In the years since “RuPaul’s Drag Race” became an international sensation — which happened around the time the drag reality-competition show transferred from the previously LGBTQ-centric channel Logo to the more mainstream VH1 — countless imitations have cropped up. Netflix’s decision to reboot “Queer Eye,” while trading on a name recognition that predates “Drag Race,” no doubt was partly influenced by the latter’s massive success. HBO recently debuted “We’re Here,” a structureless amalgamation of “Drag Race” and “Queer Eye” hosted by three former “Drag Race” contestants. World of Wonder, the production company that created and produces “Drag Race,” has spawned dozens of spinoff shows to varying degrees of success.
So far, none have come close to capturing the magic and audience fervor of the original sensation, and while RuPaul’s crown isn’t getting snatched anytime soon, “Legendary” is the first queer reality show to come close.
The new reality-competition series from HBO Max plays like a mix of “Pose,” “Drag Race,” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” The series follows competing teams from the world of ballroom, a style of dance and fashion competition originated in 1920s Harlem by African Americans and Latinx LGBTQ folks. Ballroom gave rise to voguing, a style of dance characterized by staccato hand movements framing the face, and “death drops,” whereby a dancer’s upright body suddenly falls to the floor like some sort of spastic and fabulous rag doll. No matter how many times you’ve seen a death drop, it’ll make you jump to your feet in thunderous applause.
Voguing reached mainstream popularity in 1991 with the release of Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary “Paris Is Burning,” as well as the release of Madonna’s “Vogue,” in which the iconic pop star borrowed elements of the choreography. Both cultural landmarks in very different mediums touched a nerve in the ballroom community. Suddenly, a lucky few had fame and fortune, but many felt these white women had appropriated a unique art form created by queer people of color for their own gain. The subject is still fraught to this day.
Entering boldly into the fray is “Legendary,” a frothy, big-budget reality show with a huge cast of characters — both competing, judging, and emcee-ing. For the most part, the producers have attempted to honor the community with the judges’ panel. Much of the weight is put on Leiomy Maldonado’s chiffon-clad shoulders, a transgender afro-Puerto Rican dancer and a prominent icon of the ballroom scene. Guiding the proceedings as Master of Ceremonies — which means something very specific in ballroom — is Dashaun Wesley, another iconic figure who was raised in the ballroom tradition. They are joined by rapper Megan Thee Stallion, who is funny and fabulous in her first big TV gig, actress Jameela Jamil (“The Good Place”), who needs some schooling from Maldonado lest she give everyone 10s across the board, and “America’s Next Top Model” judge Law Roach, a celebrity stylist who seems to have appointed himself the title of “most difficult to please.”
With eight teams competing from classic ballroom “houses,” the first hourlong episode is almost entirely dedicated to introducing each groups of five. With so many contestants, it can be hard to single out certain figures or characters, which is arguably the most vital component of any reality show, and without a script or narrative, the characters must do all of the heavy lifting. While there is no dearth of fabulous, outspoken, colorful, and unique characters on “Legendary,” it can be difficult to know where to look. However, with only the first two episodes provided to critics, this could be a function of bandwidth. As the teams are eliminated, there will surely be more time devoted to certain teams and players.
The structure could also use some work, although it’s fairly simple. The teams received a theme or challenge to use to choreograph their dance, then they dance and are judged. Similar to a real house ball, select members from the top three teams then duke it out in a final dance to determine the winner. While the parameters are a little thin so far; the dancing is — shall we say — everything. The looks, the moves, the face, the music; these are things you didn’t know the human body could do, much less five of them in sync.
It all comes together in a mind-boggling fantasia of ingenuity and beautiful queer culture. There are more black queer people, including plenty of trans women, on “Legendary” than probably any other show on TV, and this is the post-“Pose” era. Win or lose, the queers are coming out on top.
“Legendary” premiered its first two episodes Wednesday, May 27 on HBO Max. New episodes will be released weekly.