TV review: CBC Gem's Queens is a drag series with potential

Billed as a comedy-mystery, Justin Gray's web show about Toronto queens trying to compete in the last Miss Church Street pageant is much more of a comic farce

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      QUEENS (Justin Gray). All six episodes now streaming on CBC Gem

      Justin Gray’s Queens is billed as a “comedy-mystery whodunit," but I’m gonna be real with you: the mystery-whodunit thing is kind of a stretch.

      The six-part web series, which dropped last week on CBC Gem, isn’t terribly concerned with the whys and hows of the mysterious saboteur bent on derailing Toronto’s very last Miss Church Street pageant. Mostly, creator/producer Gray and director Pat Mills (GuidanceDon’t Talk To Irene) are there to watch their various characters try to get to that pageant, with as much drama as possible.

      Each 10-minute episode focuses on a different queen trying to cope with a comical personal disaster on the day of the pageant. Elaina (Champagna) bristles at the return of an old rival (Geoffrey “Ivory Towers” Gough); Babs (Jordan “Baby Bel Bel” Timmons) is tormented by a missed connection. Naomi (Reid “Allysin Chaynes” Millard) gets locked in a mall makeup store with a box of wine and no supervision, and Paper (Dwight “Jada Shada Hudson” Giraud) endures a supremely awkward trip to the ER.

      It’s pleasant low-key farce stuff, with zero stakes; there’s never any real implication that Gray’s heroes are in mortal danger from the hooded troublemaker, whose tactics are largely restricted to screwing around with plumbing and staring intently at photographs.

      For the most part, the entire cast is encouraged to go as big as they like, which means Queens starts out at a fairly high pitch and never really comes down… but that lets Kyah Green quietly steal the show as non-binary bartender Lou, refusing to match the queens’ energy and just doing their own thing in every scene.

      The show’s high point is its fourth episode, Minnie & Sharron, which finds the eponymous queens (Jaime “Lucinda Miu” Lujan, Eric “Lucy Flawless” Rich) happening upon a lost child (Presley Grace) and try to figure out what to do next. Their conflicting impulses lead to an argument that carries on through the bulk of the episode, with stops for first aid and hot chocolate, balancing its comic points with hints of deep pathos.

      It’s the one episode written by Mills, and it left me wishing he’d worked on more of the scripts; there’s a great sense of structure that’s not always present in the other episodes, which have a tendency to rush past character moments in order to get to the next complication.

      That said, the list of television shows that put drag queens front and centre is awfully small, and there are people who will absolutely see themselves represented in Queens. A second season might even unlock its full potential.