Whether AJ and the Queen is a good or bad television show isn’t really up for debate. It is a bad television show. The premise is that AJ (Izzy G.), a 10-year-old ragamuffin with absent parents, falls into company with Ruby Red, a down-on-her-luck drag queen played by RuPaul Charles. It’s bad in a variety of equally painful ways. It looks and feels chintzy. Its politics are loud, proud, and as simplistic as a child’s My First Read-Aloud book. It has all the aesthetic and tonal hallmarks of a made-for-TV family movie from the early ’90s (on-the-nose voice-over, aggressively cloying score, obviousness), but spread across ten hours of a Netflix season. The acting is not great. It is bad.
The trickier and more curious question is whether AJ and the Queen knows itself for what it is.
There are elements of AJ and the Queen that seem blithely, deliriously unaware. Its inexcusable length, for instance, feels more like the result of being a Netflix show than anything essential to the project. So much that happens is unnecessary beyond the point of absurdity, and most scenes feel inflated by at least 200 percent. The arc of the season is a 90-minute story at best, and watching Ruby and AJ go through the motions of Clorox-wiping a hotel room just to fill two more minutes of an episode is bad in a way that no intentionality could excuse.
Its characterization is also boring in a way that’s difficult to set aside, whatever else this show might be. Ruby is a handful of tropes who swears by VHS tapes of early Oprah shows, says “thank you” when someone calls her too skinny, and who can’t look sad in any convincing way. AJ is also exactly the character you assume, from the moment the kid steals from Ruby Red, runs down the fire escape, stows away into Ruby’s RV, and reveals in a big surprise moment at the end of episode one that she’s a girl. I might tell you that by the end, Ruby and AJ learn to love each other but also themselves, but I assume you’d fall off your chair in shock.
Other parts of AJ and the Queen, though, are bad in ways that are plainly deliberate. One of the chief villains, played by Tia Carrere, wears an eye patch and goes by the name Lady Danger. A maudlin montage features Ruby lip-syncing along with “Endless Love,” AJ staring longingly into a pet store at a dog she cannot have, and a con man baddie named Hector (Josh Segarra) reluctantly picking up tricks at a gay bar so he can buy new tires for his muscle car. He doesn’t want to go back to hooking, he tells Lady Danger, but he’s worried that the donut tires he’s currently using will mess up the car’s alignment. Surely this kind of terribleness only happens as a purposeful send-up? Surely it’s trying to be this absurd?
There’s one scene in particular that made me suddenly reassess whether AJ and the Queen knows exactly what it’s doing. Earlier in the episode, AJ looks out over a hotel swimming pool and laments that she never learned how to swim. After a wet T-shirt contest at a local roadhouse in which Ruby Red tries to pass for a woman until her massive breastplate falls off, the episode comes to an inspirational conclusion. Ruby wakes up and sees that AJ’s gone missing, but then looks out over the balcony and sees AJ swimming in the pool, using the truly enormous fake titties as a flotation device.
The image of a 10-year-old swimming with huge fake breasts is not the thing that gave me pause; it was the music. On, say, a half-hearted ABC procedural, a music coordinator would’ve decided that this scene is obviously stupid, and would’ve given it a plunky, goofy, half-stepping string score to signal ridiculousness. But not on AJ and the Queen. On AJ and the Queen, RuPaul as Ruby Red stares out at a 10-year-old using very large fake tits as swim floaties, and a saccharine-sincere piano score comes in, daring you not to laugh.
I laughed. I laughed at least partly in dismay, but it was definitely laughter.
What I’m trying to say is that AJ and the Queen may well be terrible, but it may also be immaculately high camp. The thing I still can’t decipher is whether its camp tendencies are, like RuPaul’s Drag Race persona, accompanied by a knowing wink. Lady Danger, Ruby’s blind roommate who yells “I’m blind!” at least once an episode, Ruby herself pretending to have been knocked unconscious in the middle of a drag performance before rising perfectly to the crescendo of Sia’s “Chandelier” — moments like these suggest that AJ and the Queen is trying hard for “campiness” and failing dramatically in the execution.
But the true awfulness of its pacing, its characterization, its score, its hacky cinematography — all of that suggests camp of the pure Susan Sontag variety, camp that is unintentional and deadly serious. “In naive, or pure, Camp,” Sontag writes, “the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.”
I have always struggled with the idea that, for Sontag, camp can only be achieved through complete misintention, and that knowing something is camp and achieving pure camp are at direct odds. My distaste isn’t about the way she defines it so much as my own discomfort — I prefer when things are made on purpose. And regardless, AJ and the Queen cannot quite meet Sontag’s definition of “pure.” There are too many knowing moments, strewn haphazardly throughout the long stretches of (deliberate?) dreck.
In spite of my reservations about Notes on Camp, I watched AJ and the Queen in a state of perplexed unhappiness, caught between my desire to just call it “bad” and the persistent sense that maybe it was actually bad in an impressive way. Finally, though, a later line from Sontag helped clear my fog. She ends the essay by saying that the “ultimate” camp statement is “it’s good because it’s awful.” Whatever its intention, AJ and the Queen is indeed awful. But it’s not good because of it.