The fabulous arc of LGBTQ+ progress from Paris Is Burning to Pose, and across the RuPaul’s Drag Race universe, has at last led to Legendary (★★★★☆). Unapologetically queer, unabashedly fierce, and deeply steeped in the language, history, and style of gay houses and ballroom culture, the HBO Max reality competition series hits the runway already up to speed. Members from eight different houses — including the iconic Houses of Ninja and St. Laurent — compete in nine voguing balls for a $100,000 cash prize.
Diving in with a minimum of Ballroom 101 for the as-yet uninitiated, Legendary dispenses with the “Houses are…” and “Voguing is…” explanations within the first few moments of episode one. The show’s producers clearly anticipate an audience that won’t need a guidebook for decoding the culture. But just in case, the first episode (of two provided by HBO for preview) is devoted to introducing the competing houses in a non-elimination ball that allows all the contestants to showcase their strengths — voguing, walking, and serving looks. And each week, a guest judge will take a seat alongside the panel of four permanent judges to supply wide-eyed reactions to the sickening fashions, flips, dips, and stunts.
Model Tyson Beckford sits in with the panel for episode two’s Once Upon a Time Ball, a fairytale-themed extravaganza that finds regular judge Megan Thee Stallion dressed as a leggy Red Riding Hood. The audacious “Savage” rapper embodies the sass and spirit this show seems all about celebrating. Fellow judge Jameela Jamil (The Good Place) brings the sweetness and supportive Paula Abdul energy, while fashion stylist Law Roach eagerly serves bitchy-judge attitude, and statuesque Leiomy Maldonado, the “Wonder Woman of Vogue,” delivers the measured critiques of a ballroom pioneer. The judges are entertaining as hell, but the show’s makers ensure that neither they, nor ballroom emcee Dashaun Wesley, upstage the competition or the contestants.
The contestants themselves represent diverse backgrounds, communities, and gender identities. The team repping the House of Ninja, for example, are all women, from the U.S., Europe, and Japan. That warm inclusivity and openness helps balance the competitiveness, and delicious cattiness of comments like, “I should have swept her across the board,” or “I mean, if your effect falls off — that’s calling for a chop, no shade.”
Some of the queens slice and dice with commentary as sharp as their moves, as DJ Mike Q keeps beats pumping in the ballroom. We also see contestants in workroom consultations with professional costume designers and a choreographer, although Legendary is disappointingly vague about the actual creative processes. Concepts are described, a few lines of illustration are sketched, then cut to the entire team modeling a Met Ball’s-worth of custom wardrobe. But, alas, no one’s here to see the sewing. The final results on the runway speak for themselves, as contestants bring their best to the floor, and excitement and pageantry welcome all to the party.
Legendary premieres Wednesday, May 27, on the new HBO Max streaming service. Visit www.hbomax.com for more information.
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