Here’s a quick question that should serve as a surreal gut-check for modern entertainment: How many episodes of “Queen America,” the latest serialized offering for Facebook’s 2 billion-plus users, are available now?
Figure it out? Did you have to quickly Google “Queen America Facebook” or scan Catherine Zeta-Jones’ IMDB page first? Odds are high outside research was required, given that three episodes of “Queen America” quietly dropped Monday on Facebook Watch, marking the latest attempt by the streaming giant to stand out in the market for streaming options.
Created by Meaghan Oppenheimer (co-writer on the under-appreciated 2015 Zac Efron DJ picture “We Are Your Friends”), “Queen America” is one of those half-hour shows billed as a “black comedy” but that’s really just a drama with a few caustic jokes. In the pilot, Zeta-Jones’ popular beauty pageant coach tears up an Australian contest judge, dropping belittling joke after belittling joke about how his homeland isn’t “even a real country — just a bunch of criminals England didn’t want.” “How does an Australian practice safe sex?” Vicki asks him. “He paints the legs of the sheep that kick.”
Quality of the burn aside (let’s say two flame emojis out of four), “Queen America” only makes time for laughs when it’s forcing them (like when Vicki literally asks if she can tell joke). The rest of the episodes’ running time are devoted to Vicki’s star pupil, Hailey (Victoria Justice), as she sleeps in a sleeping bag-turned-hot box to get into pageant shape; Vicki’s sister, Katie (Molly Price) and her daughter, Bella (Isabella Amara), who live 45 minutes outside of Tulsa and are thus docile, simple-minded hicks; and Vicki’s team of assistants and hangers on, including former pageant star Mary Clark (Rana Roy) and current fashion coordinator Nigel (Teagle F. Bougere).
To its credit, “Queen America” doesn’t push its characters into expected boxes. Vicki isn’t a judgmental monster in everyday life. She’s more focused on her plus-sized niece’s health than her weight, and even when she crosses a line in that regard, Vicki still wants what’s best for Bella. (“Just because I like the world to look a little better doesn’t mean I don’t live in the real one,” Vicki says.) Meanwhile, Bella’s distaste for Vicki’s work isn’t tossed aside barbs about anorexia, but a genuine questioning of why any kind of pageant really matters. Then on the “pageants are great!” side of things, Hailey is cartoonish in her enthusiasm, but manages to keep the driven contestant somewhat grounded, and a slow-emerging competitor, Samantha Cole (Belle Shouse) is intriguing in her mysterious motivations.
Still, most of the narrative is as predictable as it is sedentary. The only surprise in the first three episodes comes from a wonky structure that makes you wait longer than necessary for the first pageant, only to be disappointed in how speedily it’s over. Moreover, once the real plot becomes evident, it’s clear “Queen America” took far too long kicking things into gear. Pair that with plainer-than-plain direction and inconsistent dialogue which leans toward overwriting, and there’s enough obvious blemishes to keep this series from being crowned anything other than average.
All that being said, quality isn’t the fatal flaw of “Queen America”; it’s Facebook. This show should be much more widely seen than the watch counts contend. After earning 1.1 million views for the pilot (which could mean anything, really), Episode 2 dropped to just over 50,000 views, and Episode 3’s tally is at a mere 36,000 as of Tuesday afternoon. All three dropped Sunday night, and all three follow a scary trend for Facebook Watch originals.
“Sorry For Your Loss,” a TIFF premiere starring Elizabeth Olsen, has snagged 4.6 million views to date for the premiere, but only 203,000 for Episode 2. That’s upwards of a 95 percent drop in views. “Sacred Lies,” a teen drama adaptation released three months ago, faired better, pulling in 10.2 million viewers for the pilot, but it also saw a steep drop for Episode 2: nearly 582,000 viewers, or a 94 percent loss.
Now, both of these originals offer a boom-or-bust opportunity. Teen series are notoriously hard to bank on (just ask anyone behind “The Darkest Minds”), and “Sorry For Your Loss” is about death — like, really, really, very much about mourning and pain and loss. It’s right there in the title, and that could make it a hard sell even with pretty good reviews and a famous face out front.
“Queen America” doesn’t have that excuse. It can get real, as the kids might still say, but it’s far from difficult or even challenging. The pageantry, cast, and premise all offer mass appeal, and the series’ biggest detriment to wide-ranging success might be getting straight men interested in beauty pageants. (That, or Zeta-Jones’ last TV appearance — for fear of being punished by the TV gods, let’s call it “Gocaine Codmother” — is scaring off everyone.)
So while it’s still too early to label “Queen America” a dud, it’s certainly not steering the conversation around television as networks often expect their high-profile new releases to do. Facebook Watch’s release strategy is a peculiar one. Individual episodes will be released weekly, after the three-episode dump to start things off. Hulu has seen mixed results with weekly releases, as have other streaming platforms (who’s keeping up with “The Romanoffs”?), to the point where they’re now experimenting with full season releases. (Although, to be fair, that didn’t seem to help “The First,” which has yet to be renewed.)
Like Netflix with its vast array of content, Facebook hasn’t found a seamless way to elevate its originals through the Watch page. I had to seek out “Queen America” by searching for the title, rather than see any sort of poster, trailer, or link leading me to the newly released episodes — and I watch a lot of TV for a living. The show’s Instagram account (owned by Facebook) offers direct links to the pilot episode through its “Episodes” icon on the profile page, but its meager 6,736 followers probably aren’t enough to drive buzz. Zeta-Jones’ 1.8 million followers might be, but they have yet to make the leap from browsing photos of the star’s secret hideaways to watching a half-hour series.
Persistent worries still apply — most prominently, that people may not want to watch 30 minutes of content while they’re aimlessly checking social media — but Facebook has proven to have the power to shape national discourse in frightening ways. Why it’s unable to drive more than 2 billion users to a show that would get better ratings on virtually any traditional network is a stunning mystery. In the era of peak TV, Facebook can’t suffer the mistakes of better established streamers, whether it’s release timing, driving subscribers to new content, or simply the product itself. No one should be asking questions about when a Facebook Watch show is out while Facebook is still this popular.
“Queen America” releases new episodes every Sunday on Facebook Watch.