“Aren’t we having fun?” BenDeLaCreme asks in the middle of the themed dinner party she’s throwing with Jinkx Monsoon on Hulu’s new series Drag Me to Dinner.
One of their guests, the show’s executive producer and judge, Neil Patrick Harris, replies, “Are we?” It’s a surprisingly earnest question-as-answer, and also a pretty revealing response.
The format and show has a lot going for it: two teams of drag queens, lots of silliness, puns, and meta commentary about the show itself.
The themes, which are also the episode names—”Tropical Kiki,” “Whoring 20s,” “Baby Shower,” “Toga Party,” “Divorce Party,” “Tupperware Party,” “Beach Blanket Bing-Ho,” “Slumber Party,” “Tailgate Weiner Roast,” and “Big Bottom Big Top”—are broad and meaty enough to produce comedy.
Alas, is too often not fun. That’s an unforced error for a show with talented queens, plenty of puns, entendre, and a willingness to break the fourth wall. What went wrong?
The first problem for me—as a fan of reality TV competition and a reality TV critic—is that there is far too little reality in this reality TV show, even such a low-stakes one.
I expected Nailed It!; Drag Me to Dinner delivered a RuPaul’s Drag Race sketch with a few unscripted moments.
The queens first plan their themed party, and then work on decor, cooking, and bartending. They each have a small room to work in: there’s a door, a table, and a large digital window. This is frequently zany and ridiculous, especially when their hot helpers show up.
After their (I’d assume) fake time limit expires, they actually host their dinner parties for the “judgers” (a terrific title): Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka, Bianca Del Rio, and Haneefah Wood. At the end, the judgers discuss the two parties and declare a winning pair, who gets a nonsense prize.
The queens spend time screwing around and pretending to be bad at cooking and decorating, instead of actually attempting things like creating a cocktail or decorating a space. Why not let the queens’ use their actual talent—or at least try?
When the curtains open on the actual dinner parties, all of the “work” the queens have done evaporates, having been replaced by decor and food that was clearly designed and/or prepared by professionals. This is a joke, no doubt, though one that goes unacknowledged.
There are delightful moments throughout. BenDeLaCreme sings a song with the line “but it has no tune because of legal”; Jinkx Monsoon tells David Burtka: “Wetter’s always better, David.”
What I found funniest were the unplanned moments. I have no way to tell what was scripted versus improvised, though when they break and make each other laugh, that seems like a sign. (I love watching comedians crack each other up so much that this Debbie Downer SNL sketch is a go-to when I need to laugh.)
In the first episode, Jinkx moves across the set and stumbles, improving a reaction, and then nearly falls over again. BenDeLaCreme asks, “Do you want to just try that cross again?” Jinkx says, “No, we’ll keep it.” And because both the stumble and the conversation are in, it’s even funnier.
There are other similar moments, like when the lights go down and we hear BeBe Zahara Benet ask, “Are we doing this again?” A producer says, “No, we got it.”
Host Murray Hill, who you may know from Somebody Somewhere, is tentative with the teleprompter and much better when just interacting with the judgers and queens.
Mid-prep, Murray quizzes the queens. The first to answer the trivia question correctly gets David Burtka’s help with “a special tip,” while the losing team gets David in drag as Sue Chef, who messes things up.
Murray Hill introduces Drag Me to Dinner’s format like this: “These iconic queens will cook up fabulous foods, delicious cocktails, transform these ordinary rooms into fantastical party venues, and provide one-night-only entertainment for our judges.”
That’s a great structure, and fits with Hulu’s classification of the show as “reality,” though the streaming service also describes Drag Me to Dinner as an “unapologetic sendup of traditional reality competition shows.”
So is this all reality or fiction? Is it sketch comedy or improv? That may not matter to people who just love zany drag shows.
Whatever it is, it’s in desperate need of editing. For me, this is Drag Me to Dinner’s truly inexcusable flaw; even if this show isn’t meant to be taken seriously, it’s still a TV show.
There is just so much dead air, and moments that should have been cut. It’s sitting around waiting for something to happen, even when there’s chaos. That’s exhausting instead of entertaining.
That begins right away; it takes almost 10 minutes for the competition part to actually start.
Meanwhile, the editing cuts away to scenes backstage. The episode-one bit is in Bianca Del Rio’s dressing room, and the show returns there multiple times. Repetition doesn’t make it funnier, just more obvious that all of it should have been cut. A second-episode bit about social media comments is equally useless.
These bits are so bad I wondered if these’d been added to fill time, once they realized they didn’t have enough to get to 44 minutes.
Considering the two-room setup of the competition, I thought for a moment about Leslie Jordan’s Squeaky Clean, which was produced for Quibi, so its episodes are seven minutes long. It’s equally zany with an actual contest at its core.
I’d be so curious what a seven-minute cut of Drag Me to Dinner would look like, or even a 22-minute one.
I’d also be curious to know if the technical flaws and low-budget appearances is intentional, too, since the show itself doesn’t really embrace or comment on that aesthetic.
The lighting is particularly terrible; everyone is so washed out in the confessionals and on the stage it appears as though someone left on fluorescent overhead lights.
I wanted to love this, to sit back and relax and laugh. I did laugh—from the prize puns (“a Fran Dresser”) to the moments when NPH broke—but I also sat and waited for laughs for a surprising amount of time.
At their best, the scenes feel like a Drag Race comedy, i.e. slapped together and in desperate need of an actual writer. On Drag Race, though, the scenes are at least short, and serve a large purpose in the competition.
On Drag Me to Dinner, the 44 minutes drag and drag.
For a show that’s so scripted, it’s also too chaotic. If you don’t already know these drag queens, you’re going to get only tiny flashes of their personalities and experiences.
I do wonder if the performances would have worked better with an actual studio audience, so the performers could play off of them, and know what worked and what did not.
I would have loved to see more actual effort from the queens—an attempt to actually cook or prepare drinks or decorate. I recognize those who just want to watch drag comedy might be content with this, but I definitely wanted more reality competition content.
Drag Me to Dinner
Too much filler and dead air drags down what is otherwise quite fun. C-
What works for me:
- The improvised and unscripted moments
- Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka in drag
What could be better:
- Tighter editing
- Maybe an actual attempt to do the work instead of faking it all?