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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

HBO Max’s Legendary gives the ballroom community a deliriously fun twirl into the spotlight

Illustration for article titled HBO Max’s iLegendary/i gives the ballroom community a deliriously fun twirl into the spotlight
Photo: HBO Max
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“Leave it all on the floor!” is the directive of Legendary. The command speaks to the jaunty energy of HBO Max’s first reality competition show. Pose on FX helped introduce the underground ballroom community, voguing, and houses to mainstream viewers, and Legendary makes the concept into a reality show by bringing together eight houses to compete for a cash prize of $100,000. Competitors are enjoyably shady with each other; there seems to be a significant budget for outfits and accessories; and the judging panel is varyingly supportive, dismissive, thirsty, and impressed. Although there is some bumpiness in the show’s early stages (only the first two episodes were available for review), it’s also clear that Legendary has assembled all the components needed to be a RuPaul’s Drag Race-style hit.

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As the reality TV landscape has transformed over the years, niche competition shows have muscled their way into a hegemony once dominated by the likes of The Bachelor/ette, Survivor, and The Amazing Race. Face Off on Syfy, Blown Away on Netflix, The Great British Baking Show on PBS—their respective focuses on makeup artists, glassblowers, and amateur British bakers introduced viewers to the intricate details and techniques of those various crafts. The same goes for Legendary, which opens its first episode with the question, “What is ballroom?”

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For those who aren’t familiar, Legendary’s premiere, “Welcome To My House” effectively lays out the basics: Ballroom has, for decades, functioned as a support system, creative outlet, and competitive endeavor within the LGBTQ+ community, in particular for its Black and Latinx members. Ballroom celebrates drag and voguing, which draws from modern dance, by challenging traditional ideas of gender performance. Individuals can join “houses,” which are led by a house mother or father who care for their family members. Balls can have certain themes, and the houses are expected to create outfits and performances that speak to those themes, as well as to prepare for certain challenges that test various ballroom skills. In the second episode, “Once Upon A Time,” the fairy tale theme results in houses turning heavily to Disney for outfit inspiration (a male Cruella de Vil makes an appearance, as do Ursula and Ariel), and select house members compete against each other in hair whips, serving face, and synchronized performance. There is a serious creative element being tested, and Legendary provides fashion designers as mentors and a Werk Room, à la Project Runway, so that the houses can work on these often wild concepts, including a collection of outfits that look like Vivienne Westwood by way of Pinhead.

There is a good amount of trust and love in these relationships, and Legendary takes the time to introduce each of the eight houses, often named after couture designers, that will be competing for the show’s duration: House of Escada, House of Ebony, House of Ninja, House of Gucci, House of West, House of St. Laurent (featured in the seminal documentary Paris Is Burning), House of Lanvin, and House of Balmain. Many of the houses are led by traditional members of underground ballroom, in particular trans women and gay and bisexual men. Some of them share stories of the struggles they endured before they joined their houses: growing up in church but being rejected by the faithful after they came out, abandonment by their family after they shared their sexuality or gender identity, and intermittent homelessness.

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But Legendary doesn’t rely solely on sympathy in response to those memories to engage with viewers. Instead, it makes clear the support and love many of these competitors have received from their own original families, emphasizing that the “tragic gay” stereotype is not a certainty in this community. And, most importantly, Legendary indulges in the inherently shady nature of ballroom, which makes for great reality TV. We cut often to contestants backstage (those scenes are always stylized in black and white, which makes for nice dramatic effect), where they snark about other houses, discredit certain performances, or rail against the judges. But there’s no real backstabbing here, no truly malevolent nastiness. The houses all want to win, but their desire to walk away victorious is what inspires their commentary, not spite.

Similarly enthused are the host, MC Dashaun Wesley, who is equally playful and authoritative, and the judges, including actress Jameela Jamil of The Good Place; Leiomy Maldonado, a dancer, activist, and voguing legend; stylist Law Roach, of America’s Next Top Model; and rapper Megan Thee Stallion, whose “hot girl shit” vibes quite well here. As individuals outside of the ballroom community, Jamil’s and Megan’s judging styles are more often than not effusive and complimentary, but they shake off that initially bland niceness by the second episode, and the show feels more authentic as a result. There’s also an uneasy balance between Wesley and Jamil: He announces all the challenges, introduces all the houses, and basically serves as the host, so it’s strange when Jamil steps in to name winners or losers. The division of those responsibilities feels unnecessary, and the production could have done a better job making clear what each of their roles entails. The show also hasn’t made entirely clear how final eliminations are decided: There are three challenges per episode, for which there are definitive winners, but then each of the bottom-two houses gets another attempt to plead their case. There’s some murkiness there that might cause confusion down the line, especially as fewer houses remain.

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Despite the flaws in the show’s competition format, there is engaging friction between the houses that will certainly play out as the season progresses. The House of St. Laurent is convinced that their decades of influence afford them a certain level of prestige, but that haughtiness isn’t well-received. The House of Ninja, the only house made up of cisgender women, initially does quite well; as underdogs in the ballroom community, they’re praised by a few of the judges for their allyship and skill. But by “Once Upon A Time,” there is already a backlash to their work—does their presence take away from ballroom’s traditions?

Those are valid subtextual questions that Legendary might wrestle with moving forward, but before then, the competition entertains by focusing primarily on these competitors and highlighting their skill. They duckwalk in unison; catwalk with fluidity and grace; aggressively spin and dip; exude sensuality while rolling around on the floor; leap and jump and twist, doing enough acrobatics and gymnastics to make Simone Biles proud. “Ballroom taught me how to be me,” one of the competitors says, and Legendary works by being both a celebration of that self-expression and a formalized exercise in the defiant competitiveness that emboldens it.

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