When RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Plays Us, It Plays Itself
An extra-long trip to a 'shocking reveal' makes for the franchise's all-time worst episode. Mark Blankenship explains why in his EPIC OLD-SCHOOL RECAP!
Did you ever struggle to get your friends to watch a show you loved, and then, when they finally agreed, sit in despair as a terrible episode made you seem like a tasteless fool? Like...I swear My So-Called Life is better than this tale of a teenaged ghost. PLEASE BELIEVE ME.
That scenario reached its zenith this week as a record-high number of viewers tuned in to see the worst episode in the history of the Drag Race franchise. There were millions of people who may have seen the show for the first time and were treated to Hot Mess Homegirls. Why must the stars align so cruelly? Why could not they cast their eyes upon this fair spectacle or this gentle rain of flowers? Why doth my language suddenly turn to ersatz Shakespeare?
Because I'm trying to make beauty out of madness, y'all! And speaking of madness, here's the thought that claws at my mind like a rat at a half-eaten Quiznos that was distractedly tossed at a public garbage can and has now fallen on the sidewalk in a jumble of yellow mustard and brown lettuce. What if these new viewers liked what they saw? What if the producers and Ru himself ultimately decide that it's a great idea to move the show toward Housewives-style fighting and away from competitions that highlight the exhilarating artistry of drag?
Let's pray to Taylor Dayne this doesn't happen. In the meantime, let's take a deep breath and record the passing of this sinkhole hour.
Ironically enough, things start well. As the episode begins, we return to the runway scene that was teased last week, where RuPaul commands Alaska and Chad, both in Handmaid garb, to bring out all the girls they've captured for her. Each one announces herself by her new name, which is the Margaret Atwood construction, but with the "owner" being the queen who eliminated them. For instance, Milk is now "OfKennedy."
There's so much promise here! And when Ru says it's time for the girls' revenge, it's easy to share in her maniacal laughter. What crazy scheme is afoot? Even better, when she pauses in the middle of cackling to say, "Wait, did I leave the iron on in my dressing room?," you get that delicious jolt of knowing ridiculousness. It's that perfect blend of high drama and sly winking that makes this show so much fun.
And then it's over. For the rest of the episode, as the queens continually air grievances, there's never a moment of mockery, never a moment when the air is let out of the balloon. Instead, it's all self-serious bullshit, with everyone treating obviously manufactured moments of conflict like they're real.
That's perhaps the primary reason I find this episode so infuriating: I feel insulted by it. After nine regular seasons and two rounds of All Stars, I am quite used to this show acknowledging my intelligence. There's always some kind of side-eye or joke that says, "We know it's insane, bitch, and we know that YOU know that WE know." So for the producers now to proceed as though the queens screaming at each other are somehow being real: it's just unacceptable. Don't front with me, girl. I was there when you still had braces and bad hair, and that's the you that I loved. I see through your mall makeover.
And yes, there are probably a few real feelings in here -- a few real moments. But they're overshadowed by the obvious tinkering to (a) foreground and amplify interpersonal conflict, and (b) telegraph the "surprise" exit during the elimination, which is: Ben deciding to quit the competition rather than send another girl home. Let's just get that out of the way, so we can acknowledge the shady shit the producers pull to get us to that point. I'm convinced Ben had announced his decision before this episode started filming, thus making room for a careful plan of the "shocking" ending.
We see signs of this immediately after Ru announces the challenge, which calls for the girls to create looks and personae as members of The Kitty Girls, a dragged-up version of the Spice Girls. They'll also need to write lyrics to be performed as part of their first single, which will come with an accompanying dance routine. Except, oops, the eliminated queens are coming back to perform in a competing girl group. Eventually, the winning queen will choose who goes back into the competition from the ousted set, and who gets cut from the remaining top five.
From there, we proceed to spend thirteen minutes watching the queens come for each other. Shangela and Thorgy fight about Thorgy's note. Kennedy cries and cries about Milk hating on her, and Milk cries to discover that people think she's an asshole. Each queen is literally asked in turn what they're mad about, clarifying that this entire episode was designed to showcase petty bickering over talent. For this we lose a mini-challenge and later a runway walk?
Plus, there is much attention given to Ben's ongoing discomfort with sending girls home, mixed with Morgan lashing out at her like a crazy person. Later, we even see that Ben can't stay focused on developing her Kitty Girl character because she's so shook by the confrontation. Which, sorry sis, I don't buy. You don't get to be a performer of Ben's level without learning how to compartmentalize some shit. But this is the narrative Ben's enacting. And maybe I'm wrong! Maybe alllll this was for real. But the episode is so unconvincingly stagey that I can't trust it. Which is not how I usually feel about this show.
Anyway, we do FINALLY get to the recording session, where Adam Lambert, one of the greatest gifts that American Idol ever gave us, is on hand to work with the ladies. Let's pause here to appreciate that, in the recording studio, there are fake gold records all over the walls. A freeze frame reveals that they've been presented to RuPaul for having "the most hit singles" in various years, but they're so shoddily made that the nameplates are peeling off the plaques. It's deliciously cheap.
I also want to praise Adam Lambert's boots, which have high heels and are covered with sparkling white crystals.
First, Morgan gets up and does her usual thing as Bimbo Kitty, playing an angry slut and making crude and obvious jokes about having boy parts. Please note that she pales next to Aja, who is up next as Lil' Banjee Queen. Her flow is insane. As in, if she were on Cardi B's next single, I'd be delighted. So wouldn't it be disappointing if her superior performance were later overlooked to serve some weak-ass narrative about guilt and second chances?
Next, Milk is actually not terrible as a Milky Kitty, whom Adam praises as sounding thirsty.
Then we get the Top Five Team. Bebe plays Jungle Kitty, naturally, because Bebe really only does the one thing: regal, viciously committed, and charmingly unaware of how hoi polloi speak to each other. But I LOVE that one thing, so who cares? When you're as naturally charismatic as Bebe -- as effortlessly adept at forcing me to watch you -- then please do whatever you like.
Case in point: Bebe's rap verse is a collection of nonsense sounds, tongue trills, and French phrases. And it's wonderful. Her ferocious commitment says that SHE knows what she means, even if we don't, and that's great fun to watch. (Think of Yara Sofia's insane performance in the stand-up challenge in Season 3.) "I'm very excited about this challenge," Bebe says. "Because I'm a performer, bitch!" YES MA'AM. I also suspect that Bebe believes she is actually a queen. Like, of a small nation. Or perhaps a large one.
Next, Trixie delivers a "nymphomaniac mathlete" character that is smartly executed and enjoyable. Adam wants her to be hornier, which leads to an ongoing standoff between the two of them and the dudes at the sound board. Everyone's really hostile and argumentative, and it's not cute. Shangela interviews that if you don't know Trixie, her low-key sarcasm can be off-putting.
Then we get Ben's depressed goth girl, which she says is "a healthy way to channel some of the feelings of resentment and defensiveness that Morgan's accusations bring up." And again, they try to front like Ben's having an off day, with Adam jumping in to say her character isn't clear. Except that's bullshit. You can tell that Ben's lyrics and vocal choices are sharply defined. But what would this episode be if we didn't keep hammering home that Ben was sad about everything on the show?
At least Shangela comes through with another great interview quote, as she's been doing all season. "Look, bitch," she says. "This is a group number, and if LaToya and LaTavia can't hit the notes, then ain't nobody gettin' a Grammy in Destiny's Child." The best part is that Shangela pauses for a beat before adding "in Destiny's Child," meaning she was gonna just stop with the names of that group's weakest members, but then realized the folks at home might not get the reference. BUT I HEARD YOU GURL. I WAS THERE WITH YOU.
Then we get six minutes of Workroom Drama: Forced Reconciliation Edition. Milk tries to apologize to Kennedy but ends up making it all about herself. Ben makes a huge deal about connecting with Morgan, realizing she's basically a nice person, and thus telegraphing the other "surprise" element of the ending.
On the runway, RuPaul looks stunning in a Grecian-style, flowing gown with braided straps. The fabric alternates among purple, teal, and white, and everything is overlaid with glitter. It's light, airy, and glorious.
Ru introduces Michelle, Carson, Adam, and Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton, which is perfect. We've already heard that Trixie was obsessed with Baby as a kid, so she's especially excited.
The eliminated queens arrive first with a performance of a song called "Sittin' On A Secret." Nobody bombs, which is nice.
ChiChi's singing is quite good; Morgan, though not possessed of any vocal personality or energy, at least looks great in a pink tartan bathing suit with black boots. Aja's rap is even better in performance, because she adds killer choreography, and Thorgy does a fantastic aerobics-style number that ends with her sticking a secret box (it's small, white, and has a question mark on it) up her lady box. Milk also manages a solid, if brief, rap. She doesn't stand out, really, but she at least blends in without embarrassing herself.
Next come the top five performing a song called "Drag Up Your Life," and with the exception of Kennedy, who is still quite solid, they're all exceptional.
Trixie's math nympho rocks an adorable yellow cheerleading outfit with the Pi symbol on it. Kennedy's singing is on point, but her energy is a little low for a "Diva Kitty" character. Ben's Goth Kitty is flawless. The look -- Wednesday Addams in a jailbait skirt -- reads instantly, and her facial expressions tell you how much this Kitty Girl loves to act really pissed off. It's yet another distinct character from Ben, who seems to have no limit to what she can perform. And you know, whatever the reason Ben's leaving, there's clearly a flaw in the All Stars design when the hands-down best competitor feels so alienated by the rules that she doesn't want to stay. As we watch these remaining girls, how can we forget what we're missing?
Anyway: Shangela's performance is solid, but it's yet another Shangela sassfest. She's yet to transform herself the way that Ben does every week. Oh, and Bebe? That crazy shit is just as good on stage as it was in the recording studio.
RuPaul correctly names the top five as the winning team, but also...of course she does, because Ben has to be the winner in order to leave as she almost certainly informed the producers she planned to do.
The judges' critiques are solid for everyone, with just a few nitpicks here and there. Michelle doesn't love Trixie's wig, and Adam calls her on her recording studio behavior. Carson says Kennedy's wig is "a little Newark realtor," and Emma says she wants more diva-level energy. Everyone flips for Ben, and when the judges pointedly ask her why she chose goth (wonder why?), she's able to say for the 900th time how the competition is getting to her.
The judges also love Bebe, and she and Ben are named the top two.
Then we get almost eight more minutes of workroom drama. Can you guess who's still upset? Plus, Ben explains why she doesn't want to send any of the remaining top five home, adding that she really has to win this week because she's so committed to her choices. WHAT COULD SHE MEAN?
And here's the thing: Ben shouldn't win. Bebe obliterates the lip sync to Deborah Cox's "Nobody's Supposed To Be Here." Ben noticeably flubs lyrics, while Bebe kills you with her eyes. Then Bebe removes her wig for emphasis, which everyone goddamn knows is verboten. I suspect that she was told to do that, so that there would be a reason for her to lose to Ben. God forbid someone's talent cheat Ben out of her preordained moment to shock us!
And so Ben does win, choosing Morgan to return and herself to leave. And RuPaul acts all shocked, even though we also see footage of DeLa painting her name in White-Out on her lipstick. Do you really think Ru didn't know that? SIGH.
Then we're left with a Top 5 that doesn't include Ben. Nor does it include Aja or Thorgy, who were stronger than Morgan.
I want to like the rest of this season, and I want to believe this is a one-time aberration and not a signal of the show's new focus. I want to believe. Because I can't take much more of this.