When news first surfaced that The Good Place's Jameela Jamil would be judging and pseudo-hosting HBO Max's ballroom reality competition Legendary, the backlash was swift and fierce. Jamil, already a lightning rod for controversy, was criticized for not having a history with ballroom — especially after experienced house mother Trace Lysette said she auditioned for the gig — and for entering into a space predominantly populated by queer and trans people as a seemingly cisgender, straight woman. Jamil came out as queer in response to the latter criticism, which she later admitted was bad timing and "inappropriate."
As someone who has watched a lot of reality competition television in my day, my personal annoyance with Jamil's joining the show had nothing to do with her sexuality — Megan Thee Stallion is one of Jamil's fellow judges, and she's heterosexual — but instead came from concern that she'd take the focus away from the houses competing on the show, and that she'd have nothing to offer as a judge. While there has been the odd "audience advocate" judge on reality shows before, most of the best competitions make sure the judges are at least experts on some aspect of the show's subject. Project Runway's original judge lineup was the standard for this: a model in Heidi Klum, a designer in Michael Kors, and a fashion editor in Nina Garcia.
Having watched the first two episodes of Legendary, I'm not as concerned about the former issue: the focus of this show is absolutely on the houses competing, and each of the judges (which, beyond Jamil and Stallion, include stylist Law Roach and the instantly iconic voguing expert Leiomy Maldonado) get equal time. There is some confusion about what exactly Jamil's role is, as she and MC Dashaun Wesley share some transitional duties, but it's not distracting enough to matter. Jamil's lack of experience, on the other hand, is glaring in the first two episodes. She seems somewhat flummoxed by her surroundings at times, and her effusive praise for one team as giving her "my first gag" comes across as an outsider trying too hard to fit in.
But what's impressive about Legendary, and why I think the show has such tremendous promise, is that it doesn't shy away from Jamil's inexperience, or try to cover it up. Quite the contrary: Other judges, particularly Roach, openly disagree with her decisions, while Maldonado gives motherly encouragement when Jamil bears down and offers good criticism. Legendary knows much of its audience might be as unfamiliar with the world of ballroom as Jamil (or even moreso), and is ready and willing to give everyone an education. It's a remarkably welcoming show without ever feeling condescending.
The ways in which Legendary holds itself accountable extend beyond Jamil. Tyson Beckford appears as a guest judge in episode 2, and after one category, members of a house discard his criticism and question what his credentials are to serve as a judge. In another moment, a judge demands a reconsideration of a category when they feel the other judges graded incorrectly. It's actually pretty remarkable how much of the show is transparent, especially when compared to other reality competition shows that are so close-lipped about production. Several come to mind, but perhaps the most glaring is Big Brother, where any discussion of the men and women behind the camera is met with a swift "You are not allowed to talk about production" warning over the house's speaker system.
Not everything about Legendary is transparent; the scoring system is remarkably opaque, thanks to a lack of a judges' deliberations segment and numbered scores. While walking a category, a member of a house either gets a 10 or a chop, no in between. And the judges' differing experience levels and expertise lead to some calls that can feel arbitrary. (For example, Roach often chops voguers for poor outfits even when Maldonado likes their steps, and Maldonado's emphasis on technical perfection irritates Roach when he responds to a house's aesthetic.) There's definite room for improvement.
But I have faith in Legendary to actually have a conversation that will lead to improvement, and I wouldn't be surprised if the conversation happens on the show itself. This is a show that feels like it's living and breathing, and not something that will lock into a rigid format. I hope HBO Max gives it the time and space to blossom into the truly, well, legendary series it could be. In my opinion — and I say this as no more an expert on ballroom than anybody — we need a reality competition show this honest about this subject.
The first two episodes of Legendary are now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes will be released weekly.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles. Follow his musings and rantings on Twitter @kevinpokeeffe.