Sometime during the season premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13, I realized that this season was produced in the middle of 2020, as the stress and pain of the year’s events were rampaging across the country and through our bodies and brains (as they still are now!).
Realizing that the people who made the decisions that led to this episode were also dealing with 2020’s nonsense allowed me to be a little more at peace with what a shitty episode this was. I hadn’t planned to write about this episode, and would rather my first recap of the year have been a celebration, but I found it to be so egregious that I wanted to try to explain why it was so frustrating.
VH1 promised in a press release that Drag Race season 13 would kick off a “Brand Ru Year.” Instead it delivered a surprisingly boring Groundhog Day of an episode.
Last year, Drag Race season 12 began with a double premiere: two episodes that introduced the contestants—seven in one episode and six in the other. No one was eliminated in either episode. That meant by episode three, when all joined together and the competition started, we knew them very well, having been able to see them in action. Season 13 saw that and was like, Hold my cosmo!
The queens were introduced in pairs (and one trio), and then called to the main stage by Ru. They were each asked a question or two, and then surprised when they learned they had to lip sync for their life to avoid the “pork chop.”
This was basically for immunity: the winners stayed, the losers went to wait with each other in the “Pork Chop Loading Area,” named after the first-ever eliminated queen from season one.
From the very first “sashay away,” it was obvious that not everyone was going home, because there wouldn’t be enough cast members for a season—so obvious that several of the pork-chopped queens were openly discussed it.
I think I’m particularly annoyed because I was so ready to settle in and start 2021 with 90 minutes of Drag Race, and so appreciative that it was produced. And then I realized that people risked their health and lives to produce a format that was repetitive to the point of boredom, followed by a predictable twist that’ll be capped next episode by a stupid resolution, and all of which denied us the chance to really get to know the queens well or see them in action.
Why do we want the queens to vote someone off when they don’t even know each other? At least on Survivor, there’s been some kind of narrative about interaction or game play or challenge performance that leads to that first vote.
The editing didn’t play with or even acknowledge the Groundhog Day nature of the episode, it just repeated things. We had to watch everything again and again and again and again and again and again. The same lines from Ru, the same reaction shots, the same sweeping shot from the crane camera at the start of each lip sync.
While each queen got an intro in the workroom and an answer or two on the runway, the format took up most of the time, and quickly all of it began to blur together and I began to lose focus.
The one thing I’ll give this episode credit for is allowing some of the queens to voice disbelief that this was actually the decision smart people at the production company and network made. For example:
- Joey Jay: “What the fuck just happened to us?”
- Symone: “What is going on, America?”
- Denali: “What kind of All Stars bullshit is this?
My favorite response came after Ru explained the “eliminated” queens would have to vote someone off. Tamisha Iman—perhaps acknowledging how these kinds of early reality TV votes can play into implicit bias because the contestants have nothing else to base their decisions on—told the other queens, “I’m the only Black girl, so don’t vote me off.”
I was late to the party, but I’ve come to adore Drag Race, though I’m surprised at how consistently bad it is at competition structure and twists: they’re predictable, obvious, poorly conceived, and/or dumb. This used to get excused as Drag Race being a “parody” of Top Model, but there’s no excuse: it’s just bad reality TV producing.
Starting with 13 surprise lip syncs as a way to get to know the queens? Sure! Pretending to eliminate half the cast just to screw with them? No thanks. Putting half the cast through emotional turmoil did not even make for dramatic or entertaining television.
When Ru said, in the preview for next weeks episode, “More twists and turns are right around the corner.” Oh please, no more! I’d prefer the comfort and familiarity of a normal RuPaul’s Drag Race season instead of more of this.
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