LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - This has been the year in which Netflix finally cracked the code of unscripted TV. “Queer Eye” is a zeitgeist sensation and an Emmy winner; “Nailed It!” is a beloved and askew take on the sort of competition show the Food Network popularized.
Now comes “Dancing Queen,” a series that follows a similar approach to Netflix’s other unscripted successes. Borrowing liberally from other franchises, the show ultimately comes into its own through a refreshingly sunny disposition, one it shares both with its fellow Netflix series and with its star.
“Dancing Queen” follows Alyssa Edwards, nee Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson, a drag queen known for two seasons’ worth of appearances on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” In addition to drag success, Johnson, when presenting as himself, runs a dance studio in Mesquite, Texas, where he trains youngsters to work in unison toward aesthetic perfection. It’s a goal that shares, in both its careful attention to detail and its necessary backstage camaraderie, a lot with drag itself.
Edwards is known to “Drag Race” fans as a fairly loopy queen who — her acuity with dance steps aside — tends to march to the beat of her own drum. And the show is in keeping with both her loose, pleasant energy and the discipline she brings to her onstage life. She appears in and out of drag seemingly at random in her confessional interviews — whatever look suits the moment is the one she’ll have on, and her quirky, unschooled way of speaking makes her an indelible TV character even for the uninitiated. (Ms. Edwards has never met a metaphor she’s unwilling to mix.) And when out of bejeweled drag and auditioning students for Beyond Belief, Johnson sits in a simple T-shirt on a throne, without editorial comment needed. In his domain, he reigns supreme, no matter what. He may toss on a wig and tell jokes for a living, but, like so many drag queens committed to their respective specialties, Johnson takes dance gratifyingly seriously.
Few characters challenge Johnson for dominance or even parity in the first two installments of “Dancing Queen,” and as it goes on, it’d be nice to get a bit more texture of the Beyond Belief community. But those dance parents we meet in the early going are as passionate as any of those on “Dance Moms,” but portrayed with more heart. These are folks, we can tell, who truly want the best for their children, and (contrary to the stereotypes one might surmise about the beliefs of suburban Texans) are not just willing but eager to enlist a drag queen in helping them get there. That interplay between earnest parents and the serious side of a fun-loving queen makes for TV that edges up to inspirational. But it’s also just fun, serving as a much-needed tonic for tough times in precisely the way “Queer Eye” is while doing something all its own.