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No Surprise That Beauty Pageants Can be Ugly, But This One, 'Queen America,' has Catherine Zeta-Jones
November 21, 2018  | By David Hinckley

It’s hardly a news flash that behind the smiles, beauty pageants can be viper pits.

That tees them up perfectly for comedy, and Facebook Watch has just joined the party with Queen America, a 10-part series starring Catherine Zeta-Jones (top) as Vicki Ellis, the go-to beauty pageant coach if you’re serious about winning.

Since the beauty pageant universe has a finite number of roles – contestant, coach, judge, parents – anyone who has seen previous pageant dramadies like Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality will recognize a number of the characters and themes here.

So Zeta-Jones and Vicki work to give Queen America its own personality, as the show quickly charts two parallel courses.

The neurotic, messy world of the pageants has its neurotic counterpart in Vicki’s own life, which makes some karmic sense because Vicki was once a pageant contestant herself.

It’s hard to be specific without giving away too many of the jokes and punchlines. But Queen America is not entirely dependent on its plotline, because the banter has some nicely sharpened edges.  

Partly because beauty pageants have their strongest hold on flyover country, Queen America is set in Oklahoma. That gives creator Meghan Oppenheimer a good head start on the comedy, since just saying the names of small towns in Oklahoma brings you halfway to a punchline. A little more visual flavor of Oklahoma would have been nice reinforcement, but we don’t get much of that.  

Whatever the world looks like, Vicki sees herself ruling it as she works with pageant-obsessed young women like Hayley Wilson (Victoria Justice) who will accept hours of exercise and deprivation to drop four ounces in some targeted spot. In that process, Hayley also has prematurely become a diva, and oh yes, her conduct in her personal life doesn’t suggest she will ever become the kind of role model pageants suggest they are presenting.

Vicki is not, however, a one-woman woman, and before too long she has added another client, rookie Samantha Cole (Belle Shouse).

All the pageant smarts that Hayley has learned? Belle has none of them. Like Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, to which comparisons really don’t apply on any level, Vicki relishes the challenge of turning this caterpillar into a butterfly.

Queen America is about that struggle, and much of its comedy stems from how seriously those involved take all of it. Doing recon on Miss Tulsa, in this world, rivals finding out whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, in our other universe, Vicki works to win the approval of Bella (Isabella Amara), the teenage daughter of Vicki’s sister Katie (Molly Price). Katie wants Bella to attend a pageant event with her, which proves a challenge because Bella mentions that she considers beauty pageants “profoundly unimportant.”

Vicki persists, which leads to a chain of revelations she would prefer not to unearth. They aren’t especially amusing, either, which brings us to the inevitable challenge for dramadies: making the serious stuff poignant while still letting us laugh at the absurd and the funny stuff.

Queen America does okay with that. The more extended challenge, as Facebook Watch rolls out a new episode each Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, lies in finding new ways of exploring well-trodden paths.

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