TV Review: We’re Here ★★★★★

Debuting on HBO on Thursday April 23rd a six episode unscripted series, We’re Here, takes three Drag Race stars, Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara, and Shangela Laquifa Wadley off the runway on to a cross-country roadtrip to stage one-night-only drag shows, transforming a diverse array of local residents into fierce queens, thereby empowering them to discover their true selves. Think the intimate Werk Room chats and the uplifting, unbridled joy and artistry of Drag Race performances plus the emotional journeys and cathartic tears of Queer Eye, via beloved movies about fish(y queens) out-of-water in conservative small towns like To Wong Foo and Priscilla Queen of the Desert – but with better vehicles. These gals announce We’re Here in style. Bob sashays in purse first, in a giant motorised handbag, while Shangela’s pretty in pink ride has lips to die for and a gorgeous bow, and self-proclaimed “Elephant Queen” Eureka’s mode of transport for the series is, yes, you guessed it, a fabulous Elephant-mobile.

Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela Laquifa Wadley, Eureka O’Hara.
Photograph by Khun Minn Ohn/HBO.

Created and executive produced by Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram, We’re Here gives us the three fairy drag mothers we all need in our lives right now, in these worrisome times. But if you think that all these locals are getting is a fabulous frock, a cosmetic drag makeover and some choreography to go to the Ball with, think again. Bob says at one point during the series: “drag saved my life” and “the gag is we all need help”. This is drag therapy, for the participants, as well as us the viewers at home, it allows us cry (ration plenty of toilet paper for watching this show) and gives us a reason to hope.

Eureka O’Hara. Photograph by Khun Minn Ohn/HBO.

The defiantly titled series, both announces the arrival of the three queens themselves and also recognises that there were of course LGBTQ folks living in the places that they visit all along. The first episode sees Shangela take Hunter under her sequinned wing, a young gay make-up artist living in his hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where confederate flags and Trump Pence window stickers are a familiar sight. He’s had a tough time growing up there, but says that wearing makeup in his daily life helps, it feels like armour. He’s supported by his family, but feels that there’s a distance between him and his motorcycle and hunting loving (hence his name) father which he’d like to bridge. His father is incredibly open about his own perception of masculinity and recalls purposefully creating the way he presents himself, the muscles and tattoos, when he was an adolescent to avoid being called “pretty”. This is just one example of the fascinating and raw conversations about gender that the show ignites by putting non-queens in drag. Meanwhile in Gettysburg a conservative Christian mother wants Eureka to help her use drag as way of apologising to the daughter she recently rejected when she came out as bisexual. And Bob becomes drag mother to an African American cis straight male ally who has been subjected to racism in the town and wants to take a walk in a drag queen’s heels as symbol of solidarity with the LGBTQ residents.  

Bob the Drag Queen. Photograph by Khun Minn Ohn/HBO.

Heading west for the second episode, Bob, Eureka, and Shangela, who all served as consulting producers on the series, find themselves in the predominantly Mormon community of Magic Valley in Twin Falls, Idaho. Among the participants there are three amateur drag queens whose looks and moves need some work, but more pressingly the trio need some community spirit; although they live in the same area they are isolated from one another. It’s a rare insight on a mainstream television show into the real lives of LGBTQ folks surviving outside more liberal cities, without hubs of queer nightlife or the support of any peers. In an age where there’s such a focus on connecting online, We’re Here reminds us of the importance of human connection; a hug, a look directly into someone eyes, something most of us our missing in our lives right now, as well as the importance of LGBTQ spaces, of being visible to the wider population where we live. Letting them know we’re here.

Given the conservative leanings of the towns that the queens visit throughout the series, unsurprisingly a running theme is religion leading to LGBTQ people being rejected by those closest to them. We’re Here though isn’t “trying to demonise anyone” as Shangela says in episode two to Mikayla, whose Mormon family were unhappy when she announced that she was engaged to her childhood sweetheart Brandon, a trans man, with her father refusing to walk her down the aisle. This leads to one of the most uplifting and moving performances of the series; with Shangela’s help, the couple stages the drag version of the joyful wedding they never had.

Shangela Laquifa Wadley. Photograph by Christopher Smith/HBO.

One of the the most powerful stories in the third episode, set in the Bible Belt town of Branson, Missouri, focuses on the drag daughter Bob is helping there, Tanner a young actor who is visibly tortured by internalised homophobia. Unable to align his sexuality with his beliefs, he’s chosen to put his religion first. But as he becomes involved in creating a drag show we see something light up inside him that’s a delight and touching to behold. Although Branson is a showbiz town, a sort of Christian Vegas, filled with theatres and concert halls, it proves a difficult place for the queens to secure a venue for their drag show, with some polite declines and even the threat of the cops being called as they stand outside one potential location.

D.J. Pierce (Shangela), Caldwell Tidicue (Bob the Drag Queen), David Huggard (Eureka O’Hara). Photograph by Christopher Smith/HBO.

Whereas Drag Race was a competition, We’re Here sees these three queens supporting one other. Although they clearly have vibrant personalities, and we do gradually get to know them intimately as the series progresses and they share personal details to connect with their drag students, they don’t dominate show. Instead the focus is on the queens nurturing their drag daughters. In each episode though we do get fabulous performances from Bob, Shangela and Eureka, the unlikely locations making them particularly impactful and poignant, as well as the performances of their protégées. Shangela werks her drag daughters particularly hard with the choreography in the lead up to the shows. None of the queens stand at a safe distance, they go into the participants homes and sit around the kitchen table with their families, head into local stores, hand out show flyers in diners in full drag and at one point attend a biker meeting with some very straight leathermen.

Thankfully there aren’t any ad breaks on HBO to interrupt the action, just some bold text on screen, a fitting homage to Paris is Burning perhaps, introducing each chapter. And unlike most reality shows, there isn’t the constant recapping that treats the audience like distracted goldfish, which makes for a more satisfying viewing experience.

Bob, Eureka, and Shangela have clearly made an impact on the towns they’ve visited and We’re Here is a heartening reminder in this divided country living through a crisis, in an election year, that no matter how entrenched someone’s views might be, people can change; hearts and minds can open, especially when the alternative is hurting or losing a loved one.

We’re Here debuts Thursday April 23rd at 9pm ET/10pm PT on HBO.

We’re Here: The Queens Arrive in Gettysburg (Episode 1 Clip) | HBO

Beginning at 8.30pm ET on Thursday April 23rd, the approximately 30-minute digital event simulcasted on HBO’s YouTube channel, HBO’s Twitter profile, and by participating affiliates will feature celebrity cameos and behind-the-scenes insights, with HBO making donations to Free Mom Hugs and Mama Dragons.

The debut episode of We’re Here will be made available via the YouTube Premieres platform at 9pm ET and by participating affiliates, marking the first time that HBO has made content available for free at the same time as its debut. It will also be possible to live-chat with the Queens using the YouTube Premieres chat function.

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