Lifetime’s new offering, Kim Of Queens, is the love child of Toddlers And Tiaras and Dance Moms. Former Miss Georgia Kim Gravel is the proprietor of the pageant-preparation business Pageant Place. Along with her sister Allisyn and her mother Jo, Kim trains young girls in the art of winning beauty pageants—talent portions, interviews, and evening wear.
But there have already been pageant shows, and coaching tweens doesn’t have the same novelty (or voyeuristic creepiness) as little girls wearing their body weight in sequins. So to make the show more dramatic, Kim’s mission is to take the unpolished young women of Georgia and convince them to join her stable. In the first two episodes, that means a country tomboy and a rodeo girl, both of whom Kim transforms in her own image over the course of the hour. But is the challenge of that transformation enough to carry a whole show?
A show like Kim Of Queens lives or dies based on how made-for-TV its main personality is. And to be sure, Kim is a charismatic woman. She knows how to perform and vamp. Her personality is big enough that it translates to camera. And she’s surprisingly sweet, never falling into the cruelty-as-humor traps that often befall other mentors on reality television (like Gordon Ramsay, Simon Cowell, and Abby Lee). Even Allisyn and Jo make fun supporting characters. They all bicker and complain about each other, but that’s what families do. When they get together, it feels like there aren’t any cameras at all. It can be hard to follow, but the scenes—mainly revolving around their makeover game plans—at least feel natural.
There is some intriguing subtext in Kim Of Queens, buried underneath lots of reality-show trimmings. For example, the show equates traditional notions of femininity—glitz, glamour, high heels—with beauty. “What do you want to learn from being in pageants?” Kim asks tomboy Addison. “To be a girl,” Addison replies. At first blush, that’s a show-stopping answer. Pageants might promote an idea of femininity that equates physical beauty with womanhood, but Addison is already a girl.
Kim Of Queens doesn’t attack different expressions of femininity, even though that’s what the premise of the show implies. In the first two episodes, Kim picks her queens based on talent and inherent charisma. Addison stands out because she has a personality, as opposed to the blank faces of her competitor-peers. Hope, the rodeo-girl-turned-queen, gets to wear her cowboy boots and lucky duck socks underneath her gown. She still gets to be her—just a little zazzed up. When Hope’s mom expresses reservations at her daughter’s involvement with pageants, Kim assures her that she believes beauty comes from within, but sometimes teenage girls needs to feel beautiful on the outside too. Kim, a self-described ugly-duckling-turned-swan—wants to help her do just that.
It’s ironic that the biggest problem with a show about pageants is its own artifice. Kim Of Queens is a marvel of CGI technology—in that the producers’ puppet strings aren’t visible. The show’s narrative impetus is competition, but Kim’s day-to-day—her familial bickering, her refusal to be an irrelevant ex-beauty queen—is much more interesting than watching producers trying to create dramatic tension where there is none. Apparently, there needs to be a villain, so in the pilot, the enemy takes the form of Kim’s pageant girls. But it’s villainy forced on blank slates—they’re slack-jawed and unformed. They’re supposedly jealous of Addison, but we know this only because we are told so, not because the girls do anything to prove that jealousy.
Worse, the Pageant Place moms don’t share Kim’s natural ability to be on camera. The stage moms should make excellent antagonist fodder, but these women share their daughters’ woodenness in front of the camera. In the second episode, Kim tells her charges that none of them will be competing in a rodeo-themed pageant because they don’t have that cowgirl spark. Angie, the mother of a contestant named Marah, disagrees, so she forces her daughter to compete. She’s quintessential pageant mom, even wearing a “Team Marah” T-shirt throughout the episode. Kim Of Queens seems convinced that she’s bound to do something crazy. But the drama is not only manufactured—it’s boring. There is no suspense—and despite Kim’s proclamations of how important a backwoods pageant is, with even lower stakes. Kim Of Queens isn’t a show about pageants, it’s a show about Kim, and it does best when it remembers that.
Executive produced by: Tom Forman, Brad Bishop, and Bryan O'Donnell
Starring: Kim Gravel
Debuts: Tuesday, at 10 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime
Format: Hour-long docuseries
Two episodes watched for review