Skip to Content

Legendary has grown into reality TV’s best dance competition

Legendary has grown into reality TV’s best dance competition
The House of Juicy Couture performing during Legendary's anime-themed episode, season 3 episode 5. (Photo by John Johnson/HBO Max)

It’s hard to understate how much Legendary has evolved as a reality TV competition. Its ballroom performances have always been its high point, showcasing a range of talent and ballroom skills, but the show itself debuted in 2020 as quite a wreck.

The very first episode of HBO Max’s Legendary accomplished a rare and spectacular feat for me: it turned ballroom into boredom.

I was stunned at what an immediately substandard reality competition it was, which felt like a disservice to its competitors and ballroom culture.

That’s because Legendary was overproduced in all the wrong ways, starting with the messy montage approach to editing. The interstitials between performances should have added weight to what we were about to see, but instead they skimmed across the surface and pick up virtually nothing: a wardrobe discussion here, a reaction there.

Meanwhile, the judging offered no coherent criteria, and the audience got in the way.

Perhaps this looser approach was true to ballroom culture. But Legendary never was pure ballroom, nor a fly-on-the-wall documentary like the groundbreaking Paris is Burning.

It’s a produced, edited, and cast show that’s ballroom and starts its credits with the names of three white men. It uses celebrity to draw people in. It’s on a paid streaming service owned by one of the largest entertainment companies in the world.

It’s not ballroom, it’s ballroom reality TV.

That’s okay, but what it desperately needed was to center its performers—who are mostly queer and trans Black and Latinx people—and their voguing and performances in the other ballroom categories.

Legendary has, thankfully, done that, as the show has gotten out of the way of the performances.

House of Juicy Couture in season 3, episode 7, the "Fairy Tale Money Ball."
House of Juicy Couture in season 3, episode 7, the “Fairy Tale Money Ball.” (Photo by Jordin Althaus/HBO Max)

When I finally got around to watching season three, I was surprised at how remarkable how watchable and competitive it was, even with a single house dominating during the entire season. (Parenthetical spoiler: The House of Juicy Couture was the top house every single episode except one, and yet the season was never boring.)

Legendary’s production design and staging is still excellent, but now there’s less visual and auditory chaos.

One of the biggest chances was necessity: the lack of a studio audience in season two because of COVID. Season three had just a small, masked audience, which seems like the perfect medium.

While the performers might feed off the energy of the crowd—or create moments with the crowd talking back to the judges—the way the crowd was used was distracting, especially since their cheers appeared to be have been augmented (“sweetened”) in post-production.

Legendary now checks in with each house before and after they perform, and we also see glimpses of other houses reacting backstage, a much more focused approach.

As emcee, Dashaun Wesley is one of television’s bests hosts: He effortlessly handles the business of competition reality TV and reacts while not making it about himself. “I’m so fuckin’ proud of ya’ll,” he can say without the competition tipping off its axis.

Oh, and he freestyles during the battles.

Legendary's legendary host Dashaun Wesley on season 3, episode 8
Legendary’s legendary host Dashaun Wesley on season 3, episode 8 (Photo by John Johnson/ HBO Max)

There’s more room for his talent to radiate on the stage because he’s now the sole emcee, a major improvement over season one, when judge Jameela Jamil acted as co-host from her seat on the panel.

Jamil was originally announced as emcee back in early 2020, and then she and the producers pretended that she wasn’t actually emcee after considerable objection and backlash.

Jameela hosting from the sideline was unnecessarily awkward, which is my best description of season one.

She and the other judges started actually scoring in season two, which made their actual judgment clearer.

The judges sometimes lean into their particular expertise—especially Law Roach, fashion, and Leiomy Maldonado, ballroom—but are also entertaining because of how unpredictable they are. They have high standards, and aren’t afraid to point that out.

Keke Palmer, who started in season three after Megan Thee Stallion left, began as unapologetically a fan, though her judging grew more critical throughout the season. The guest judges are hit or miss, but have been better; Bob the Drag Queen was a particular highlight in season three.

On the judging panel, there can be dramatic and entertaining tension: between Law Roach and some of the contestants, between Law Roach and some of the judges, and between other judges who aren’t Law Roach.

But as indifferent and/or confrontational as Law can occasionally seem, he’s clearly passionate about holding the show and its contestants to the standards of ballroom—sometimes in surprising ways. “This is ballroom—let them fight!” Law told Jameela during the penultimate season three episode.

Law Roach dressed as Beetlejuice for the Legendary season 3 Whorror House Ball
Law Roach dressed as Beetlejuice for the Legendary season 3 Whorror House Ball. (Photo by John Johnson/HBO Max)

I’m not sure I still understand the judges’ criteria; early in season three, one house was dinged for being too choreographed, but of course they are doing choreography, with the help of choreographers from the show.

But the discussion and feedback is succinct and dramatic, and definitely clearer than it was in season one.

With the actual numerical scores, and with some of these other changes, Legendary has become more of a standard dance competition.

While it’s more visually interesting, and has far better music, it pretty closely follows the formula of other shows, like Dancing with the Stars: a nightly theme, quick check-in and rehearsal footage with the house, their performance, judging, scores, repeat. The judges even had a Tim Gunn save this season.

But formula isn’t bad if it serves as a framework, which it does here to center the performers and their performances, and Legendary has finally found a way to do that.

Legendary

Legendary is a continually improving showcase for a culture-changing art form. A

What works for me:

  • The celebration of ball culture and artists
  • Dashaun Wesley’s hosting/emceeing
  • The improvements over the years

What could be better:

  • Better guest judges, or the return of guest judges who are great at guest judging

All reality blurred content is independently selected, including links to products or services. However, if you buy something after clicking an affiliate link, I may earn a commission, which helps support reality blurred. Learn more.

More great stories

About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

Discussion

I value our community at reality blurred, which connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching and the stories about it.

Comment rules: My goal is for us to be able to share our perspectives and exchange ideas in a welcoming, supportive space. That’s why I’ve created these rules for commenting here. By commenting below, you confirm that you’ve read and agree to them.

Happy discussing!

Patrick

Thursday 30th of June 2022

Agree with all of this! Now if only we could bounce Jameela out. Her judging has been more critical this season, which I appreciate, but she's still just not right for this show. Keke has been a nice addition, although I do miss Megan who kept it real, and could be tough, but fair.

Guest judges can be fun, but unless it's someone like Dominique Jackson who has real credibility, they fall flat and mostly afraid to give real critiques/scores. Maybe bring back past contestants or people who have been judges on other similar shows?