Hey, did you know Facebook makes television now? It seemed inevitable in the age of Peak T.V. that the evil giants of the internet would want to get in on the content game. Yet I have seen so little acknowledgement from fans and critics alike that Facebook Watch is even a thing. I talk about pop culture for a living and even I had to remind myself that these shows existed. It wasn’t until Todd VanDerWerff of Vox noted on Twitter that I even remembered the existence of Queen America.
It should feel like a bigger deal that Oscar and Tony-winning actress Catherine Zeta Jones is headlining her own series on Facebook Watch. Yet, as VanDerWerff pointed out, Queen America has a grand total of four reviews on Metacritic. I’ve never seen anyone tweet about it, nor have I seen the show even pop up once on my Facebook feed. I’ve already lost count of the number of times I’ve seen trade reports on series getting renewed or canceled and though, ‘I didn’t even know that was a thing’, and those were shown on actual televisions. Getting people to watch T.V. is hard enough: How do you get people to watch Facebook?
So, with that in mind, I decided to actually watch Queen America. I like Catherine Zeta-Jones and find her to be an immensely charismatic on-screen presence who can own sultry camp like nobody else, so the mere idea of her headlining a black comedy about the Oklahoma pageant scene was promising enough for me to overcome my Facebook disdain for a few hours. Of course Zeta-Jones would want to move to T.V.: She was great on FX’s Feud and the medium has proven more rewarding to actresses in recent years than film, as evidenced by series like Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects, and everything Reese Witherspoon is producing.
Zeta-Jones plays Vicki Ellis, a pageant coach from Tulsa who has the monopoly on Oklahoma beauty queens. Every girl she coaches is guaranteed to not only win the title of Miss Oklahoma but make the top five of Miss America. After her winning client flames out, the back-up queen and title holder of Miss Claremore, Samantha Cole (Belle Shouse) takes over. She’s sweet but utterly clueless, the unpolished ‘authentic’ girl in a sea of well-trained queens. She’s not Vicki’s dream client but she won’t let her reputation be spoiled.
If you’re in any way familiar with beauty pageants in fiction, you’ll know a lot of the beats of Queen America: The overtly stern coaches, the jokes about thigh gaps, the spray tans, the bottled happiness and buzzword friendly conversations, and the overwhelming sensation that everyone involved with telling such stories thinks that beauty pageants are utterly pointless. Every aspect of the Miss America pageant is portrayed as degrading, hilarious or both. A lot of it is pretty hard to watch simply because we’re all painfully familiar with these narratives of women being reduced to their appearances, but Queen America too often pulls back from digging beneath the surface. For Samantha, the working-class girl with no money or prospects, the pageant offers something that nothing else in life does: A route to a better future. Her obvious hunger and naivety for the process makes for the most compelling viewing but the show is more keen to reduce her to a goofball who only further proves the pointlessness of the pageant circuit.
Zeta-Jones is having a ball as an acid-tongued beauty queen with ruthless ambition and the highest heels in Tulsa. She goes a lot of great angry cigarette smoking acting and knows how to toe that fine line between camp and pitiful. There are moments where she has something real to work with — Vicki’s eating disorder, her strained relationship with her sister and her niece, her friendship with her co-worker Nigel — and in those scenes you get why Zeta Jones was such a Star during the Chicago and The Mask of Zorro years. Vicki is a woman running from her ‘trailer trash’ past who became successful beyond her wildest dreams but is now stuck with the realization of how hollow that endgame really was. There’s something there to work with on a narrative level but Queen America hints at complexity then gallops back to one-liners. The story keeps cutting Vicki down to size even when she’s right and you can’t help but wonder why. Even her bulimia, which is given moments of discomfiting rawness on-screen, is undercut by the show’s need to go big.
Belle Shouse smartly underplays Samantha, making her incredibly winning and easy to root for, even when the show itself reduces her to a parody of the unpolished beauty queen. Samantha is so beyond training. One moment where she seriously confuses her world history in public is excruciating to watch and would inevitably kill any real pageant queen’s hopes of winning in a social media age. The show wants a Cinderella narrative but one of pantomime proportions that still feels the need to keep telling Cinderella that the ball is a big waste of time. Isabella Amara also shines as Vicki’s niece Bella, a confident teen girl who is all too aware that she’s the epitome of everything her aunt’s line of work stands against.
Tonally, I’m not sure what Queen America wants to be. The first episode leans in hard on black comedy but ends with Vicki binging in a moment of pathos. The following episodes (there are currently six available to watch) try to juggle dark humour with satire, pathos, camp and straight drama but none of it meshes together as desired. The show works best when it goes very big — any scene where Zeta-Jones gets to bounce off Judith Light is a treasure — or very small, but not at the same time. It leans into the contradictions of Oklahoma — immense poverty just down the road from eye-watering wealth, the high camp of the pageant scene contrasted with trying to be gay in the Bible Belt — and showrunner Meaghan Oppenheimer at least respects the state enough not to reduce it to clichés but a lot of the show is denied that same promise.
Yet there’s still something in Queen America that kept me watching despite all that. Call it apathy or curiosity or a side-effect of being trained in the high art of marathoning T.V., but I zipped through all six episodes with a decent degree of satisfaction. Zeta-Jones is great, the cast are uniformly strong even when they’re underserved by the material, and the show gets the high-low stakes rush of something so seemingly pointless that is often the only option many have. But is that enough? Is that promise of potential enough to fuel viewers or entice others over to Facebook Watch? The numbers — at least the viewer number on the site itself, and we know how Facebook feel about keeping those things honest — suggest strong enough devotion from some people. They’re not all that far off from the kind of ratings a lot of prestige cable T.V. gets, but Facebook Watch needs something bigger than bored clicks (side note but the platform is also very strange about swears and slurs: F*ck will get bleeped out but r*tard won’t). The hook of the service seems to be the ability to watch and interact, like live-tweeting your favourite show while you view it on the same page. You can’t fake real buzz or enthusiasm, and for all the interesting things Queen America has to offer, it needs to be more than just decent enough. That doesn’t even work for Netflix anymore.
Queen America is available to watch on Facebook Watch, with new episodes on Sundays.
Header Image Source: Facebook Watch