America's best friend, RuPaul, drives a steady comedy even though its tank is half-empty at the start.
People have been waiting a long time for the original Netflix series "AJ and the Queen" to hit their streaming queue, and last week they got their wish but it may not be everything they had hoped for especially in early episodes.
Anyone who appreciates anything about pop culture knows RuPaul as the gay drag queen who launched a thousand careers. Back in the nineties, she was an entertainment oddity. With long legs, big hair and contoured makeup, she was a man dressing as a woman; people were confused about why they liked her appeal.
Then in 1993, she turned the phrase "Supermodel (You Better Work)," into a top 10 dance single, inspiring listeners both gay and straight to strut an invisible catwalk whenever it came on, and the rest is mainstream herstory as they say.
Her career went from being an underground celebrity to a household name in just a matter of months. RuPaul didn't appear out of makeup a lot during that time and it wasn't until 2009 when the reality series "RuPaul's Drag Race" debuted that the world got to really see RuPaul Andre Charles without his glamorous alter ego stealing the spotlight.
Although Charles has cameoed in films and TV many times, "AJ and the Queen" is the first time he takes on a starring role and even though it's uneven at first, there is still something appealing about its stars that keeps it from stalling throughout the 10 episode journey.
Charles plays Robert Lee, a successful and popular drag queen named Ruby Red who works in a mediocre club. One night she "opens the library" as they say and reads the club's owner before quitting, storming out on the winds of his dreams to open a club of his own with all the money he saved throughout the years. This plan also includes a new boyfriend Damien, played by the very sexy Josh Segarra, who turns out to be a thief and absconds with Robert's savings.
Meanwhile, in the apartment complex where Robert lives, he meets a young, apparently homeless child who begs for money on the stoop. In an obvious plot twist, the kid, AJ, who looks like a boy is actually a girl and the two get off to a rough start before AJ stows away in Robert's RV as he embarks on a cross-country drag tour.
It's a buddy picture paved with Swarovski crystals, sequined costumes, big red wigs, and redemption. But there are plenty of bumps in the road which take away from what could have been a hearty comedy.
First, let's answer the question can RuPaul act? The answer is yes, but it's hard to tell if he is playing himself or Robert Lee. There is little to no difference between his persona as host on "Drag Race" and his character on "AJ and the Queen" other than some dramatic scenes which in later episodes are tear-jerking.
Izzy G who plays AJ is a bundle of energy, if not overly dramatic, and plays off RuPaul like a pro. Their back and forth banter seems genuine and you feel for Ru every time AJ becomes unmanageable.
The series also gets a boost from producer and co-writer Michael Patrick King (Sex in the City, The Comeback) who normally is a champ at creating characters who are relatable. Here though he seems to let the drag queens write their own script, or he just doesn't know the lingo and we get cliche-drenched badinage until Chad Michaels or Latrice Royale appear to add some depth to it all.
Royale is actually the amateur stand-out actor in "AJ and the Queen" as an ex-con running a southern juke joint of sorts. He is not only funny, but brings some genuine nuance to his part and he's probably the most natural in front of the camera of all the drag queen cameos.
Each episode has a one-off plotline that involves the menagerie of people AJ and Robert meet on their way to New York. Mary Kay Place is a national treasure.
There is also a parallel road movie storyline which involves Tia Carrere and the aforementioned hunk Josh Segarra who are following Robert to kill him after he ratted them out to the police. Their interactions are pretty funny, especially Carrere who even though her character is probably meant to be part Disney villainess and part Miranda Priestly really shines as Lady Danger, mixing just the right amount of excessive showboating to an actual threat.
The most over-the-top performance has to go to Michael-Leon Wooley who plays Louis Bell, Robert's direct line to his home. His character is blind and those jokes get a little old after a while.
And keep an eye on Katerina Tannenbaum as AJ's drug addict mother trying to locate her daughter with no idea she's run away on a road trip with a drag queen. Tannenbaum really begins to showcase her acting chops midway through the 10-part series in a memorable emotional performance.
Overall "AJ and the Queen" is middle-of-the-road entertainment because the plot has been so overly done, only the characters have changed. It's up to the actors to pull the shopworn narrative out of boilerplate repetitiveness. And for the most part they do.
RuPaul is like America's best friend and to see him mostly out of makeup in a semi-serious movie role is heartwarming.
Of course, you get to see all the costumes, lip-sync routines--complete with licensed songs--and cameos from your favorite "Drag Race" stars, but as the series gets into its latter episodes and the main artists have had a chance to settle into their roles, your binge investment pays off with praise going to Charles who hits his stride by series end.
Let's hope he gets a second season because the ending is so abrupt and leaves such a huge cliffhanger you'll swear you misread how many episodes there are.
With a start full of potholes, "AJ and the Queen" is a trip worth taking especially as it nears its destination.
"AJ and the Queen" is now playing on Netflix.