Entertainment

Did 2021 Break ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’?

“2021 sure had a lot of Drag Race,” I write, fully aware that the franchise ain’t on holiday vacay yet and will crown two more queens before 2021 is over. That excess sums up the year in Drag Race pretty well. By the time 2021 sashays away, we will have had 52 straight weeks of Drag Race content. Well over half of those weeks will have aired more than 2 episodes of a Drag Race series, and there were two weeks in November wherein 3 international Drag Race series overlapped. Good god, it has been hard to get a grip on this franchise, girl! And after dropping 89 episodes of Drag Race in one year, I feel compelled to ask: is 2021 the year that broke Drag Race?

This is a question worth pondering as the franchise gears up for another marathon of a year, one that might include the debuts of spinoffs in the Philippines and France. There’s also the oft-rumored international All Stars season. If anything, it’s possible that 2022’s Drag Race output will outpace 2021’s. Is this all too much too fast? And where does the franchise stand at the end of its busiest year ever?

I’ll preface this by saying that the only reason this article even exists is because of the massive and earned success of the Drag Race franchise. Yes, there’s a lot of Drag Race, but that’s how television works. Reality competition formats are sold internationally all the time. Did you know Top Chef has 23 international spinoffs? It does, and Project Runway has 29 and Top Model has close to 50!

Too Much Drag Race?
Photos: WOW ; Illustration: Dillen Phelps

The real innovation here is that unlike all of those other international spinoffs, Drag Race has made all of its available to watch in America on WOW Presents Plus. And more than that, the queens themselves continue to welcome the international contestants into the Drag Race family. It’s one of the most inspirational parts of this franchise, the way that queens from all across the globe are now bonded by this common experience. These two components make every international season feel essential and part of the lore (as they should be)… but it also makes keeping up with Drag Race feel like a full-time job which, in my case…? Kinda is…?

And I’ll P.S. my preface by adding that none of these critiques of the franchise have anything to do with the talent of the queens themselves. Each one of the 100 queens who competed this year fought for their spot and turned it out. These critiques are solely about how a television show is put together.

So, let’s start with the great: the year got started off correct with RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13. It was a feisty season that gave us an Emmy-winning Untucked fight between Kandy Muse and Tamisha Iman (which continued into a summer of must-see Instagram lives). It delivered a truly gorge final four who slayed in a fantastic girl group number.

RuPaul's Drag Race Season 13 girl group number
Photo: VH1

It gave us LaLa Ri’s bag couture, Utica Queen’s sleeping bag gown, and Denali’s killer “100% Pure Love” lip sync. It was a ride of a season and came to a satisfying conclusion even with a few shady moments (did Denali really deserve to be in the bottom over Tina Burner’s meme-able makeover of Rosé?).

And as Season 13 was airing, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Season 2 was stunting across the pond. UK2 even felt more exciting than the mother series for a few weeks, as the season halted to give viewers an unprecedented look behind the scenes and show how the queens—and the series!—dealt with the pandemic. I think that’s one reason why audiences responded to UK2 so fiercely; we got to see this cast of queens overcome tragedy and show that drag perseveres. It was realer and rawer than anything we’ve seen on the show. We also got to see one of the best Cinderella stories in the entire franchise as Bimini Bon Boulash went from bottom two to a serious contender for the crown after a truly outstanding streak in the back half of the season. Not a joke, just a fact.

RuPaul's Drag Race UK Season 2 Episode 8 - Bimini Bon-Boulash
Photo: World of Wonder

The wheels started to wobble a bit in the spring with the launch of the brand new RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under, which may be the roughest Season 1 since the first season of All Stars back in 2012. The problems that emerged in Down Under would ultimately be ones that popped up again and again: repetition and arbitrary decisions.

By watching 9 seasons of Drag Race in one year, that means we’ve seen roughly 9 Snatch Games, 9 choreo lessons, 9 reading challenges, 9 girl group numbers, 9 acting challenges, 9 arguments about a running order, 9 commercial challenges—you get the idea. The formula that I love as a Drag Race super-fan started to feel like a burden as the year went on, especially as whole casts proved unsuited to the challenges given to them. Like, Australians and New Zealanders are funny, but for some reason every comedy challenge in Down Under was a flop. Rhys Nicholson was the most consistently funny person in the season, but he’s a judge.

RuPaul's Drag Race Down Under episode 2 - Anita Wigl'it as the Queen
Photo: WOW Presents Plus

And it’s not like those queens weren’t funny; the delightful duo of Kita Mean and Anita Wigl’it were so weird that they made RuPaul uncomfortable (in a good way). And Art Simone gave one of the best reads I’ve ever heard (“Etcetera uses they/them pronouns, so for example: They haven’t been in the top, so we won’t be seeing them in the final”). But somehow the predetermined schedule of challenges just did not work with that Down Under humor. And the fact that no one won the commercial challenge in Drag Race UK Season 3 should be a sign that the format’s starting to feel sweaty. Hell, RuPaul even admitted that she should’ve given them more feedback on their scripts during the walk through!

This is why, if Drag Race is going to air a minimum of 9 seasons a year, we need to get some variation up in the gig. It’s not like Drag Race is a stranger to tweaking rules, either! This year’s RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, which was one of the best seasons of the year, instituted a Game Within a Game. Yeah, they really dragged out its reveal, but it resulted in one of the freshest and most gag-worthy episodes of the year. It werked, and so did the borderline tortuous (but very entertaining) time-limit ball challenge in UK 3. It would benefit the ever-expanding franchise to incorporate more unique format changes or new challenges that make sense for each season, cast, and/or individual series.

RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars - Silky
Photo: Paramount+

And then there were the arbitrary decisions, times when Drag Race just did something for no reason in particular—literally. No reason was given for Art Simone’s out-of-nowhere return to the competition after her shocking elimination in Down Under. The only reason audiences can come up with? Producers wanted her around. And then there was the shocking double shantay in UK Season 3 after Scarlett Harlett and Charity Kase gave a perfectly average lip sync. Ru said “shantay you both stay” with the energy of “meh.” Why? Again, no reason was given at all! Every other time we’ve gotten a double shantay, we could see why because the reasons were left on the stage. Not so this time!

This rigid adherence to what seems like a pre-determined elimination order is, without a doubt, the most consistently frustrating thing about the Drag Race franchise. That was the main problem with UK Season 3, an at-times baffling season where the judging often seemed at odds with what the queens were doing and how the show was edited. It’s like producers determined before Week 1 that the final 3 would be Krystal Versace, Victoria Scone, and a wildcard, and Victoria’s injury threw the plan into chaos.

Photo: World of Wonder

The chaos did, however, allow for the hella talented Ella Vaday to step to the front of the stage and for lovable underdog Kitty Scott-Claus to go all of the way to the end. But, as with UK Seasons 1 and 2 where Ru had an obvious fave from Episode 1, Krystal was the crystal clear winner from the jump and not even having a mediocre Snatch Game paired with a rerun runway could get her in the bottom two. Charity Kase’s completely original and immaculately fashioned horror drag somehow went mostly unremarked upon. And dammit, Choriza May’s peach gown was the best look she showed and she still went home.

This is why Drag Race on the whole should look to how Drag Race España played out. That was a season where it really felt like the queens were in charge of production and not the other way around—which is how the show is supposed to feel all the time, even when production is completely in control.

Drag Race Espana - queens in werk room
Photo: World of Wonder

Inti quitting the show and refusing to lip sync after it became clear to her that the judges were not going to hear her voice was a gag. And later in the season, Dovima Nurmi’s statuesque lip sync against Sagittaria was a thing of beauty. Dovima, who had admitted that the competition made her Grinch heart grow three sizes, just stood there and ensured that Sagittaria would win. Drag Race needs these kinds of moments, moments where the queens do something completely unpredictable, thus sending the competition into uncharted territory. That makes for great television!

If the show actually does adhere to a rigid—or even loose—pre-planned elimination order, it should really consider… not… doing that. It should follow where the queens lead, even if that means that frontrunners have to end up in the bottom after bombing a challenge—even if that means frontrunners have to sashay away after a bad week! That’s the game! Remember: this is a show starring drag queens, performers who know how to entertain. The show will be must see TV even if the trade/narrator/fashion queen of the season goes home early.

The main thing is, even though Drag Race is a TV show and inherently has a narrative that is produced and edited like on all television shows, the narrative has to make sense. If queens can just re-enter the competition, if double shantays can happen just whenever, and if slaying the runway and a lip sync can’t keep a queen safe from elimination, then what are we doing? Plan the show and write it in post through editing—that’s fine! That’s how television is made, and Drag Race is not reality. But confusing TV is confusing TV no matter the genre.

So, did 2021 actually break RuPaul’s Drag Race? Yes, I think it did. The fact that even I—a completist!—have not yet finished Drag Race Holland nor have I started Drag Race Italia is a sign that there’s just been too much of the same and too much frustration. But as Ru frequently tells queens, when you break a bone, the place where it heals is stronger than ever. 2021 may have broken Drag Race, but there are signs that the franchise is already on the mend.

RuPaul's Drag Race - All Stars 6 - Kylie lip sync stumble and save
GIF: Paramount+

In fact, it looks like Drag Race is going to address one of its major dilemmas in 2022. I don’t know what the twist is in RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 14 (premiering January 7, a mere two weeks after the finale of Drag Race Italia), but apparently there is a twist. It involves a chocolate bar? I don’t know, but I’m intrigued. And then there’s the refresh on the classic competition show rules as seen on World of Wonder’s Painted with Raven. The show has a point system that actually reflects track records (the thing queens are always adding up in their heads in every season anyway). Instead of a makeup artist being fully eliminated from the competition, they’re instead “muted” for one week and unable to compete and earn points the following episode. It’s a bold innovation for this very set-in-stone format, and I’d love to see World of Wonder bring that innovation to the Drag Race franchise.

If we’re gonna watch close to 100 hours of Drag Race every year, and lord knows I am because this franchise clearly means the world to me, we gotta keep it interesting. And if there’s one thing drag queens know how to do, it’s how to keep things interesting, intriguing, and entertaining. So c’mon 2022, let’s get sickening.

Where to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race

https://decider.com/2021/12/07/did-2021-break-rupauls-drag-race/ Did 2021 Break ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’?

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