House of Ada’s frenzied poison frog mating ritual
House of Ada’s frenzied poison frog mating ritual Photograph by John Johnson/HBO Max

Are you invited to a HBO's Legendary screening tonight, but you don't know what happened in the first three episodes? Do you want to root for Portland’s House of Ada as the belles of the ball, but haven’t gotten someone else’s HBO Max password yet? Do you just like reading and thinking about TV shows you've already seen? Fear not. I submitted myself to one of the streaming industry’s clunkiest apps to give you the lowdown on how the House of Ada’s self-styled “fresh Northwest pussy” fares against their strongest competitors: nine fierce houses from the ballroom and fashion capitols of the world.

SPOILERS AHEAD for third season of HBO's Legendary:

The House of Ada debuted in the second half of Legendary’s two-part season opener, but that’s no reason to skip the first episode. You’ll listen to new judge Keke Palmer shove Trey Songz off a cultural cliff, performing her song “Bottoms Up” with the season two winners, the House of Miyake-Mugler. You’ll sample the masculine eye candy that is House of Alpha Omega, the show’s first all-male house. You’ll cringe when judge Leiomy Maldonado delivers a frigid score of '3' to the House of Lyght. You’ll even wish bone apple tea to the House of Revlon, the show’s first European house—from Paris.

House of Ada is noted as Legendary’s first house of all non-binary dancers. It's also a house of almost all-immigrants, but the show's editors gave the first kiki house distinction to the House of Juicy Couture, who entered the ball right before our heroes. SO I guess that's technically true? Papi Ada’s silent fingertip clap backstage—shown during Juicy Couture's introduction—would seem especially salty without this context.

The House of Ada’s introduction feels like a backhanded setup for future greatness. Ada (pronounced as both “aye-da” and “ah-da” on the show by Papi and his children) doesn’t get the same goodwill from the judges that Juicy Couture earned by being the new kids on the block. Portland’s premier house takes shade from both the judges onstage, and from their competitors watching offstage.

Additionally, Vanity Ada was sidelined due to her COVID-19 diagnosis, but Judge Jameela Jamil only noticed her absence at the end of the performance—and not in a bad way. Papi, Virgo, Sophora, and Babi Ada delivered a feisty fairy fantasy. Virgo pedals his legs gracefully while in a handstand as Papi, Sophora, and Babi duckwalked like they were enchanting a mushroom circle. The house dipped, and Papi rose, relishing in his nasty-good Ariana Grande high pony. Leiomy and stylist Law Roach gave Ada stern scores of '6' and '5,' due to their stage costume style and supposedly over-polished choreography. None of that bothered Keke Palmer.

“Now, I didn’t know Portland could get down like that!” Keke exclaimed to applause. She awarded Ada an '8.'

Reality show connoisseurs can smell a potentially lucrative villain edit a mile away—the only thing better than winning is proving why you should have won. But knowing how sweet the House of Ada’s onscreen members are in real life, it’s hard to buy them as TV villains. Ada’s storyline, so far, explores their desire to put Portland on the ballroom map, and holds the heavy price of failure over Ada’s heads. What viewers hopefully get from Legendary is the House of Ada’s journey to national prominence, where Portland is only a footnote in the story of their greatness. Their competitors’ dismissive remarks give the viewers permission to underestimate Ada’s precision, which may prove to be a fatal mistake.

Ada tied for the lowest score—with the House of Alain Milki—of their first ball. The judges chose Ada to face off against the House of Du’Mure-Versailles for a chance to save themselves from elimination. It’s a gamble that first-time viewers have no way of knowing the payoff.

Since we will talk about episode three in this recap, let’s just say Papi Ada was wise to choose Virgo Ada as the house’s defender. Virgo took the judge’s critiques of being too polished and exuded charisma, energy, and improv prowess. Virgo won episode two by being the superior dancer—causing Leiomy to audibly gasp when Virgo popped up on the floor between Cotton Du’Mure-Versailles’ legs, and Law to concede that Ada deserved to stay on their own merits.

But so the pendulum swings. Ada scored higher during the Animal Queendom ball of episode three, which was guest judged by Brazilian pop star Anitta. The house’s frenzied poison frog mating ritual routine was among Anitta’s favorite performances, earning a '10' for their Cirque du Soleil-tier costuming. Despite post-COVID fatigue, a frog queen persona served the recovered Vanity Ada well for her onscreen stage debut. Leiomy and Law were more generous.

Ada unfortunately failed the challenge of the night—the 360 degree dip that Leiomy personally innovated in the mid '00s—but Leiomy showed a softer side in awarding Ada a higher score, even formally welcoming them to ballroom (the House of Ada was founded nearly ten years ago, but viewers at home don’t know that). By contrast, the historic House of Labeija earned the ball’s lowest score, but stayed in the competition due to immunity from Keke’s Gag Flag.

So ended Ada’s screen time that episode, save for a few backstage reaction shots. The safest houses arguably got less screen time than the ball’s worst and best houses—a reminder that "safe" can be a dirty word, especially when exposure turns into payment. House of Ada proved twice now that they deserve the show's substantial cash prize and global recognition. With seven houses remaining, we have another chance to see how high Portland can boost the House of Ada, as they fight on for glory.

The next three episodes of HBO Max’s Legendary drop Thurs May 26. House of Ada hosts It's Raining 10s at Portland’s Vitalidad Movement Art Center, Fri June 17, 9 pm, $20, tickets here.