RuPaul’s Drag Race: trying to understand the love
More than any other series, people ask why I’m not covering Logo’s competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s undeniable passion for and commitment to this series, and the superlatives never end: it’s not just the best competition show, it’s the best reality show for some people.
I haven’t watched since season one, which I didn’t like for several reasons. While its production values definitely improved over time, checking in periodically didn’t convince me to watch a whole season—or even a whole episode. At best, it came across like one of so many talent competition series, though one that was super-silly while also communicating powerful ideas about acceptance and being oneself.
A big part of my negative response, I think, is that I couldn’t get past how the drag part seemed to keep the audience at arm’s length. You might want to swallow any liquids you have in your mouth before reading this sentence so you don’t spray your keyboard or phone, but I watch reality TV for authenticity, to connect—on some level—with other people.
Drag presents a layer of performance and artificiality on top of the already performative reality TV cast member persona, which is further constructed by producers and editors based on what they choose to show. And of course, all of us have some kind of facade we present to the world and/or ourselves. Perhaps the show takes all of this to its logical extremes—but I found it to be quite annoying, like having hours and hours of small talk.
I’m watching this season because my significant other, who I’ll call Nick because that’s his name, is one of those fans. “This is like an adult Mister Rogers for me,” he said, referencing how formative that show was, “just with sequins instead of cardigans.” Another comparison we came up with was Real World, which had a profound effect on me as a teenager, introducing me to people unlike those I’d interacted with my whole life.
I thought about that a lot after watching, and tried to go into the first episode of the sixth season as open-minded as I could. Spoiler: The show didn’t win me over immediately. It may just not be my thing. But: there was a lot to like.
There were really absurdly fun moments: the sight gag of Gia and her huge purse; Vivacious screwing up the dramatic reveal of her actual head; the way some of them landed in the foam pit; Gia saying, “Is there no budget this time around?” when the queens realized there were only seven of them.
Dividing the cast in half for the first two episodes was smart, and something other competition series should emulate. It’s the opposite of what Top Chef Seattle attempted by having 21 people compete for 15 spots in a single episode, and instead gives viewers a chance to get to know the contestants better than if all 14 were introduced at once.
The first challenge in this episode was very Top Model, and the biggest laugh/surprise there for me was having the objectification-ready Pit Crew men sponsored by a hook-up app, whose name was on their underwear. The elimination challenge—creating outfits inspired by TV programs, many of them reality shows—only translated for a few of the queens, but I loved how some of them were able to sell their hot mess outfits with their personalities. That’s something that Project Runway designers and models can’t really do.
One of those contestants is former American Idol contestant Danny Noriega, who’s introduced himself by saying that other drag queens insist he’s “not polished enough,” he said, “I’m polish remover, bitch.” His panicked attempt to get his dress of a mannequin was great comedy.
I liked those moments best: the ones where you could sense that what was happening was surprising the person, such as when RuPaul laughed at one queen in the workroom and said, flatly, “I don’t have any idea what you’re going to do”—or, better, when Ru told guest judge Adam Lambert that he was praising the queen’s outfit just because Adam wanted to screw him.
There were a lot more of those moments than I expected, and I’ve been assured that as the season progresses, more genuineness will probably emerge, especially in the Untucked episodes. I’m particularly interested to see more of the cast out of drag, because those moments as they saw each other for the first time were a lot more interesting than when the queens were introducing themselves and performing. (Nick pointed out that “you’re not getting one character per person, you’re getting two characters per person,” and that could change the way I look at the cast.)
All of this will provide some interesting layers to unpack, I think, though a lot of the first episode remained very surface, that small talk/bitchiness that is more annoying than entertaining. Funny and bitchy is fine, even great; I probably even am sometimes. But especially when RuPaul or the queens were visibly showing off or saying predictable/planned things (“I really thought you’d be better at going down”), it’s was just exhausting.
During judging, RuPaul recalled watching footage from when she was younger, and said, “I’m trying so hard. I wish I could sit myself down and say, ‘Just be yourself.’”
That’s what I really want—from Ru and the cast—and hope to find as I keep watching this season.