As the country shut down late last spring, drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race were fanning out across the country—on pre-recorded television shows, that is—bringing conversation and connection to people and communities, using their art as a tool.
HBO’s We’re Here arrived about the same time as TLC’s Dragnificent! and an annoyingly titled but startlingly good spin-off RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race.
“We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag,” RuPaul sings in “Born” and says frequently, including on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Watching two of these shows, because of the way they used drag not just as performance, but to reveal how much identity is performance.
Dragnificent! dropped Alexis Michelle, Bebe Zahara Benet, Jujubee, and Thorgy Thor inside an otherwise traditional TLC makeover series. They gave it their best shot and livened up the proceedings, but in the episodes I saw didn’t interrogate gender, even just reinforcing traditional gender roles at events like wedding ceremonies.
A far better show was RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race, which had celebrities mentored by Drag Race stars. Its four episodes were hit or miss based on the celebrity cast, who competed in a mini challenge and then were paired with Drag Race alum for a maxi challenge.
For me its absolute best episode was the one with Schitt’s Creek star Dustin Milligan, and American Ninja Warrior host and Celebrity Apprentice winner Matt Iseman, and Glee’s Alex Newell.
It was moving and funny, as all three performers truly slayed during a roast of RuPaul and the judging panel. Dustin Milligan, as Rachel McAdamsapple, started by saying, “It is just such an honor to be on this stage that is a platform for so many underrepresented voices, and for you to allow me to bring a voice to the most underrepresented group: straight white guys.”
But Dustin also zeroed in on just how meaningful the experience was, and did an excellent job of translating that from his experience to my living room. “Something happens when you do the full drag, and you look in the mirror and all of a sudden you’re like, there’s more to me than I ever imagined and I love who that person is,” he said. “It’s transformative; it really is.”
We’re Here had the same general premise, except that instead of being in a studio, its star drag queens—Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela Laquifa Wadley, and Eureka O’Hara—fanned out across America, going into small towns that look like the opposite of tolerant, the kinds of places people like me might drive through quickly or avoid altogether.
But they’re also places where gay and lesbian and trans people and straight allies live, but are frequently ignored. We use phrases like “red states” and “blue states” to imagine that entire states are full of, say, all straight white people, or all LGBTQIA+ people and their allies, but that’s a grotesque oversimplification, as is the idea that everyone who’s ignorant about gender and sexuality is also an anger-filled bigot.
As befits a series about drag, We’re Here’s visuals and audio are spectacularly rich, with crisp editing hopping along to the soundtrack. The queens arrive in three RVs that have avant garde facades, like a bright yellow purse.
This is a reality show that was never afraid to be quiet and thoughtful, to slow down and just let a moment happen. It’s not Drag Race, where the emotional confessions can tend to be wedged into a few minutes and then cast aside because there’s a challenge that’s coming up next.
We’re Here does have a template that it followed episode to episode, and is obviously produced and choreographed, from the opening moments when the queens wander through town and make their presence known, to the exceptional casting of the subjects and the scenes in which they interact.
But that production, however heavy-handed, really does fade to the background. The handheld cinematography is vérité and even casual; filming doesn’t stop to reposition cameras, they just move, and we get jostled along with them. But it’s the interaction between the queens and their subjects that pulls the most focus and gives the show its power.
We’re Here’s stars, Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela Laquifa Wadley, and Eureka O’Hara, are each paired with a person who lives in the community and is struggling in some way related to identity: a young gay man barely out of the closet, a formerly anti-gay mother with an estranged kid, a straight firefighter who wants to set an example in his small Louisiana town.
The queens are working to produce a one-night-only drag show with their new drag daughters, so together they go to fittings and rehearsals and meetings with the makeup team. The conversations they have, whether over a meal at home or large, open spaces that’ve been transformed into elaborately decorated green rooms, are honest and uncomfortable and awkward and illuminating.
Yet they’re also not instantly transformative. We’re Here does not pretend that it’s producing miracles. It does not pretend that a single drag show in a small town, or a few days of conversation, or the presence of an HBO reality show are going to change a community. It doesn’t even pretend that it’s going to permanently change their subject’s lives.
Embracing that reality, and exploring its subjects’ lives with consideration and empathy, made We’re Here one of the year’s best reality shows.
Compare it to Queer Eye—a great show, for sure—that blazes into town, cuts someone’s hair and remodels their apartment, and moves on while we’re too busy crying to notice that most of what’s happened is superficial change.
We’re Here is honest that all of this is deep work that’s begun before the cameras arrived, and that change takes time. There aren’t perfect, satisfying endings to each story. But it also had quite a few emotional moments of its own, with some reconciliation and lots of realization.
Only five episodes were produced, as production shut down during the sixth episode in Spartenberg, South Carolina. HBO ordered a second season, so it will be back, thankfully.
“It’s a very complicated thing to be yourself,” Jose says in the fifth episode. With its exploration of that complication, We’re Here made exceptional television.
We’re Here: A+
RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race: B