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‘Sussex, New Jersey’

We’re Here Sussex, New Jersey Season 3 Episode 4 Editor’s Rating 3 stars * * * « Previous Next « Previous Episode Next Episode » Photo: Greg Endries/HBO
Remember a week ago when I said We’re Here deserved acclaim for its casting because that department really knew when to take swings on people and trust that things would work out? While I still genuinely believe that, this week’s episode, “Sussex, New Jersey,” shows what can happen when things go the other way.
After an opening scene that involves a car show and our hero queens fully duded up in animal print — Eureka, with those boobs! — we get to learn a little more about Sussex, a town that Google tells me has a population of just over 2,000 people. As Bob says, it’s got a lot of “silos and strip malls,” and from the footage we see, that seems to be about it. Interestingly, it’s also (again, as Bob says) closer to Manhattan than parts of Brooklyn, but it feels like you’re out in Indiana. It seems like a weird spot in general.
Our first drag daughter this week is Ashley, a lovely lesbian who has chickens and dogs and calls herself a hopeless romantic. She’s a 26-year-old cop who’s looking for love, has a great family, and says she’s only been to New York City “four or five” times her entire life. She’s also never been to a lesbian bar, which isn’t incredibly surprising because there are only 27 in the entire United States, but Bob promises to take her to one. He makes good on that later in the episode, dropping into Ginger’s in Brooklyn, which seems like a lovely hang and a place that I hope Ashley gets back to someday.
Next up is Josh, a bisexual dad of two elementary-aged kids. “People perceive my wife and I as a normal straight couple with two children,” he says. “But I’m bisexual, and it’s part of who I am.” He describes Sussex as “very Trumpy” and says that vibe “makes it difficult to feel safe and like you’re not in a hostile environment.”
Eureka meets Josh in a horse barn where he works helping people with their equine therapy. He tells Eureka it’s something he got into after experiencing his own trauma, which we learn was being sexually assaulted during a stint in the Navy during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He says he told someone he thought he could trust he was bi and then got jumped by five guys in the shower. His commanding officer covered the whole thing up, too, which makes me think that those five guys (and the dickhead officer) are still out there today, unpunished. Josh says the experience has made him reticent to be fully himself and that he’s still healing, and I just feel awful for him. What a terrible thing to happen to what seems to be like such a nice guy.
And then we meet Brandon. A chain-smoking straight guy who says “everyone deserves dignity and respect.” Brandon got on the show because some old high-school English teacher of his told him they were looking for someone like him. He “hopes we’re reaching the precipice of political correctness” and that people can learn to get over themselves. His coach for the week is Shangela, who seems thrown back on her heels almost immediately after Brandon (a) doesn’t recognize her or seem to care who she is and (b) refuses to do a runway walk in his local bar because, as he puts it, “I live here.” After she tells him she’s from a small town in Texas, he makes an ill-advised crack about the state’s lack of Planned Parenthoods and tells Shangela, “Fuck Texas,” which Shangela sort of cringes at. In a talking head later, Shangela tells the camera that “Brandon has a wall around himself” and that she’ll “need to spend time with him to bond,” but then we get to hear Brandon popping off about how he doesn’t think participating in the show will make any sort of impact or matter. “I don’t expect well-intentioned things to land,” he cracks.
Look, I don’t know Brandon. All I know about him is what I got to see on the show, and what I saw was a person who clearly didn’t “get it.” As we see him tell the glam squad later, he’s never seen a drag show and all he knows is what he Googled, which is that queens use duct tape and superglue to tuck. When the entire team tells him that’s incorrect, he vehemently disagrees, telling them it’s true, which … I don’t know, man. He clearly didn’t come on the show to learn anything. He barely seems to participate in the process, and I’d wager at least a few dollars that there’s material the show shot that’s worse than what we actually got to see in the episode. He defended using the N-word in front of Shangela, for crying out loud! And that’s before saying he’s “offended” by people asking to use the right pronouns, calling all drag queens trans people — despite evidence to the contrary right in his face — and getting snippy after Shangela calls him out for forgetting the G in LGBTQ+. “Did you feel like I had hate in my heart when I left out the G,” he quips.
Bless Shangela’s heart because this week was clearly tough for her. It’s a little off-putting, really, because she’s always this ray of sunshine and persuasiveness, happy to face even the most vehement haters with a smile and a “Hi, sir!” But it looks like Brandon just about broke her. As she tells the camera in a chat, “Brandon is not politically correct or, for that matter, correct.” She rightly states that if you want to change anyone’s mind or let someone know how you feel, you should try and use respectful language, saying, “If you’re wanting your message to be heard, you do have to care about how it’s delivered.”
Brandon, she says, should “just do better,” and while it seems like she tries in some respects to make that happen, the lack of content we get from him after the dockside exchange suggests to me like production decided to fish or cut bait. We see him perform Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” at the end of the episode, and he does profess some surprise that people were moved by the We’re Here experience, seemingly slightly glad he did it, but he also mutters, “Everyone’s so happy. I did very little.” So … yeah.
Anyway, back to Ashley and Josh. Eureka sits down with Joshua’s wife, who is a music teacher who also works with special-needs kids. She’s been helping Josh process his trauma for the past couple of years and it seems like she’s not sure what to make of his seemingly newfound interest in further expressing his feminine side. She must have known something about it since he has a dress he likes wearing at Pride and went and got his ears pierced to look a little more femme, but she says multiple times later in the episode that she’s “still processing all of this.” Still, as she tells Eureka, she just wants to see him be his best self and she’ll be by his side while he does everything he needs to do to be his best self. I hope that their marriage is strong enough to survive such big changes in someone’s life, but it seems like they genuinely love each other a lot and love their two kids, so I’m optimistic.
Josh’s drag name is Fionix because he loves the name Fiona and he identifies with the phoenix, and his drag performance is a riff on Toy Story. Eureka plays a big, beautiful Barbie while Joshua is a kind of baby doll, big bow and all. They perform to a slightly modified mix of the Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have a Kiki,” and it’s all very fun. Josh’s whole family is there in the front row, too, and after the show, they all come onstage. Josh gets on the mic and thanks Eureka, saying his whole drag experience was “transformative and incredible because of the tutelage of my drag mother,” which is nice.
Ashley comes on next, looking honestly very hot in super-femme drag and a big green-and-black beehive. She and Bob do a well-performed version of Heart’s “Alone,” spinning vanity, snow, and all. Her parents are front row, crying, and when Ashley takes the mic, she says, “To the deepest corners and closets in this country, I hope you know that if you don’t have a support system at all, we’re your family,” which is very kind and generous. Like Ashley, I hope that shows like We’re Here get that message across.
Stray Observations
• Ashley’s mom is named Jenny Craig, which is fun. It is also fun that Ashley is having top surgery, an admission that gets a “Yay!” from her tablemates at the lesbian bar. I loved that scene where she and Bob talked about how the bar made her feel “not accepted despite [her] queerness but accepted because of it,” and I’m intrigued by Bob’s attraction to lesbians. You go, Bob!
• Brandon looks like AJ McLean’s Poppy Love when he’s in drag, which is a statement that will only make sense if you watched RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race, and I hope you didn’t because it’s terrible.
• The show ends with a performance by Bob, Shangela, and Eureka, all plopped on platforms against angel wings and halos doing a Divas Live–style version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Justice for Divas Live! It doesn’t get enough acclaim these days.

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