by Joey Saunders
Logo TV’s buzzy, all-male, “The Bachelor”-esque reality show, “Finding Prince Charming,” debuted in early September to mostly negative reviews, including my own. Meanwhile, the gay cable network’s flagship reality franchise, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” was nominated for three Emmy awards.
Despite being quoted earlier this year in a Vulture article saying, “I’d rather have an enema than have an Emmy.” RuPaul won this year for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program. Upon accepting the award, he quipped, “Now I get to have both!”
So what is it about “Finding Prince Charming” that’s so dead-on-arrival while “Drag Race” has become an unexpected critical darling?
The key to answering this questions lies, in part, in a sentiment RuPaul touches on in the aforementioned Vulture interview. Prompted by his interviewer, E. Alex Jung, Ru ruminates on whether he is truly “mainstream” now, explaining, “People know my name (…) but am I invited to the party? No.”
He even admits that he’s has moments thinking, “I wish I could be invited to the Emmys,” but ultimately reminds himself, “You never wanted to be a part of that bullshit.”
“Finding Prince Charming’s” biggest failing may be its perceived aspiration to be part of Ru’s idea of mainstream bullshit.
Originally, I had planned on covering “Finding Prince Charming” by writing weekly recaps for The Phoenix that would exclusively appear online. I’m not going to do that – let me explain why.
When a corporation like Viacom, which owns Logo and VH1, wants their show reviewed, they’ll send writers like me, some sort of press release and a link to promotional materials as well as a digital screener of the episode so that we can watch it before it airs. We don’t have to sign anything, but the unwritten rule is that you don’t post any spoilers until the show airs. So, like most critics and recappers, I wrote my piece on the pilot episode in advance without comparing notes with any other reviewers. And yet, the vast majority of critics panned the show.
After my review was posted, I received an email from a Kansas City Star employee who was unhappy with the review.
The email said, “(Your review) seems like a total bash on the show.” The sender wondered what the point of negatively reviewing a show week after week would be? This person also thought that some of our readers, “are happy that Logo is putting (Finding Prince Charming) out there,” and defended the show saying, “reality TV is normally bad, but a lot of people love this…” and asked if I would continue the reviews with a tone that was “more lighthearted and fun.”
My reply to that email included, “Not all reality TV is garbage. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is really well done while satirizing the genre and promoting queer culture.”
In response to the question of “what(’s) the point.” I said, “The point of criticism is to push creators to do better work and to challenge viewers to think more deeply about what they watch.” And my reply ended, “If you want to keep doing recaps, they will reflect the quality of the content, unedited.” Together, we decided that recaps of “Finding Prince Charming,” like the show itself, would not be worth our readership’s time.
Which brings me to the point about “Finding Prince Charming’s” yearning to be mainstream. The show does its best to be a structural xerox of “The Bachelor” or similar reality dating shows, leaving little room for inventiveness.
One of the criticism many commenters have brought up regarding the show is how a same-sex dating show could work if all of the contestants vying for, in this instance, Prince Charming, could potentially hook up with each other. To me, this seems like an opportunity rather than a setback.
The show’s prince is Robert Sepulveda Jr., a pseudo-philanthropist and interior designer who posts a lot of shirtless photos on his Instagram account. When stories that Sepulveda was once a sex worker turned out to be true, he took to the internet in an attempt to silence commenters he calls “bullies.”
The show’s producers say that his past as an escort never came up when they vetted him. From this, I would assume that the topic isn’t going to come up. That’s a shame, because the reality is that many LGBTQ people become sex-workers because they feel like there aren’t a lot of options for them in a world that favors straight, white men. Opening up a judgement-free dialogue about the topic would be welcome on an otherwise paint-by-numbers show.
Sepulveda is part Puerto Rican and one of the show’s redeeming qualities is that its cast features more diversity than its hetero incarnations. Still, Sepulveda is a bit wooden on camera and he, like most of the contestants on the show, has a white-picket-fence idea of what love is and should be.
At one point, he even says he’s looking for a partner with strong “family values,” which sounds like the sort of coded language a televangelist might use to condemn certain “lifestyle choices.”
I found myself really only rooting for two contestants: Dillon, a young, ambitious black man from Los Angeles and Robby, who is singled-out early on by a fellow contestant for being too effeminate.
The thing is, I wasn’t rooting for these guys to get with Sepulveda; I wish there was some other way for them to win. Maybe the show could have been a giant mixer where Prince Charming is whoever the contestants end up being attracted to. I could live with Dillon finding love with his fellow-suitor, Brandon, and somehow eliminating Sepulveda and making the show all about them trying to find the perfect man for Robby that won’t judge him for being femme.
There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where Brandon mentions being homeless and you’d have to go onto the show’s website to find out that he’s now a behavioral therapist.
The show tends to shy away from more poignant topics, such as homelessness, when they come up, instead focusing on vapid reality show fodder, like spray tans and lame attempts at interpersonal drama, but the pacing is off so it fails to even become guilty-pleasure-viewing and is, instead, boring. The show actually puts effort into ramping up suspense over Sepulveda removing his shirt (do the editors not remember that we’ve already seen him emerge from the ocean in a tacky prologue?) at a pool party and actually use this as a pre-commercial cliffhanger as if viewers couldn’t just Google the guy to find him wearing nothing at all.
The main story arc of the first episode centers around a suitor, Paul, who, while Sepulveda is pretending to be just another contestant before revealing that he is “Prince Charming,” casually mentions that all of his exes have been under 5 feet 11 inches.
For some reason, in confessional segments, the producers repeatedly return to this moment,.Sepulveda obsesses over it as if Paul basically said that he wasn’t his type. The editors try to milk this exchange for tension throughout the pilot, with Sepulveda wondering why, at a later pool party, Paul hasn’t come up to talk to him.
When Paul finally reveals that he is timid because his ex committed suicide, his backstory is glossed over and Sepulveda doesn’t seem particularly empathetic. The whole thing is played as a predictable bait-and-switch to make us think that Paul will be one of the first guys sent packing during a cringe-worthy elimination ceremony that, in lieu of roses, involves Sepulveda awkwardly putting black ties around each suitor’s neck.
While producers have teased, in an arguably exploitative manner, that one contestant will be revealed as HIV positive in a future episode, the show does little to empower the queer community or focus on relevant issues. Instead, you have a vanilla, derivative dating show that thinks it’s historic because it features a gay version of a straight show. It’s a sad attempt at assimilation.
At every turn, the show feels like an attempt to say, “Hey, we can get married now. See? We’re just like you guys.” It strives to be prototypical, mainstream, and, as a result, is bland.
“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” on the other hand is a good reality show because it rejects normality and celebrates queerness. According to one of the most renowned critics of our time, Susan Sontag, a vital feature of camp is sincerity; a work must strive for seriousness and fail.
In that respect, “Finding Prince Charming” has a certain element of campiness; however, because it doesn’t quite reach the level of so-bad-it’s-good — that is, it’s never entertaining in spite of itself — it can’t be classified as such.
“Drag Race,” on the other hand, is more like satire. It is a reality, but it also parodies one. It combines certain elements of shows like “America’s Next Top Model” and “Project Runway” but then perverts them and pokes fun at them.
“Drag Race” does not, however, use its contests as a punchline, the way that “Finding Prince Charming” tends to use Robby as comic relief. Each drag queen, just like its host, is mined for humanity and pathos amid the surreal trappings of an intentionally ridiculous competition. It’s clear that drag, something that, I’ll admit, I haven’t always understood or appreciated isn’t treated on this show, as a fringe culture or a freakshow attraction.
For the contestants, and for Ru, this is an artform and a way of life. And watching that can be fascinating. The show has become such a success because it refuses to be mainstream. In the Vulture article I mentioned before, RuPaul and his interviewer describe drag as “an art form about survival.”
“Finding Prince Charming” feels like it’s about trying to fit in. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has garnered so much critical acclaim while remaining entertaining not because it is a good reality TV show, but because it, like the best drag performers, is up-front about how it toys with reality.
The now-Emmy-award-winning show feels like it has moved past trying to fit in and, instead, is about playing with identity in a way that is quintessentially queer.