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AJ and the Queen review – RuPaul's buddy comedy is a total drag | Television & radio

There are times when it’s hard not to wonder if Netflix is OK, hun. Some of its more camp recent offerings have been experimental verging on outrageous, whether that’s reimagining popular Dolly Parton songs as feature-length dramas, or trusting that a series-long romantic melodrama, the delicious Soundtrack, could sustain itself on lip syncs and bombastic dance routines to modern pop hits (miraculously, it did). The service is at it again with AJ and the Queen, which at one point features RuPaul Charles lip-sync duetting with a 10-year-old girl, both in drag, to You’re the One That I Want in a trailer park in Arkansas. The trouble is, it takes an awful lot of episodes to get there.

AJ and the Queen was created, written and produced by RuPaul and the Sex and the City writer and director Michael Patrick King. It is a teen-leaning drama, though at times it feels aimed at a much younger audience. It follows a runaway drag queen and a stowaway child on a road trip across America, and it is a heady concoction, shot with such dedication to soft focus and flattering lighting you’d be forgiven for attempting to wipe the screen. RuPaul is Ruby Red, a tough, old-time New York club queen who has saved up $100,000 – Drag Race viewers may find it difficult to watch RuPaul saying “$100,000” with a straight face – in order to give up the night job and set up his own drag club. But his David Gandy-esque boyfriend, so model-handsome that he simply must be evil, has other ideas and makes away with the cash, leaving Ruby Red to try to scrape some of it back on a last-minute drag tour of smalltown USA.

AJ and the Queen

Not so much pulling on your heartstrings as yanking them into submission … AJ and the Queen. Photograph: Beth Dubber/Netflix

That, in itself, would be a series’ worth of story, and there is a gaudy Kill Bill flourish to the criminal subplot, and the inspired casting of Wayne’s World’s Tia Carrere as a rogue plastic surgeon and master villain. But the main event is a straightforward attempt not so much to pull on your heartstrings as yank them into submission. Ruby Red’s neighbour is a 10-year-old girl named AJ, an unbearably cute lisping urchin who dresses like off-duty Cara Delevingne and is left to fend for herself on the mean streets of New York because her negligent mother is an addict and sex worker. Eventually, after some bratty minor robberies and a couple of tantrums (“You’re like a Chucky doll, but not as nice”), AJ ends up accompanying Ruby Red from New York to Texas in a battered old camper van. Along the way, they teach each other valuable life lessons about love and self-acceptance.

It sits between two worlds, sometimes uneasily, and it is unclear who it is aimed at. Is it for kids, for teenagers, or for adults who never knew what they needed from TV was to see RuPaul riding a donkey? Fans of RuPaul’s considerable television empire will have fun spotting Drag Race alumni, 22 of whom appear dotted around the various cities Ruby Red and AJ visit. There is plenty of fodder for lovers of risque humour, too, particularly from Michael Leon Woolley as Ruby Red’s flatmate and best friend Louis. When Ruby Red espouses the virtues of listening to Oprah, who taught him to dream, Louis snaps back: “But I taught you how to put a condom on in the dark. Now which one’s more important?”

As AJ attempts to find her father, the main lesson, of course, is that we find our own family when we need to, in whatever surprising form it may take. This is fine, but the problem is that the morality lessons are laid on as thick as a drag queen’s foundation. To crave subtlety in a drama stuffed with drag, an art form not known for embracing minor notes, may be a stretch, but this veers from gags about sex to mushy lessons about what it means to be a woman, and the sincerity is regularly, reliably overcooked. AJ’s mother, in particular, is a mascara-smudged hooker straight out of an after-school special, and only adds to the confusion about whether this is high drama or panto.

One of the most frustrating things about Netflix is that it will stretch a story far beyond a timeframe that suits it. AJ and the Queen might have been a lovely film, sweet and snappy and just on the right side of unique, but at 10 episodes, the premise grows strained and the pace is all over the place. By the time we reach the hard-earned ending, the last minutes are so rushed I had to check it really was the finale. AJ and the Queen has its moments, but in its quest to find a beating heart, it winds up feeling like a bit of a drag.

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