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Television

How HBO Max's Ballroom Dance Show 'Legendary' Became Compelling TV in 2020

Jameela Jamil in Season 1 of Legendary (Photograph by Zach Dilgard/HBO Max)

Not many knew what to make of HBO Max's initial reality competition Legendary when it first premiered, but the high tensions that ended Season 1, Episode 5 escalated the vogue-tastic and defiantly queer celebration of ballroom culture into the must-watch event of the year.

Legendary

HBO Max

2020-

Other

Season 1, Episode 5 of HBOMax's Legendary is called "Remember the Times" -- and for good reason. While the show has found its niche as a live wire display of ballroom culture and over-the-top group production numbers, the conclusion of "Remember the Times" was more dramatic, breathtaking, and adrenaline-pumping than any other television dance show of the year. In the span of ten-minutes, Legendary went from an entertaining romp of a show into something that can only be described as "iconic"

Before we jump into that, let's rewind the tape.

Background

The ballroom scene -- which largely started in New York City and has mainly Black and Latinx members of the LBTQIA+ community in "found family" groups known as houses -- is best known for its many prize-based competitions, where members walk in categories emphasizing a theme. Someone could walk (compete) "face" (literally contestants are judged on their faces alone), someone could walk "gentleman realness" (celebrating masculine beauty), and more often then not there would be some form of competitive voguing (dance competition). Variations of these scenes were captured in documentary films like Frank Simon's 1968 documentary, The Queen, Jennie Livingston's iconic and oft-referenced Paris Is Burning (1990), and Sara Jordenö's Kiki (2016). Even showrunner Ryan Murphy co-created 2018's Emmy-winning TV series, Pose.

Yet HBO Max's Legendary goes one step further: real-life houses (here trimmed down to five members each) are given performance coaches and professional design teams to help bring their concepts to life for each ball, where the ultimate grand prize is $100k. Two houses are up for elimination each week, and those House Mothers or Fathers must select one of their team members to engage in an all-out voguing battle, much akin to the "Lip Sync for Your Life" element of RuPaul's Drag Race.

Rainbow Lips by Kurious (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Eight houses compete on Season 1 of Legendary, and the cinematic blend of competition prep and back-stage shouting gives the show a lively feeling, to say nothing of the live audience that frequently boos and cheers the judges' critiques. Four main judges (actress Jameela Jamil, stylist Law Roach, transgender ballroom legend Leiomy Maldonado, and rapper Megan Thee Stallion) do their best to give constructive criticism with a weekly guest judge on board, and often categories receive either unanimous "10s" across the board or can be chopped by a single judge should they not like an element of their performance. Often it's Maldonado who uses her extensive ballroom background to let the other judges know what elements to look for in any given category.

Jamil tries to make everyone happy while Maldonado and Roach are unafraid to give harsh and sometimes blunt critiques. In the second episode ("Once Upon a Time"), the "Three Fab Mice" category -- wherein three members from each house must do a runway walk in perfect choreographed unison -- is closed with some controversial chops, and Roach demands that some already-eliminated houses come back to the floor. But MC (and breakout star) Dashaun Wesley seized the reigns for the evening, informing the judges that if a house has been chopped for whatever reason, they will remain chopped at that point. In short, the chemistry between the judges and the live audience is both utterly chaotic and absolutely captivating.

The Setup

So in comes the season's fifth episode, "Remember the Times", where guest judge Kelly Osbourne helps critique an evening where the first category is "March of the Mummies". and one house member must integrate a mummy element into an old-school voguing performance. The second category is "Warrior Guardians", wherein each full house must perform a routine that incorporates some sort of floor element. The House of Gucci, which was ranked in the bottom rungs one week prior, end up pulling off their first weekly win of the competition, while the two-time weekly winners House of Lanvin suddenly find themselves in the bottom next to the consistently-safe House of Ebony.

The episode is solid entertainment and it's clear that House of Lanvin's African-themed performance is off, with the members failing to synchronize their choreography. Heck, it's not only sloppy by their standards: it's one of the most unfocused performances we've seen all season. The behind-the-scenes segments reveal much of house mother Eyricka's backstory, while in another segment, the House of Ebony is doing their best to curb infighting between members. (And for good reason: in Episode 3, one member of the House of Gucci left the show, leaving the group to continue the competition as a four-piece).

Jeter Gucci of the House of Gorgeous Gucci (Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO Max)

At the end of the day, a dance solo from House of Gucci member Jeter (and the house already winning the "March of the Mummies" category) is apparently enough to land the group the week's win, despite the all-female, cis-gendered House of Ninja delivering another clear and impactful main stage performance. As Lanvin is given their critiques, Roach notes how the house has a "secret weapon" in the form of Makayla, who can do "all these flips and shit", and how she was woefully underutilized.

As Gucci is declared the winner and other houses are marked as safe, Lanvin, as expected, lands at the bottom. Despite receiving strong critiques for their group production number (and the judges continue to be in awe of the charisma machine that is the short athletic house member Shorty), House of Ebony is at the bottom. Wesley asks Eyricka Lanvin to nominate a house member to compete in the Vogue redemption battle for their house's honor and she chooses Makayla. Mother Isla Ebony picks Shorty. This is the first time either house has been in the bottom two.

The Main Event

In previous episodes, the Vogue redemption battles have been fun but not necessarily must-see TV. There are spins-and-dips, there are some splits, there's a lot of death drops, and it's all compressed into a single minute of competition. Yet as the Makayla vs. Shorty battle gets ready, it's clear that the energy in the room is different. The competitors tearfully hug each other before taking the stage as if they know what they're up against. "DJ," declares host Wesley, "I need you to pump me the beat."

For the next minute, it's not simply great dancers competing in the elements of Vogue, no. It is two acrobatic athletes throwing every single trick they have at each other, full force. Shorty does back handsprings into an aerial landing split. Makayla completes a full backflip in heels before sliding across the floor on her head. Both break out death drops with knee-snapping fury. Shorty shakes his leather-panted booty in front of Megan Thee Stallion. Makayla collapses to the floor and rises up with incredible speed.

Heck, even both full house team members help out, with Lanvin crossing arms so Makayla can jump out and back onto the runway while Ebony members join Shorty in his final death drop in unison. Words barely do the performance justice: your eyes are equally divided between both performers who seem to be breaking every bone in their bodies for another chance at survival in the competition. It's truly jaw-dropping.

Megan Thee Stallion (Photograph by Barbara Nitke/HBO Max)

The energy of the room has shifted. How do you choose between two utterly mind-bending performers doing everything they can in their performance to defend their house's honor? The closest television equivalent is the Brooke Lynn Hytes vs. Yvie Oddly lip sync to "Sorry Not Sorry" from Season 11 of RuPaul's Drag Race, but as mannered and athletic as that was, it pales in comparison to the energetic fury of what we witness between Makayla Lanvin and Shorty Ebony.

The safe houses are watching backstage on monitors and screaming. The in-studio audience is chanting both houses' names. Shots of a flustered Jamil and a clearly-emotional Maldonado show that the impossible decision of picking one performance over the other is just too much to handle. Makayla and Shorty embrace again, overwhelmed with emotion. Unlike the Yvie/Brooke Lynn lip sync from Drag Race, wherein both clearly-talented performers landed a rare double-save, Legendary had already used its double-save last week, seemingly because they were running out of time. Despite these astonishing showcases of ability, one house has to go.

While the clip of the Makayla/Shorty battle has been making the rounds on Twitter, the dramatic deliberations that follow are just as compelling. Roach explains to everyone that this was how you battle -- and votes Ebony. House mother Isla Ebony collapses to the floor, sobbing. Osbourne votes Lanvin with no further explanation. Maldonado cannot contain herself: "I know the struggle, I know the story, I know what it takes to get here. Ballroom has been underground for so long. We've fought so hard to be seen. We've fought so hard to be respected. We've fought so hard to be loved. Thank you for taking this time to show the world where we come from, to show the world what power we have, honestly." Shots of the safe houses backstage show people trying to contain their tears. Everyone knows this battle was a pivotal moment in ballroom history. Maldonado votes Ebony.

The music shifts dramatically to something altogether cinematic. Jamil votes Lanvin. Megan has the final word, and with a pregnant pause, finally seals the fate of the night: she votes Lanvin, saving the house and eliminating Ebony. It's a tough pill to swallow and it feels as if there is no victory, as Ebony members are left in tears, Lanvin members embracing their competitors out of love and respect. Dashaun Wesley, consummate professional, is getting misty-eyed as he gives the mic to Shorty, who in turn says that he's been fighting all his life for this moment and that he was grateful for the show for letting him show off his talents. It's as emotionally charged an ending as it can be.

Legendary is a profoundly fun show, and despite all the drama and eliminations, it's still great to see Black and Latinx entertainers win prizes and succeed on a national stage. The Makayla/Shorty battle, however, elevated the program from merely a house-based fight for survival in the competition to a cultural fight for acceptance. This ten-minute event proved that doesn't matter if you're cis-gendered, transgendered, a drag queen or otherwise: we all deserve a seat at the table and the chance to share our talents. With Season 1, Episode 5 of Legendary, not only was an entire community seen and heard, but they became unforgettable in the process. This is what legends are made of.

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