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Ren Faire

Lance Oppenheim’s three-part HBO docuseries “Ren Faire” walks that fine line between mocking and celebrating its incredibly unique subjects. I told a friend just now that I was reviewing a docuseries about a “Succession”-esque power struggle at a Renaissance fair, and he said, “So, a comedy?” Yes and no. While aspects of “Ren Faire” are undeniably funny, there are also parts that are equally fascinating regarding the human condition to give everything you have to one thing, either because you love it or really because you know nothing else. These people certainly don’t think there’s anything comedic about Renaissance cosplay or the art of perfecting kettle corn. And while Oppenheim’s series sometimes feels a little over-directed and over-heated, that makes sense for the world of Renaissance Fairs, where what some might dismiss as comedy is taken very, very seriously.

You won’t soon forget King George Coulam, the octogenarian multi-millionaire founder of the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest of these events in the world. Coulam is obscenely wealthy—a glimpse of his profile on a site where he’s looking for a woman half his age to be a sugar daddy for lists his wealth at over $100 million—and, well, the descriptor 'irascible' would be the politest way to define him. Coulam lords over his empire like an actual King, clearly taking his position in this operation seriously but also succumbing to what would delicately be called a toxic workplace. He randomly yells at employees when he’s not scouring the web for a woman to live out his last decade on Earth with. A series of dates with potential partners at Olive Garden wherein Coulam repeatedly asserts the importance of natural breasts are truly amazing docu-theater, the kind of docuseries moments that make this show feel a bit more like “The Righteous Gemstones” than “Succession.”

Coulam’s empire is more than turkey legs in an abandoned field and endless breadsticks on awkward dates. The Texas Renaissance Festival is an impressive operation—one wishes the series spent a bit more time just on the sheer scope of an event with thousands of attendees, multiple shops, events, restaurants, etc. And Coulam loves to bathe in his success, whether it’s the opulence of his “rococo” house—which he basically explains means a lot of extravagance—or the fact that he’s basically founded a small town around the festival, over which he’s the mayor, of course. Coulam is judge, jury, and executioner in this mini-society, proclaiming how he wants to step down and find a successor but is increasingly erratic in his judgments and behaviors. It’s hard to be the King.

“Ren Faire” pushes forward three potential heirs to the Coulam throne: Jeff Baldwin, Louie Migliaccio, and Darla Smith. Baldwin is the most sympathetic of the bunch, an actor who loves Shrek: The Musical and seems to come to life on the stage. As the general manager of the festival, the kind Baldwin has undeniably been a success, but King George doubts his instincts to run the whole thing and gets obsessed with the fact that Jeff wants to hire his wife, even though she’s qualified and experienced to take the job. George is the insulated and privileged boss whose quirks can become toxic if you happen to rub him the wrong way on the wrong day. One feels that Jeff has done that a few times, which is normal for an employee, but George isn’t a normal boss. To take the “Succession” thing a step further, if George is Logan than Jeff is Kendall—the obvious heir to everyone but daddy.

The competition for the throne comes down to a kettle corn pioneer named Louie Migliaccio, who has created and managed numerous businesses on the Ren Faire property and has the bankroll from a family of wealthy donors to buy out George’s legacy. Vendor coordinator Darla Smith watches as Louie and Jeff battle each other and makes a bid for power on her own. Other personalities move in and out of King George’s court. Still, Oppenheim latches onto the “Game of Thrones” aspect of this business almost to a fault. There’s a version of “Ren Faire” that grounds its drama in a world that feels less exaggerated merely by presenting a few more of the “normal” people around George and his successors. For example, an assistant spends his days updating George’s dozen-plus dating website profiles and taking him to the aforementioned Olive Garden encounters. I wanted a whole episode about what he thinks of all of this.

However, the insulated, tight POV in “Ren Faire” is intentional in that it makes us feel as crazy as George and keeps the series engaging in George's unpredictable immediacy. He is a man driven around his empire, complaining when people aren’t wearing hats or yelling at his minions about their lack of planning. He is feared as much as he is respected, a man who seems downright confused at times … except when he’s talking about his fair. He is a riveting docuseries subject in that he seems entirely unaware of his flaws, having been lauded and admired in his self-created kingdom for generations. No wonder he doesn’t want to give up the throne. Who would he be without it?

Whole series screened for review. Premieres on HBO on June 2nd.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Ren Faire (2024)

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