On a TV in an RV, Oprah speaks. “You have to start with beginning to love yourself,” she says. “You hear a lot of that in the ’80s. And what does that mean?”
Oprah’s guru guest, a feathered blonde in a blazer, replies that it means that you should stop beating up on yourself. “When you begin to love who you are, then you can love your neighbor, because you love yourself,” the woman says. “See, I don’t think we can really love our neighbor until we do love ourselves.”
This vintage talk-show spiel is being absorbed in the present day by Ruby Red, a drag queen who’s hit upon hard times in the Netflix series AJ and the Queen. In real life, the actor who plays that drag queen, RuPaul, has evangelized a very similar doctrine of self-love—as well as the art of cross-dressing. RuPaul may, in fact, be revealing the origin of the catchphrase that ends every episode of his smash reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
It’s telling that the motto has its origins in the can-do ’80s. RuPaul has helped push the ancient practice of drag into the politicized mainstream of today, where it is often portrayed as radical or even futuristic. Since Drag Race premiered in 2009, he and his colorful brigades have popularized a gender-agnostic, gay-is-okay paradigm that would have been unimaginable to many people even a decade earlier. But RuPaul has always been something of a nostalgist and a small-c conservative—a student of America’s supposed meritocracy rather than a saboteur of it. AJ and the Queen, the extremely uneven but often-lovable 10-episode comedy series co-created by RuPaul and Michael Patrick King, bears this out. Dopey yet teacherly, tepid and adorable, it bedazzles drag’s traditionalist streak.
The show is such a throwback that it is set in a world where Drag Race doesn’t exist, which is to say a world in which there’s a ceiling on the celebrity status a drag queen can achieve, and all practitioners must hustle to survive in their local scenes. Ruby Red, when the series starts, is the grande dame of a New York City gay bar, but she has bigger plans: to open a club of her own. Alas, the $100,000 she has carefully saved up is soon to evaporate. The hot guy she’s been dating, Hector (played by Josh Segarra), is a scammer. When he absconds with Ruby’s money, he also breaks her heart.
In Ruby’s moment of need, she makes a new, if not exactly calming, friend: AJ (Izzy G.), the extremely rude 10-year-old daughter of the heroin addict (Katerina Tannenbaum) who hangs out in front of Ruby’s apartment. Feeling orphaned, AJ disguises herself as a boy and stows away in Ruby’s RV as the drag queen heads out for a cross-country tour. Meanwhile, Hector and Lady Danger (Tia Carrere as a back-alley Botox-injector in an eyepatch) menace them with the same doofus energy as Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Boris and Natasha. Will you be shocked to hear that AJ and the queen go from clashing to commiserating as they experience hijinks in America’s heartland? No, you will not.
Surprise really isn’t the point, though. Watching AJ and the Queen feels akin to pulling a VHS from the comedy rack at a Blockbuster in 1996. It’s a fish-out-of-water tale like My Cousin Vinny, a road movie like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (in which RuPaul acted), an odd-couple comedy like Twins, and a precocious-kid caper like Home Alone. To be sure, it’s also a Netflix TV show, which means its episodes bloat to an hour long, with no scene economical enough that you’d miss its gist by waxing your eyebrows during it. But the writing and performances are harsh in a way that once felt like the essence of slapstick and now feels unsuited for easy streaming. Characters are always screeching at one another, or inflicting pointless cruelty, or adopting puppies they can’t care for. For a show so uplifting, it’s weirdly stressful.
What’s most retro, in this moment, is the story it tries to tell. Drag may be a subversive art form, but RuPaul rejects the sense of grievance that defines much of LGBTQ politics. If the individualistic “self-esteem” movement of the ’80s and ’90s has been replaced on the left by calls for “self-care” couched in terms of political and social oppression, AJ and the Queen wants to rewind. It portrays America as a fundamentally okay place, and the achievement of self-love as simply an internal matter. Cops, doctors, and social workers all do their jobs with sensitivity and humor. Intolerance presents only minor obstacles, surmountable by charm and persuasion. Even the homophobic protesters at a drag convention are humanized and laughed along with. One of the season’s best gags is about how catchy their chants are.
The optimism the show displays isn’t naive. Rather, it’s a knowing provocation. In the world RuPaul lays out on Drag Race, in his podcast What’s the Tee?, and now on Netflix, no one deserves to be canceled—and thus no realm of humor is quite off-limits. Louis, Ruby’s roommate, is blind, and nearly every one of his scenes involves a disability joke (the actor Michael-Leon Wooley is not blind). One typically WTF plotline involves giving a set of fake drag boobs to a woman who’s had a double mastectomy. The specter of not-so-funny child endangerment and neglect informs the entire story; sequences in which kids pick up shotguns and accidentally guzzle alcohol dare you to wince.
It’s an odd combo, the grating and the sunniness, but the sunniness eventually wins out. AJ and the Queen accumulates goodwill as its characters bounce from gig to gig, teaching washed-up drag performers, repressed housewives, and gender-questioning kids alike how to love themselves. The gospel Ruby-slash-RuPaul preaches is not one of great transformation but rather one of great transcendence, and the vision of queens as mini-Oprahs, capable of therapizing away America’s wounds, is seductively comforting. The patchy quality of the show itself only heightens the drag-like question you’re left with: What’s real and what’s fantasy?