruby Red’s drag is the same type of Glamazon drag that Ru built his career on, it’s clear that Robert Lee is supposed to remind the audience of his actor.
This isn’t to say that RuPaul does a poor job in the role. While he sometimes falters in the more emotionally taxing scenes, overall his performance shines, especially when Robert gets to show why reading is fun-da-mental. But with the supporting cast, most notably with Gasperesz, he finds new dramatic layers to play. The pair have great chemistry as their relationship grows from antagonistic to caring and affectionate, and both actors are at their best when they’re bouncing off of each other.
It’s easy for TV writers to screw up a child character, making them either too saccharine or too annoying. Fortunately, AJ feels realistic, the kind of kid who’s realistically precocious without grating the nerves. As the child of an addict, AJ often makes rash decisions and has a survival instinct that lacks scruples. Despite this, they remain sympathetic, Gasperez showing a real sense of vulnerability behind a tough exterior. They have a great range for such a young age, and I hope that we get to see more of this young actor in the future.
While the main story is interesting, what keeps the audience binge-watching are the side plots.
The supporting cast is a big draw as well. Of note is Wooley’s portrayal of Louis; it would have been easy for a sassy character to get tiresome in a sea of sassy characters, but Wooley has a real sense of heart that makes Louis not seem tired. Lady Danger is also a great antagonistic force, with her brazen demeanor and dry quips making her a great antagonistic foil. Tennenbaum as AJ’s mother is also great, with one monologue about addiction being particularly heartbreaking.
RuPaul and King also use their connections to get some great guest stars on the show. Whether it’s Drag Race alum Latrice Royale playing drag queen/counterfeiter Faberge Legs, Adrienne Barbeau as a former calender girl turned mechanic’s wife, or Tim Bagley as an unscrupulous museum curator/hotelier/notary, all the cameos are a joy to watch.
While the series has its Hallmark movie moments of melodrama, it’s a comedy first and foremost, and Ru and King never forget it. The writers give us a heady mix of verbal humor, physical comedies, and sight-gags; there’s something for every palate. Usually, it works, with some inspired gags (like Hector cooking chicken on an iron); even the less inventive jokes usually land. However, some jokes fall flat, like Robert constantly being aghast that a 10-year-old doesn’t know about 20th-century gay icons. There are also some tired gags about snowflakes and being triggered that make it feel like the showrunners are trying to appeal to a conservative audience. I guess not even the LGBTQ+ community is immune to boomer humor.
One of the most admirable traits of AJ and the Queen is its focus on smaller cities and their drag scene. Too often, the media forgets that gay culture exists outside New York and California, but flyover country has its own thriving queer scene. If nothing else, hopefully watching RuPaul explore the world of smalltown drag will inspire you to go out and support your local queens.
AJ and the Queen sashays onto Netflix starting today.