While both iterations were underway, RuPaul was also working on a project even more ambitious: new Netflix series AJ and the Queen.
Teaming Ru with writer-director Michael Patrick King (who’s worked on everything from Sex and the City to 2 Broke Girls and the critically acclaimed hit, The Comeback) the show’s somewhat gimmicky premise feels very ‘90s. Glamorous NYC drag queen Ruby Red is scammed by her hunky boyfriend and has to tour the US to recoup the money that was meant to help her open a new club. She’s joined by the feisty kid who lives upstairs, a troubled little girl whose mother is a sex worker fallen on hard times. With a press release for the show namechecking Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Touched By An Angel, you can imagine the feel-good cheese this show is aiming for. But it doesn’t quite get there.
The odd thing about AJ and the Queen is how disjointed it is and how aptly it sums up everything great and not-soenjoyable about RuPaul as a pop culture icon. The drag looks for Ruby Red map new territory compared to Ru’s runway looks on Drag Race and are a regular highlight. What’s harder to embrace is the uneven tone of the writing. Scenes feel stilted and jokes don’t land how they should. Given Ru’s quickness with a quip on Drag Race, it’s jarring to see him fumble lines here. The softer moments, where Robert allows himself to dwell on his situation when he’s not Ruby Red often feel moving. There’s acting beats RuPaul hits with an ease that suggests a better script would have really let him shine.
The tone is uneven. There’s an unapologetic sentimentality in the attempts to crowbar in life-lessons, but it jars with the very early ‘00s mindset of the would-be edgy, crass jokes. And the appearance of countless Drag Race alums is an attempt at a fan-pleasing running gag let down by how many of them are reduced to saying hollow putdowns as punch lines.
AJ and the Queen is neither a fully bawdy comedy or an easy, family-friendly watch. The weirdly retrograde politics and grumpy-uncle take on current issues sums up the current role of RuPaul in pop culture. He’s brought drag to new mainstream heights while remaining somewhat sniff y and dismissive of changing social mores: a pioneer who can still turn a look and entertain but increasingly seems unwilling to update his act and really show off the depth of his talent.