The first thing to understand about Facebook Watch’s Queen America is the concept of “expectations vs. reality.” Pitched as a “dark comedy” about the beauty pageant scene in middle America—especially with the terrific casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones in the role of the pageant coach, Vicki Ellis—it brings to mind Drop Dead Gorgeous, the definitive feature-film version of the premise, or even The Bronze, which was about gymnastics but captured the big-talent-in-a-small-town malaise in a way Queen America seems to intend. In reality, the new series hits a lot of the same beats as those movies, but without the same number of laughs.
Nothing in Queen America’s first three episodes (of 10 total) suggests it should be a TV show instead of a movie: In fact, they play very much like the first act of a familiar 90-minute story. It’s not that it does this poorly—if anything, the series shows that creator Meaghan Oppenheimer knows these beats like the back of her hand, and they still land, for the most part. But what defends Queen America’s length is the performances, particularly Zeta-Jones’: She is the reason to continue watching, no matter how much you feel you’ve seen it before. The grace and command she possesses in every scene is truly a joy to watch—making it hit harder in moments when she loses that façade—and the same can be said for Judith Light once she shows up as Regina, Vicki’s estranged mentor. (Light also has the best introductory scene in the episodes made available to critics, playing off Zeta-Jones in a way that feels like the first drink of water in the desert.) Both women serve up looks that will last a lifetime, which may be all Facebook needs to sell Queen America to an interested audience.
The story (of course) is that Vicki is cold and heartless, and thaws as she embraces her inner maternal nature. The problem is, where other characters see an ice queen, Zeta-Jones never exudes anything other than genuine care about what she’s doing and for whom she’s doing it—almost too much so for the role. And, with Victoria Justice’s presence as her golden pupil so short-lived, the usual laughs at the excesses of beauty pageants are limited. It’s hard to take the side of anyone who criticizes Vicki for living what they consider a shallow existence, including her plus-sized niece, Bella (Isabella Amara), who calls Vicki’s work “profoundly unimportant.”
Your assumption might be that Vicki is false in her enthusiasm to see and spend time with her niece, but despite what Bella says, that’s never how Zeta-Jones plays it. While her initial shock at how big Bella has gotten is obvious—it later becomes an argument between Vicki and her sister, Katie (Molly Price)—the way she greets her niece with a real hug, right after the very fake hug she gives her sister, instantly shows how much she cares. As cold as Vicki can be in her coaching, to the competition, and even to her sister (who gives it right back), there’s very little to suggest she’s a bad person who needs to be transformed. There are generally unhealthy aspects of beauty pageants that Vicki perpetuates with her coaching—the series tackles eating disorders, for instance—but she is far from the monster of the story. In the end, that will either make for a wholly uneven season or for proper Zeta-Jones awards talk.
“Almost too genuine” also goes for Vicki’s earnest, humble replacement student, Samantha (Belle Shouse), who fills the Kirsten Dunst role from Drop Dead Gorgeous. In a moment where Bella tells Samantha some intentional misinformation, for instance, the subsequent embarrassment isn’t made into a funny bit of cringe comedy. (If it’s intended to be, it barely succeeds as such.) This is one thing Queen America can hang its hat on: It makes you want to root for Vicki and Samantha to succeed. In terms of the “comedy” part of Queen America’s “dark comedy,” though, Justice seems to be the only member of the cast who got the memo: She plays Haley as broadly as expected, in a good way. Which is kind of amazing, since the Miss America pageant proxy in the series is literally called “Miss America: Starred & Striped, United States.” You’d think more actors would be playing on the same level.
Besides the performances, there are moments in Queen America that stick out as something interesting and original, like the former Miss Oklahoma from more than a decade ago who no one recognizes, or the fact that one of Vicki’s assistants, Mary (Rana Roy), is also her failed protégé—which leads to one of the more heartbreaking and cruel exchanges in the early going. Oh, and as childish as it is, there is just something hilarious about Welsh Catherine Zeta-Jones in a Southern accent making as many jokes at Australia’s expense as humanly possible. (They all end up being for good reason.) But these are still just moments: In the grand scheme, Queen America pales in comparison to its forerunners. That doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time, though. And who knows, maybe it has a few surprises up its sleeve down the road.
Queen America premieres Sunday, Nov. 18 at 9 p.m. on Facebook Watch.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.