No matter how many Nicki Swift videos accuse Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Red 2”) of being one of the haughtiest stars in Hollywood, I constantly find myself arguing in her defense. What is it about her that draws my unwavering allegiance? Is it her marriage to fine wine Michael Douglas (“Ant-Man and the Wasp”)? Is it because I cannot separate her from her character of Velma Kelly in the 2002 adaptation of “Chicago”? Or is it because she has mastered an American accent despite hailing from Wales? It’s probably Michael Douglas, but while the actress reportedly may not be a delight to work with, she consistently turns out a great performance no matter the quality of the project. Zeta-Jones can act her ass off, and nowhere is this superhuman ability to salvage a script as evident as in “Queen America.”
Much like its central star, I have mixed opinions about “Queen America.” Due to the irreversible trauma inflicted upon me by “Insatiable,” I entered into pageant-centric “Queen America” expecting the absolute worst. After all, the shows resemble each other so much they could be cousins: Southern-fried teen pageantry, overbearing and appearance-obsessed coaches, the promise to highlight messages about body image — the list goes on. Additionally working against my first impression of the show was the idea that it had acted as an opportunistic rip-off meant to capitalize on the newsworthiness of “Insatiable.” No one likes a copycat.
Very early on, the show distinguishes itself from “Insatiable” by putting its central focus on the coach Vicki Ellis (Zeta-Jones), rather than the individual competing in the pageant. Vicki Ellis is the best pageant coach in Tulsa — scratch that — all of Oklahoma, in the midst of creating her next star. Her protegée, Hayley Wilson (Victoria ‘I Think We All Sing’ Justice, “The Outcasts”), is the reigning Miss Tulsa and a favorite to take home the crown of Miss Oklahoma. When we first meet Vicki barking orders as Hayley sprints on the treadmill, she appears to be nothing more than another two-dimensional character used only as a vessel to make overdone jokes about the superficiality of pageants or lazily embody everything wrong with this specific subculture. Vicki’s vitriol is more sloppy than sharp, and she seems to be judgemental of her anti-pageant niece Bella (Isabella Amara, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) because she is overweight.
As the episode progresses and more information about Vicki’s family life and background is uncovered, she becomes a much more complex and purposeful character. The bourgeois, Escalade-driving Vicki is not all she appears to be; behind her façade is a white-trash girl who betrayed her roots in favor of pursuing a life she assumed to be superior to the one she was born into. This denial of her history cuts much deeper than mere class tension: In order to pursue this luxe life, she abandoned Bella at birth to be raised by her sister. It is this connection to Bella that serves to explain why Vicki has so much stake in, and concurrently, so much disappointment with the way that Bella has turned out under her sister’s care.
“Queen America” is not perfect by any means: Jokes fall flat, exposition can be clunky and the only overweight character is still positioned as the binary opposite of class and beauty. Its central character is no paragon either. Vicki actually believes that she is unerring in most of her stances, and that in projecting her own insecurities onto the likes of Hayley or Bella she is helping them. However, it is this intoxicating imperfection that makes “Queen America” a relative stand-out among the array of recently debuted web series — especially those released on Facebook Watch. The show does not attempt to delude us into believing they have the solutions for these large overarching issues. Rather, it plunges beneath the simplistic surface of pointing the finger at the wrongness of pageants in order to give us an in-depth look at how class, beauty standards and body image interact to create a horrendously damaged woman.