The Shelley Luther Show has been such a prominent part of Texas politics in 2020, such a frequent source of debate, mirth, pathos, and confusion, that newcomers to what the trades have taken to calling the Salon Queen Saga may be surprised to know that it was something of a sleeper hit.
The Luther Show’s first season, which came to an end on Saturday as the show’s protagonist lost her bid for a state Senate seat to state representative Drew Springer, debuted on March 11 to low ratings and little interest from the public. The pilot episode was aired by Houston’s KHOU, which caught Luther and her boyfriend about to board a cruise ship in Galveston—at a time when cruise ships, floating petri dishes, were being quarantined all over the world as a result of the burgeoning pandemic.
To be sure, it was a funny comedic device, and a suitable introduction to the show’s main character: Luther, with her strong convictions sometimes leading her to do things that perhaps hadn’t been well thought out, and her boyfriend, a goofy and affectionate comic companion who was never far from the show’s lead. “Well, for one, I have a real good friend who’s a doctor,” he told KHOU when asked why they were sailing, his arm draped around Luther, speaking with the tone of someone who had received a killer stock tip at a backyard barbecue. “It’s really nothing more than a severe cold.”
As funny as the pilot was, few Texans were watching. Luther and pal were born entertainers—beaus who performed at North Texas bars and weddings alongside cover bands and, occasionally, going to war as their own dueling pianos act. But the show was missing something. It took the spread of COVID-19 to propel Luther to stardom and the show to relevance. When Governor Greg Abbott’s anti-coronarvirus order closed businesses across the state, the rebel salon queen and her writers—among them the lawyers, political activists, and big-time donors who saw in her a vessel to capture the mood of discontented Texans everywhere—finally had a foil.
Luther’s battle with Abbott drove ratings higher and provided dramatic material to fill the heart of the Luther Show’s first season. She opened her Dallas hair salon in violation of Abbott’s rules, and when local officials demanded that she shut down, she refused. She aimed to become the Rosa Parks of Dallas cosmetologists. A judge also ordered her to stop, and when she again refused, she was held in contempt of court and briefly jailed. Luther became a Texas hero to some, and then a national one. Viewers tuned in en masse, many more than ever had when Luther was a Metroplex wedding singer. A star was born.
Luther forced Abbott into retreat. Facing massive backlash among conservative activists, Abbott caved. Seemingly without a shred of embarrassment, he abrogated the health measures he had insisted were absolutely necessary in order to make the pain go away. Luther became the David who slew Goliath, and she took the show on the road.
For a while, the show was wildly successful. Luther maintained an affecting everywoman persona, but anyone who saw her appear at one of the many anti-lockdown rallies that proliferated in Texas this summer understood that she was different. While other speakers droned on about the Constitution and hydroxychloroquine, Luther had a “tight five,” like a comedian. She didn’t lecture, she riffed. This was a woman who sensed her time had come.
The problem for the show, however, is that Abbott no longer wanted to tangle. The show needed a new foil. Luther declared her intention to run for Texas’s Senate District 30, vacated when incumbent Pat Fallon elected to run for Congress—pitting her against Springer, a conventional sort of Republican. At first, this new plotline showed promise. Springer could be cast as a “swamp creature,” that hated thing, and Luther could hone her populist edge and put it to the test in a new way. If Luther made it to the Senate, she’d surely be a thorn in Abbott’s side. As money poured in, the race became a high-stakes competition between Abbott and his critics over the direction of the party. Abbott backed Springer, ensuring that the race would be a test of the governor’s influence.
Her odds looked good, at first. Luther and Springer both made it into the runoff, boxing the Democratic candidate out of contention. But as the Luther saga limped to the end of the season, it became clear that the writers were struggling to make her act work on this bigger stage. Luther’s closing pitch against Springer was … well, it’s best to let Luther speak for herself. “The Chinese Communist Party is building a massive database of American citizens, and Drew Springer tried to help them,” Luther said in her ad, by advancing legislation that would allow “Chinese drones” to fly over Texas collecting “thermal and infrared images of our homes.” (Springer was involved with a bill that concerned drones but, as you might imagine, China had nothing to do with it.)
This was a very funny gambit, to be sure, but it undercut the realism that had led the Shelley Luther Show to do so well with its core demographics. Nonetheless, Luther and the writers doubled down. In a truly bizarre video posted December 8 labeled “Chinese Drone meets my 12 Gauge,” Luther steps out of a two-story suburban home with her shotgun to take aim at a tiny buzzing drone with a flag of the People’s Republic of China taped to it. “I’m Shelley Luther—this is what I think about Chinese communist drones flying over my property,” she ejects. Then she blasts the commie drone out of the sky.
Other episodes from that time involve ill-advised crossovers. On October 26, a publication called The Liberty ran an interview with Luther promoting her fight to overturn COVID-19 restrictions in Texas. The Liberty is a news organization run by a Japanese cult called Happy Science, whose founder, Master Ryuho Okawa, conducts seances with dead world leaders like Margaret Thatcher—who, invariably, advise the Japanese nation to rebuild its military, develop nuclear weapons, and declare war on China. (Thatcher’s seance, well worth watching, can be found here.) This was, once again, very funny. But it strained credibility, and seemed to indicate that Luther was losing her way.
Still, Luther and her boyfriend seemed to be having a lot of fun. They continued to perform when possible. On November 16, in the same week that Luther was taking part in “Stop the Steal” rallies protesting Joe Biden’s imminent coup and takeover of the United States, she stopped to belt out “Sweet Child O’ Mine” with hair-metal cover band the Velcro Pygmies. It was a sweet musical interlude that nonetheless pointed at a future for the Luther Show that never was—a light variety act in which its protagonist is never captured by the political gristmill. But on Election Day, Luther and her beau appeared at a polling place to cut a video that harked back to that first day on the Galveston dock—the two together, Luther tired from campaigning, he in a coat that looks suspiciously like it was designed by Ed Hardy. So much had changed, but also, they were the same folks they always were, an inspiring and relatable message.
But could she pull it off? No. Springer stomped Luther by thirteen percentage points. The loss puts the future of the Luther Show in doubt. Will there be a second season in 2021? Surely—Luther’s no quitter. But it seems unlikely to reach the heights it once did, at the start of the quarantine.
Meanwhile, as the trades have been keen to point out, Luther’s flop puts significant pressure on its production company, conservative agitprop machine Empower Texans, whose creative director, Michael Quinn Sullivan, and financial backer, Midland oilman Tim Dunn, have seen a long string of expensive failures. With the recent end of the Jonathan Stickland Comedy Hour, Empower has been left without a real hit in its stable. (Trouble also looms with the possible cancellation of Late Nights With Ken Paxton, the ostensibly law-themed variety show subject to a record number of FCC fines.) Dunn staked almost $2 million on Luther’s victory, an extraordinary amount, surely hoping for a multi-year distribution deal. No such luck. Don’t expect them to quit either, though—failure’s never stopped ’em before.