Pop Culturing: RuPaul's Netflix Show 'AJ and the Queen' is a Bumpy Ride

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Saturday January 11, 2020

RuPaul, left, and Izzy Gaspersz, right in a scene from "AJ and the Queen."
RuPaul, left, and Izzy Gaspersz, right in a scene from "AJ and the Queen."  (Source:Beth Dubber/Netflix)

There's something nostalgic — if not interesting — that RuPaul and writer/director Michael Patrick King attempt with their new series "AJ and the Queen," which is now available on Netflix. The 10-episode comedy is somewhat of a throwback to 80s sitcoms and after school specials that aimed to not only entertain but teach. That feels in line with RuPaul himself, who has used his ever-growing platform as the biggest drag queen in the world (thanks to his Emmy-winning reality show "RuPaul's Drag Race") to educate and offer words of wisdom while turning out some of the most entertaining content of the last decade. (Puffy catchphrases like "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love someone else?!" and "As gay people, we chose our own family" are staple teachings of Ru-ligion.)

Izzy Gaspersz, left, and RuPaul, right, in a scene from "AJ and the Queen." Photo credit: Beth Dubber/Netflix
In "AJ and the Queen," RuPaul plays Ruby Red, a popular New York City drag queen not too far from Ru himself. The show opens with Ruby at her last drag show before she's set to open up her own club with her boyfriend Hector ("The Other Two" star Josh Segarra). Before long, things don't go as planned and a now-down-on-his-luck Ruby is set to embark on a small tour where he'll travel in a R.V. and perform at gay clubs around the U.S. Ruby's plans get even more mixed up when he finds himself with a new travel partner: 10-year-old AJ (Izzy Gaspersz), a foul-mouthed neighborhood brat who stows away in Ruby's vehicle after her mother Brianna (Katerina Tannenbaum), goes missing. With no way to contact her, Ruby decides to bring AJ along with plans to drop the youngster off in Dallas, where her grandfather lives off-the-grid.

King's work has ranged from some of the best comedy writing of the 2000s and a few major bombs. Most notably, he shaped "Sex and the City," writing and directing nearly 100 episodes of the beloved HBO series, as well as helming its two feature films, which are notorious disasters. He also co-created the successful sitcom "2 Broke Girls" and HBO's "The Comeback," starring Lisa Kudrow — one of the funniest and under-appreciated comedies in modern TV. "AJ and the Queen" falls somewhere in the middle. King, who is openly gay, understands RuPaul as an icon and a performer — and Ru is quite good in the role. Though Ruby is obviously modeled on the real-life supermodel of the world (Ruby doesn't have a mega-hit reality show under his belt, however), Ru is a natural actor; charming and always funny. That the show is centered on Ru's simplistic messaging that he's touted for most of his career is the real problem here. It didn't work for his talk show, which was recently canceled, but it feels like Ru is desperate to shoehorn his teachings in every project he's in.

Michael-Leon Wooley holds Matthew Wilkas in a scene from "AJ and the Queen." Photo credit: Beth Dubber/Netflix

There's no question "AJ and the Queen" winks at the classic road trip/fish-out-of-water comedy "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" starring Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes as three drag queens hiding out in a small conservative town. That 1995 comedy is obviously a bit dated as its the three leads (played by straight men) responsibility to transform the minds of religious bigots into gay-loving Americans. There's not much of that in King and Ru's new comedy (except for one moment when Ruby bumps up against some anti-gay protesters, who are played as harmless buffoons). The comedy is more about family, accepting yourself and how you want to live your life. Moments in the show harken back to "The Facts of Life" where episodes were centered around a character learning a moral. When Ruby drives the R.V., he's often listening to VHS tapes he recorded from Oprah Winfrey's talk show in the 80s. Both Ru and King seem to know what "AJ and the Queen" is, creating over-the-top characters like Ruby's blind roommate and fellow drag queen Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a gay cop looking for love (played by Matt Wilkas), and Lady Danger (Tia Carrerer), an eyepatch-wearing villain hunting down Ruby with an unexpected accomplice. Even though they're going for high camp, the comedy isn't too far off from the queer comedies of yesteryear like "Not Another Gay Movie."

One thing "AJ and the Queen" does get right is its use of "Drag Race" contestants. Some of the reality show's biggest names pop up in various roles and are featured in the show just right, never outstaying their welcome. "AJ and the Queen" is arguably the best showcase for what a queen can do after their time on the reality show. Too bad Ru and King didn't create a comedy worthy of their talents.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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