TV Review: HBO Max’s Legendary ★★★

Streaming service HBO Max launches in the US today with a slate of classic and original programming and viewers will finally get to see the first two episodes of its ballroom voguing competition Legendary. The series pits eight houses against each other, with one house being eliminated each week (starting with episode two) as they vie for the season one Legendary title and to snatch the $100K grand prize. The highlight of the first episode is meeting the charismatic members of the houses with stylishly shot intros and many of the voguers opening up about what being part of a house and the ballroom scene at large has meant in their lives, with some emotional personal stories. Expletives are bleeped out, so expect plenty of F-bombs along the way.

Two house names will be familiar to Paris is Burning fans; Ninja (here an international house made up of cis women) and St. Laurent. We also meet the house of Escada who defiantly chant “we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going anywhere”, along with West, Gucci, Ebony, Balmain, and Lanvin. The house members are at the heart of the show, and given that there are eight houses a 90 minute or two hour opener would have allowed us to get to know them a little better. Through the interviews a pitted history of ballroom emerges, but not enough to give newcomers any real sense of its significance and rich heritage. As each house takes to the runway to present themselves in episode one we see some fierce moves, but unfortunately all too often the camerawork and editing mean that we don’t get a full sense of the performance; there are too many shots that take us off the runway, far from the action, sometimes partially obstructed by the rather generic set’s pillars, and unnecessary cutaways to reactions from the judges. When someone is slaying on the runway we need to see their entire body and don’t want anything to take us away from their moves. This makes comparing houses’ performances tricky and that’s not helped by the hazy competition rules, unclear judging criteria and voting signalling. Instead of the iconic ballroom number cards we all know from Pose, they have wands to wave up for a ’10’ or do a gladiatorial throat slitting motion with if they want a voguer cut. When the judges use their wands to point it’s never that clear to the audience at home whom they’re indicating, which again contributes to us not being as invested in the judging process as we should be, and limits the tension and suspense.

Speaking of judges, the weekly lineup consists of activist, trans icon and ballroom legend, the “Wonder Woman of Vogue” herself Leiomy Maldonado; stylist and image consultant Law Roach rating the fashion; rapper singer-songwriter Megan Thee Stallion and, causing initial controversy when her name was incorrectly announced as Legendary’s MC; actor, writer and podcaster Jameela Jamil. Jamil also co-hosts from her judge’s chair with the show’s MC Dashaun Wesley, who brings a contagious enthusiasm to his role that helps to keep the show’s energy level high throughout. In episode two there’s the addition of a guest judge, model Tyson Beckford, and presumably there will be a different guest in the fifth judge’s chair each week. And. Turn. That. Volume. Up. Leading ballroom figure MikeQ is on the decks as the series’ DJ and he provides some serious aural pleasure. It’s hard to keep your feet still.

Sadly, Legendary, or at least the first two episodes, doesn’t score 10s, 10s, 10s across the board, but there’s a wealth of talent being showcased here, some vital LGBTQ, specifically trans women of colour, representation and potential for improvement in the show’s format. I’ll definitely be tuning in for episode three next week.

By James Kleinmann

Episodes one and two of Legendary are streaming now on HBO Max.

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