Review: ‘Ren Faire’ Is Tailor Made For TikTok Virality

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: June 3, 2024 (Last updated: 2 weeks ago)
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Ren Faire Review - Eccentric, Compelling HBO Docuseries
Ren Faire | Image via HBO


Ren Faire is a fascinatingly weird docuseries that seems tailor-made for TikTok virality.

What’s interesting about HBO’s Ren Faire is what’s also interesting about Renaissance Festivals – they’re silly but taken wholly seriously and they’re full of compelling eccentrics. It’s the ideal subject for documentarian Lance Oppenheim, who always presents non-fiction at its most weird and hallucinatory. The Texas Renaissance Festival is so nuts it does a lot of the heavy lifting for him.

You’d think three hours is a long time for this kind of thing, but you’d be dead wrong. There’s so much larger-than-life madness here that three episodes scarcely feel like enough, and they’re jam-packed with so much absurdity that a filmmaker of lesser skill than Oppenheim wouldn’t have been able to pull you through it.

The broad subject is a matter of succession. George Coulam, otherwise known as King George, has spent five decades as the ruler of the Texas Renaissance Festival. It’s the largest such festival in the United States and has morphed over the years into a city-state. But George is getting on a bit and has decided he wants to spend his remaining years finding a female companion several years decades younger than him.

This means that someone has to take over, and there are plenty of people who fit the bill, including the festival’s current general manager Jeffrey Baldwin, a kettlecorn magnate from a wealthy family named Louie Migliaccio, and Darla Smith, a former elephant trainer, since nobody in Texas has ever had a normal career trajectory.

And that’s a point, now that I mention it. Ren Faire is very Texas. There’s a feeling that all of this could only exist in the Lone Star State, but Oppenheim is content not to interrogate why that might be. I didn’t mind, since it’d take way more than three episodes to unpack that, and besides, as a little Englander I like the idea of Texas as a fanciful land of eccentric make-believe, where there are, for instance, more tigers in private captivity than there are in the wild.

We know from stuff like Tiger King that there is an endless market for true stories about deeply odd people, and thanks to social media and particularly TikTok that market is only widening. Ren Faire will play like gangbusters for the social media crowd, and I can virtually guarantee that it’ll take off in a big way, with each of the subjects being rigorously analyzed and mocked. This is perhaps just as well, since Oppenheim doesn’t tend to do it himself. He knows not to cast judgement in his filmmaking, but instead make it as easy as possible for the audience to do it on his behalf.

But just like this particular Renaissance Festival could only exist in Texas, Ren Faire could only exist in this media climate, where the easy comparisons – the aforementioned Tiger King, the thematically similar HBO stablemates Succession and Game of Thrones – and the machinery to make them on a viral scale exist in uneasy unison. And, let’s not forget, it’s a work of non-fiction populated by people who play-act as medieval characters for a living. Even by Oppenheim’s usual standards, the lines between reality and fiction are very blurry.

But it’s a riotously good time, with the scale and drama of a Shakespearean play – King Lear is mentioned multiple times – and the wacky quirkiness of a made-for-TV parody. It’s easy to invest in because of this, even if the heightened style can be a little off-putting. These are real people, and to them, within their little world, this all matters to an almost indescribable degree. It’s a recipe for a serious hit if I’ve ever seen one.

HBO, HBO Max, Premium Channels, Streaming Service, TV, TV Reviews
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