In a three-month period, the television landscape has given us not one, but two television shows about beauty-pageant consultants attempting to turn southern Eliza Doolittles into fair ladies.
The first of those shows was Netflix’s abominable Insatiable. The second, coming to Facebook Watch this Sunday, is Queen America, a half-hour dramedy that stars Catherine Zeta-Jones as Vicki Ellis, an ultraglam former beauty queen who’s a pro at molding young women into winners.
Given the similar themes and close timing of their releases, it’s impossible to watch Queen America and not compare it to Insatiable. That’s a comparison that works in Queen America’s favor. Based on its first three episodes, Queen America is by no means a great series. But next to Insatiable, which was a tonally inconsistent series of wrong notes being struck, Queen America looks pretty good. It’s a decent bottle of two-buck chuck where Insatiable was a cup of Boone’s Farm that got left outside in a sleet storm.
That’s not to say that Queen America avoids clichés. Actually, it leans into them pretty hard, especially in the first episode. When Vicki is introduced, she’s doing exactly what reality TV has trained us to expect from pageant fixers and dance moms: She’s yelling at her current charge, Hayley (Victoria Justice), to hit the treadmill so hard she practically passes out. Vicki is a stickler when it comes to competition. If Hayley, the current Miss Tulsa US, wants to become Miss Oklahoma and, eventually, Miss America Starred and Striped United States, she has to keep the eating and distractions to a minimum. It’s Vicki’s job to make sure she does that.
This kind of OCD-level ambition is usually a distraction from deeper issues, and lo and behold, that’s true in Queen America. Vicki has a tendency to clandestinely binge-eat junk food when she’s stressed, and a contentious history with her sister, Katie (Molly Price), and her niece Bella (Isabella Amara), who Vicki desperately wants to impress for reasons that eventually become more clear. Bella is slightly overweight, more inclined to wear jeans and a T-shirt than an evening gown, and thinks the whole pageant system is frivolous. “I find it all profoundly unimportant,” she tells her aunt.
Just when you, the viewer, would be inclined to agree with her, along comes Samantha (Belle Shouse), a sweet, ungroomed pageant contender from a tiny Oklahoma town whom Vicki eventually is forced to take under her wing. Samantha doesn’t see a crown as her birthright; she competes because the college scholarship that comes with that crown is the only path she can see toward earning an undergraduate degree.
Samantha’s story line speaks to something that Queen America does well: reveal both the positive opportunities that the pageant circuit offers to young women, as well as the toxic body shaming it continues to promote. The series, whose ten episodes are directed by co-executive producer Alethea Jones, has its share of catty jokes, but its attitude toward the hairspray-clouded milieu it depicts is more earnest and nuanced than the one in Insatiable.
It also has some solid performances. Zeta-Jones is always at her best when she’s fiery, and this part gives her plenty of opportunities to shift into beast mode. One of her strongest scenes in these initial episodes involves her threatening to destroy a sexual predator who puts the moves on Samantha. At the same time, the idea that she is a native Oklahoman who, in her younger days, was as unrefined as her new protégé is pretty tough to swallow, especially given the inconsistency of her southern accent. Personality-wise, the role’s a good fit for her, but in terms of Vicki’s broader story, she’s slightly miscast.
That said, my hope for and interest in the series spiked in episode three, when Vicki’s former pageant coach and nemesis, Regina (Judith Light), shows up and agrees to offer her help with the Samantha makeover. The exchanges between Zeta-Jones and Light really crackle, once again proving that the presence of Judith Light makes everything better.
There are also some awkward choices that ring false in Queen America, particularly in the dialogue. At one point Vicki tells someone that she “got drunk and made an asshat of herself.” Later, she uses the word “wack.” None of that rhetoric sounds credible coming out of the mouth of a southern-bred older woman. And again, certain elements of the series careen straight into the predictable. For example, Vicki’s right hand man and best friend is, of course, gay (Teagle F. Bougere), and he is, of course, having an affair with a closeted married father.
Still, there’s a watchable spark in Zeta-Jones and something admirable in the respect that Queen America shows to Samantha, who’s played by Shouse with just the right mix of naïveté, charm, and self-awareness. This is a young woman who, as she explains in one monologue, doesn’t care about being pretty. She wants the chance to prove she is smart. A lot of the people who run on the pageant circuit may be vapid and self-involved, but Queen America is open-minded enough to suggest that these hottie contests do serve a more important purpose for some women. That’s saying something that sounds at least a little new for this subgenre, and definitely puts a refreshing spin on a story that we’ve heard before.