Drag Race reconsidered: a lot to love underneath the makeup

As I mentioned at the start of the season, when I wrote about trying to understand the passionate love people have for the series I’ve only watched an episode or two of RuPaul’s Drag Race sporadically since season one. This was my first full season since then, and I come away from it as a fan–not a super-fan, but definitely a fan.

While I intended to recap every episode, life–plus Logo’s decision to swap timeslots mid-season–both interfered with regular watching. But I eventually caught up, and really enjoyed what I saw. I’m still not able to see what people see when they declare definitively that it’s the best reality show ever, but it’s vastly improved from the first season and thoroughly entertaining.

Let’s start with the bad. Yesterday, I came across an essay about how the show is “America’s Best Reality Show with the Worst Finale.” Joe Reid makes a good case for why the finale is a disaster, including that having a “live” finale means that the winner doesn’t necessarily reflect who was best during the season itself.

I’d already been annoyed by the fact that they just aired filler last week instead of the finale, and then we had to have a 90-minute reunion and finale that didn’t satirize the bloated, pointless, American Idol or The Apprentice-style live finales, but just became one, complete with scripted bits, scripted lines, lies (“moments away”), bad audio, and very little of what made the season so fun. While the winner wasn’t a surprise, Ru didn’t give a single reason why she’d chosen that winner over the two runners-up. Not one! (Though, I guess that’s similar to the weekly eliminations.)

Really, it’s better to imagine the season just ended two weeks ago.

Everything that came before these past two weeks was pretty great: a competition that challenged its contestants in creative, entertaining ways. More significantly, it challenged them on multiple skills throughout the season. While it’s ostensibly a competition about drag in the way Top Chef is about cooking, the show smartly breaks down what is required of drag performers into a diverse array of challenges. As a result, it’s not the same thing week to week, but instead a showcase of significantly different skills.

Snatch Game is the best example and a definite highlight, because it offers so many challenges in one: impersonation, improvisation, wit. But the other challenges were strong, too, from acting in a campy horror movie to filming a 1990s-era rap video, interviewing celebrities to doing stand-up. The production design is very strong now, much better than season one’s ugliness.

This was a particularly interesting cast for me, since it included two former Idol contestants, both of whom talked about their experiences on the shows. The cast was a good mix of different personalities and types, though I’ve heard previous casts have been better. While I really appreciated all the queens’ personas and performances, I liked it best when the make-up was off, literally and figuratively–and I don’t mean on Untucked, which I mostly found to be annoying and contrived (sit here and drink and fight, please!).

Insight into who the cast members are and what they’ve experienced in their lives added another layer to a show that has many layers. (“There are things I’m getting from Ru that I don’t get from my own mother,” Darienne Lake said.)

I think that’s what was most surprising: For a show that pretends to be a send-up of America’s Next Top Model and revels in a kind of superficiality, it’s actually quite the opposite.

RuPaul’s Drag Race, season six: A-/B+

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