“RuPaul’s Drag Race” features some of the most irreverent and boundary-pushing talent in entertainment. But, at its core, it’s a show that is deeply in love with old-school television. This sense of reverence makes a new special on which various cast members restage an episode of “The Brady Bunch” feel surprisingly fitting, and even poignant.
In, “Dragging the Classics: The Brady Bunch,” a crossover event put together for Paramount Plus — now the home of the All-Stars iteration of “Drag Race” in addition to vintage episodes of the series that ran from 1969-1974 — past contestants from the show take on key roles as members of the Brady family. Past winner Bianca Del Rio, for instance, plays an elaborately made-up Carol Brady, while her three daughters are played by drag queens Shea Couleé, Kylie Sonique Love, and Kandy Muse. Meanwhile, five of the former child actors from the original series appear, with Barry Williams (the original Greg Brady) playing patriarch Mike. (To make the math of three “Brady” actors taking on four male roles work, drag queen BenDeLaCreme appears out of drag to play Greg.)
There’s something that would seem obviously destabilizing about this project: Though it teetered on the edge of goofiness — and later plunged in with variety shows and spinoff series — “The Brady Bunch” was a simple show about siblings trying to get through prosaic children’s concerns. Replacing some of them with drag performers and others with actors now in their 60s creates entirely new tensions. But what startles here is how utterly seriously all performers take their roles. They aren’t derisive of the script, or trying to position themselves as savvily above it. Inasmuch as the assignment is to perform a “Brady Bunch” script with the same charming earnestness as it got in 1971, everyone here understood it.
Which matches “Drag Race’s” series-long fixation on a certain type of American pop-culture vernacular. There are elements within the script the queens act out — about neglected sister Jan buying a wig to wear to a party — that are obviously resonant with changing one’s appearance and persona through the art of drag. And yet “The Brady Bunch” put forward a sort of purposefully naive blandness. If “RuPaul’s Drag Race” were to do a “Brady Bunch”-themed challenge, they might compensate by having the queens act out a new script full of double entendres. (That’s similar to the trick pulled by the 1990s “Brady Bunch” movies in which RuPaul appears, in which the family is placed in conflict with contemporary society.) But in this special, working off the original, Kylie Sonique Love doesn’t play the role as if Jan is in on the joke: She brings to bear, instead, an achy wistfulness.
There’s a certain richness to the fact that Jan, who wants so badly to be seen for who she really is, is played here by the first “Drag Race” contestant to come out as trans — adding even more richness and life pulsing underneath the script, even while on the surface, Kylie Sonique Love is made up to look like a young teen and delivers her lines without any knowing topspin. (Interestingly, the only moment in the special when the balance seems wobbly is when RuPaul appears as a wig salesperson, accompanied by “Drag Race” judge Michelle Visage; the pair can’t disappear in the ways their drag acolytes do.) The concept of “realness,” of claiming one’s own part of straight culture by embodying it at least until trying on one’s next costume, is at the heart of this special, and asserts itself fascinatingly.
To wit: Why shouldn’t Marcia and Cindy Brady, models of pigtailed American girlhood, be played, respectively, by exceptional Black and Afro-Dominican queens, both entirely committed to the bit? Why shouldn’t Carol Brady — one of our culture’s defining sitcom moms, a sweet-natured dispenser of wisdom — be played by Bianca Del Rio, perhaps the meanest-spirited insult comic that “Drag Race” has produced? (Del Rio plays it utterly nice, disconcertingly.) And why shouldn’t the Brady actors return, late in life, to deliver committed if shaky performances as young children? Of all the cases this slight but surprisingly weighty special makes, the most intriguing may be that adult actors whose lives have been spent in the shadow of child characters are doing a sort of drag, too.
All of this takes place against a green-screened backdrop that conjures the Brady home seamlessly. And it adds up to something that exists in that satisfying, strange place of camp: A show executed with utter seriousness, teasing out new ways of seeing something that doesn’t seem that serious at all. This special is not high art, and not meant to be: It’s a new interpretation of a TV episode whose goofy humor is the point, performed by people who take the script entirely on its own terms. But it does something inventive, taking a show that for millions of people exists in memory as the iconic evocation of the American home and creating space within it for a whole new kind of family.
“Dragging the Classics: The Brady Bunch” appears on Paramount Plus June 30.
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