RuPaul’s Drag Race: Henny, I Shrunk The Drag Queens

Posted on April 03, 2021

Drag Race is a strong and growing international franchise based around a devastatingly simple concept and we never would have (*ahem*) written a book using the show as a framing device if we didn’t think it would be around in one form or another for some time to come. But man, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the Original Flavor Drag Race is feeling a bit tired in its 13th season. Maybe “tired” isn’t the right word, because we still think the show has plenty of life in it for some time to come, especially if it continues on its slow trajectory toward rewarding a broader definition of drag than the one it originally established. “Overworked” may be the word. Too many seasons with too little time between them.

It’s not that this was a terrible episode or that the results of the challenge were embarrassingly bad or anything. We’ve complained plenty of times about acting challenges that were especially painful to sit through but this one wasn’t one of them; not really. It went on way too long and the queens all snapped to formation playing stock versions of themselves (more on both those points in a second), but the results were smoothly professional across the board, which is as it should be at this point in the competition, and the sketch had a surprisingly consistent and articulated storyline.

But first, attention must be paid:

We are well into the period of Drag Race where the caliber of guest stars and guest judges has been high for some time now. Once Gaga walked through that Werk Room, a curtain seemed to fall and a whole bunch of Oscar winners and Grammy winners and Tony winners gleefully stepped onto the main stage and into Drag Race herstory. Even so, between the Hathaway drop-in earlier in the season and these two powerhouses, it’s clear to us that Drag Race isn’t fading as a cultural force.

Now, having said that (and possibly come across a little too much like we’re cheerleading the show), this episode was tired.

We think if you’re just going to dispense with mini-challenges completely (typically some of the show’s most creatively devised moments), it has to be so you can make way for some sort of especially difficult challenge expected to yield some eye-popping result. No tea no shade against any of the queens, who all did high-level work for this one, but that just wasn’t the case here. The sketch was cute, but it was so long it felt like it was just eating up screen time. And because it was fairly smoothly produced and written, we don’t think it truly challenged the queens in any real way. There’s a reason every queen immediately gravitated to the part that seemed like it was written expressly for them, after all. With the exception of Symone, who generated the episode’s only true dramatic interest, largely because it took her a while to realize she’d landed the character she’s most suited to play.

 

But when Kandy says she wants to play the villain and Olivia says she wants to play the ditz and Gottmik says he wants to play the whiny party girl and Rose says she wants to play the broadly sarcastic one, what’s being revealed at this point? Who’s showing us something new? When they were all sort of half-heartedly pawing through their costumes trying to put something together because they’d already used any costume that would have been appropriate to the characters they’re playing, that’s a pretty big red flag that no one’s being asked to doing anything new. Everybody’s look here is utterly generic or feels thrown together.

 

From the very beginning of the show, we always lauded it for the freshness and creativity of its challenges; how they do a good job of revealing hidden things or getting the queens to open while at the same time existing in the same space as a long and storied line of queer performing traditions. We think it’s a big reason why the show tends to snatch those Emmys so often; not just because Ru’s an excellent host, but because the show really understands how to mine this silly competition for storylines and revelations without being too manipulative or unethical about it, relatively speaking. This episode lacked that sense of discovery but it also lacked energy. The queens are tired at this point. If you don’t keep them on their toes with interesting and unexpected challenges, they’re going to go for the stuff they’ve already done to success.

 

But look: it wasn’t necessarily a bad episode or an un-entertaining one, even if it did suffer from that not-so-fresh feeling. Everyone here did a good job whether they had to jump through any flaming hoops or not. Rose’s love of going really broad didn’t always land for us and of course Olivia found absolutely nothing new in her patented “sweet but dumb” persona, but Gottmik was genuinely funny (she played that sneeze and cat scene for everything it was worth) and even Kandy had her moments. Symone’s work was the most polished and, as Cynthia Erivo noted, nuanced of the group. Given how underwritten her character was and how much of a struggle she went through bringing it to life, we thought her win was a given.

 

 

 

Is it enough to point out that the runway category was “pockets?” Is our point not made? We loves ya, Drag Race, but you need to take a nap after this season is over. Let the Spanish and the Australians have a crack at it for a while.

 

We thought hers was the most creative of the looks, although we didn’t love the wig as much as the judges did.

 

She served up what she has always served up, which is why it was time for her to go, really. All the queens who voted to send her home said the same thing about her: she’s not ready.

 

This is a fun, kooky, high-fashion look, but we have to admit we didn’t love some of the details. The tights should’ve been black and the high pony over-emphasizes the triangular shape of the costume. Granted, she likes a geometric silhouette.

 

We got some pushback when we said that most of Kandy’s runway looks were high level, but it’s kind of hard to argue that point when confronted with this mess. She does best with extremely simple looks, which is not the greatest quality for a drag queen to have, since the art tends to call for high-impact and drama. She really tried to go for something here, but the results was a craftsy mess instead of the avant garde fashion she was attempting.

 

We thought Gottmik’s look got a weensy bit over-praised, but there’s no denying how well-executed and designed a costume it is, even if the face is starting to look very samey-same from week to week.

 

Once Kandy figured out she could use the “You’ve gotta go” refrain to her advantage, it was pretty much all over for the sweet but limited girl.

 

We’re not entirely sure the lesson sunk in before she left, but the point isn’t that she was too nice but that she was too restrained. Cuteness and sweetness in drag only takes you so far. If there isn’t some sort of edge or surprise to it, you risk becoming mediocre. That’s the lesson.

As for Original Flavor Drag Race, girl, you look exhausted. Go lie down for a bit.

 

Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life, a New York Times “New and Notable” pick, praised by The Washington Post “because the world needs authenticity in its stories,” and chosen as one of the Best Books of 2020 by NPR is on sale wherever fine books are sold!

 

[Photo Credit: VH1 via Tom and Lorenzo]

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