Leah Hennessey and Ruby McCollister, stars of the comedic web series “Zhe Zhe,” grew up around drag shows, Leah in New York City and Ruby in Los Angeles. When I asked Ruby about this (appropriately outside of a karaoke bar in the East Village), she was certain of drag’s resonance: “Drag makes you feel in this violent way how alien being a woman is. We’re all always performing. All of us.” So when I asked if her character was “drag without the drag,” Ruby immediately contested. “No. It’s drag with the drag. Because drag isn’t a gender transformation. It is an energy force.”
And thus is “Zhe Zhe,” written by Leah Hennessey, directed by EJ O’Hara, and starring Leah, Ruby, EJ, as well as Emily Allan. The series is of high-production value, features intentional overacting, frequent costume changes, and inflated egos. In other words, it has that force.
Each of the episodes in the series—so far five have been released—are about 20 minutes on YouTube. In it, a fictitious band (Zhe Zhe) made up of three girls, each seemingly in their early twenties and living in NYC (although their ages are never exactly specified), are driven by a blind pursuit of fame and attention trailed only sometimes with the consideration for genuine identity. In each character, these two pursuits are often mutually exclusive, constantly at battle with one another.
This battle manifests itself in entirely different ways among the characters. There’s Mona DeLiza, (Ruby McCollister), the naive and eternal Shirley Temple archetype, who wants a spotlight even when she has nothing to say. There’s Chewie (Emily Allan), the villainous trust fund baby, who manipulates the current culture of self-branding to get her fix of attention. Then there’s Jean (Leah Hennessey), who’s stuck in the dream of rock-and-roll. Whenever she arrives anywhere says, “Let’s leave.”
The series starts with Chewie, the most famous band member, leaving the band, selling out, and eventually establishing herself as a villainous nemesis. Jean and Mona’s employment situation is unclear, except for one lyric in which Jean sings that she “wants to make a career of just being [herself].” Other than this and a few other consistent cameos, each episode remains an isolated storyline, each examining a theme.
In the fifth episode, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About L.A. *But Were Afraid to Ask,” they go to Los Angeles and play off nearly every one of the cities stereotypes. This includes being effortlessly thin, driving everywhere, and being without a specific job. In the fourth episode, “Zhemale Trouble,” they explore different ways of expressing their womanhood, Mona adopting a manic “Sex in the City”-affect and Jean through auditioning as the lead female in a D-grade vampire movie. When she doesn’t act “sexy” enough, the producer berates her. In episode three, “Sick,” Mona and Jean discuss the acceleration of culture, which in the world of Zhe Zhe, is markedly faster than in ours. Mona lies in bed sick and jealous as she sees Jean rambling in an historical documentary about a party that just happened a few minutes ago. As Jean coyly teases her hair with her hand she says with absolute sincerity, “I think that four hours ago the world was a much more innocent place. I don’t know if that’s an economic thing or what.”
Throughout the series, the show’s characters both fantasize and delude themselves about being anything other than in their twenties and underemployed. They’re rockstars, they’re socialites, and occasionally even demonstrate a modicum of self-awareness. “I want to party like its 2006. Before the recession made us question our dreams of looking good and not doing shit,” they sing cheerfully.
The show depicts a performance zeitgeist, one based deeply in identity crisis. The characters dress up in rock-and-roll bandanas in one episode, and then like socialites wearing cocktail dresses and holding Barneys bags in the next. This mimics our own culture; everyone fits into a niche but rebranding oneself is completely acceptable. It’s hard to believe the men in Bushwick who dress like a grandfather in a Dallas airport now aren’t the same men who were dressed like lumberjacks in 2007. There’s a constant remaking of another time and place, often shifting from year to year. “Zhe Zhe” does this, but does it with this drag energy force. That is, it takes this trend, inflates the qualities of it by 200 percent, and reflects it back at us, making it feel alien, overbearing, and somewhat innocent, if not naive.
The hyperbolized nature of the characters are what makes the series so funny, but it’s also what gives the series a skeptical undertone because it reflects something real. So while we can laugh at or find these characters entirely clownish and un-relatable, their desires are uncannily familiar. The episodes are packaged neatly into catchy songs and quippy jokes, and underneath there’s something both endearing and unsettling.
This is what makes Zhe Zhe so good.