“Legendary” is a fascinating, messy study in contrasts. The new reality competition series is a celebration of ballroom culture, a chronically underappreciated queer subculture, premiering on the launch day of HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s new streaming service backed by billions of corporate dollars. It shines a gorgeous, sleek spotlight on its fearsome dancers, who have traditionally had to shine bright in dusky clubs. It pours a sizeable budget into a form of expression that has long depended on DIY ingenuity. Its messaging is slapdash, but its production value is slick as hell, packaging ballroom as an almost high octane sport. Whether you’re an aficionado or neophyte, one has ever seen ballroom presented with such a lavish eye.
The closest analogue to “Legendary” is “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” RuPaul Charles’ reality show that brought the typically subversive art form of drag into the mainstream and turned queens into household names (or at the very least, brands). The debate over whether or not this is an overall good thing has raged on since its beginnings. The show’s ability to bring drag into homes that might otherwise never have experienced it has undeniably opened minds, but at the same time, commodified a culture that has prided itself on remaining outside the corporate norm. This trajectory is hard to shake while watching “Legendary,” which will likely be many HBO Max subscribers’ first exposure to ballroom culture outside, perhaps, its depictions in the seminal 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” or the current FX drama “Pose.” By the end of its first two episodes, a newcomer might not have a better idea of what ballroom is, exactly, but they should be sufficiently wowed by the talent on display.
The actual setup of “Legendary” is minimal. Unlike most reality competition shows, there’s next to no lead-up to meeting the contestants. Instead, it dives headfirst into the action, opening directly on the first show with a screaming live crowd. It presents eight collectives (aka “houses”) as quickly as their dancers’ heads spin around the dancefloor. If you don’t know how balls work, “Legendary” isn’t about to wait for you to catch up — which is both a detriment and a welcome chance of pace, to see such an unabashedly queer show just do its thing without stopping the presses to explain itself.
The judges catwalk out to MC Dashaun Wesley’s silken introductions: ballroom alums and experts Law Roach and Leoimy Maldonado, rapper Megan Thee Stallion, and Jameela Jamil, “an actress, an ally, an advocate.” Jamil’s involvement briefly eclipsed “Legendary” itself when it was announced, thanks to a press release that referred to her as the MC instead of Wesley. In the show, Jamil plays the part of the wide-eyed newcomer entering the show with no expertise to speak of, but plenty of enthusiasm for experiencing her “first gag.” Her inclusion doesn’t come off as offensive, perse, but it is baffling that she’s apparently the head of the judging panel — especially when she can’t offer much more insight on the acts before her than, “I liked it!” (which she always does). Megan, at least, owes enough of her persona and slang to the ballroom scene, and can appreciate its best performers from a more informed place. Much more interesting than both, of course, are Roach and Maldonado, who have no problem giving pointed critiques.
Where “Legendary” falters is with its contestants. With eight houses on deck, each gets a perfunctory intro in the first episode, with some slo-mo footage of individual members paired with them explaining themselves and their trauma in three lines or less. The legacies of the houses, so intrinsic to their identities, get passing mentions. And since the show devotes the vast majority of its hourlong episode run times to the show itself, the behind the scenes of how it comes together — the element that could make “Legendary” stand out even amongst those who have gone to balls — barely register. With so much rich history to draw from, and with so many viewers likely coming into this world cold, “Legendary” would have benefitted from devoting more time to the brilliant people and innovations that make it possible.
“Legendary” premieres May 27 on HBO Max.