In Legendary, HBO Max's glitzy new competition show about modern-day drag ball culture, eight "houses" hit the catwalk to twirl and flip their way to $100,000 and the honor of being named baddest in ballroom.
In the ballroom community, which originated in 1920s New York as an LGBTQ subculture, houses are your chosen family and creative collaborators. As portrayed in the movie Paris is Burning and the TV drama Pose, houses compete against each other in dance, performance, lip-syncing and fashion challenges for trophies, cash and glory.
"You know how you have rival street gangs? We have rival houses," explains Mother Eyricka, the "house parent" of House of Lanvin, one of the collectives vying for the Legendary crown. "But instead of fighting it out, we take it to the floor, and the best house wins."
The big-budget show is a buoyant blowout of sequins, feathers, latex and voguing, the highly stylized form of dance that mimics poses struck by fashion models on the runway. But like the long-running reality show RuPaul's Drag Race it will no doubt be compared with, Legendary is, at its heart, a celebration of the redemptive power of community and self-acceptance. ("If you can't love yourself," RuPaul famously says on his hit show, "how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?")
Each Legendary episode documents a ball with a theme and related challenges. As part of the "Mirror Mirror" challenge in the fairy tale ball, for example, contestants attempt to command all focus on their fabulously made-up miens.
Celebrity judges include hip-hop star Megan Thee Stallion, global voguing star Leiomy Maldonado, stylist Law Roach and actor and model Jameela Jamil. A controversy surrounded the show earlier this year when an HBO press release named Jamil as the show's MC, with critics charging she shouldn't have the role given her lack of ties to the ballroom scene.
Dashaun Wesley, a dance instructor and mainstay of the ball world for years, now does MC duties, but Jamil makes for a personable judge who's clearly impressed and energized as the contestants strut around the stage.
With eight five-member houses (that's 40 contestants!) kicking off the competition, the first two episodes HBO Max made available for review present so many players it's hard to keep track. And individual backstories, shared from an empty industrial space before the camera cuts to performers on the dimly lit dance floor, come across as perfunctory, lacking the depth that makes you want to root for someone you get to know on TV.
Hopefully as the show progresses and houses get eliminated, viewers will get more of a chance to invest in the remaining contestants. That's always the case as RuPaul winnows its cast.
The diversity of the performers is, however, immediately apparent.
Like a number of others featured, Mother Eyricka is a transgender woman of color. She came out at 15 and knew she wanted to be a woman from the moment a friend took her to New York City's Greenwich Village and told her all those tall beautiful girls she was seeing were born men.
"From there, I was just me. I was Eyricka," she says.
Not all the performers in Legendary have walked such smooth paths to embracing their true identity.
Xa'Pariss, the self-proclaimed "baddest bitch" of the House of Ebony, recalls sleeping in parks after being tossed out of the house for being gay.
"But ballroom really just gave me a family," Xa'Pariss says. "It really did teach me to be comfortable with being who I am."
Carlos, another member of the House of Lanvin, grew up next to the Bronx projects, and had suicidal thoughts after enduring endless bullying as a kid. "It was extremely tough," Carlos recalls, "but the one thing that always kept me out of that situation? My gift of dance, and expressing those emotions through movement made me forget about everything I was going through."
Beyond the painful memories, Legendary joyfully highlights the genuine and supportive relationships between house members and revels in the shady digs houses throw at their challengers.
With some serious charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent on display here, there are bound to be some breakout stars. Legendary even.