Great news, one and all: Right now is the perfect time to get on board with RuPaul’s Drag Race.
There are reasons, and last night’s third season premiere of Drag Race: All Stars is merely one. First, it’s great. Even the show’s most lackluster seasons are great. Second, it’s informative. That’s meant sincerely — Drag Race has always been an excellent place to listen to people talk about everything from rejecting the gender binary to battling depression, from grappling with addiction to surviving homelessness, and from coming out to learning exactly how to contour your nose. Yes, it’s funny and campy and an absolute treasure trove of GIFs, but it’s also honest-to-god more substantive than one might expect when all you know about the show is that there are huge wigs involved.
It’s also stirred up its share of not-great controversies in its day, particularly in the use of transphobic language, though the show has also spotlighted a number of trans* performers. Among them: Peppermint, the season nine runner-up, who spoke eloquently about her experiences, as well as the struggles she and others face, during her run on the show.
As stated above, there are plenty of reasons to watch. I could go on — and I will, below — but there’s one more that’s worth addressing. Drag is punk. Drag is an act of rebellion. Drag is the kind of thing that makes the Ted Cruzes and Mike Pences of the world super mad. Part of what makes reality television so fun is that it’s easy to pick favorites and get irrationally invested in the lives of these real people, or at least in the versions of themselves they play. In watching Drag Race, you celebrate these people and their defiance, and every time a drag queen triumphs, a bigot gets so steamed he slides right out of his loafers. At least, I hope so. A girl can dream.
Getting into anything that’s been around for nine regular seasons, two (and now three) All Stars seasons, and many, many episodes of Untucked (more on that later) can be daunting. So, here’s a quick guide to getting on board! Catch some, or all, of these essential episodes, commit a few recurring segments to memory, and you’ll be good to go. Last night’s premiere is just waiting for you, so get going.
What is this show?
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a glorious hybrid of Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, and your odd America’s Got Talent or American Idol.
It’s hosted by RuPaul Charles, who’s both the Tim Gunn (out of drag) and the Heidi Klum of the proceedings. RuPaul has been a pop-cultural mainstay for decades, and odds are you know “Mama Ru” from hit single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” or from one of many film and TV appearances over the years.
She’s joined by a variety of judges, usually Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, Ross Matthews, and a celebrity guest (here, Vanessa Hudgens.) Michelle is the savage one, and she’s usually right. Ross is the funny one, but they’re all funny. Carson is from Queer Eye.
There have been nine seasons of the show. This is the third season of All Stars, which is about what you’d expect. Queens from previous seasons return and compete against each other.
How are winners and losers chosen?
Usually, the queens do a mini-challenge and a main challenge, the latter of which typically involves either costume construction, some sort of performance, or a test of one’s ability to self-market or hustle. The judges choose the best and the worst of the week, critique them, and then RuPaul identifies a winner or winners and a bottom two. In the original series, the bottom two then “lip-sync for their lives,” and Ru tells the loser of the lip-sync to “sashay away.” (The winner is told “shanté, you stay”; both are lyrics from “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.)
All Stars does things differently. Beginning with All Stars 2, the top two queens lip-sync, rather than the bottom two, and the winner then has to choose one of the two losing queens to send home. It creates so much drama and is thus delicious, but for the most part, it’s not mean. The queens can be mean, but here, the strategy is too important to seem needlessly cruel. Do you send home the strongest competitor or the one who performed worse? Do you send home a chaotic presence, knowing it will help calm a fraught atmosphere or keep a messy bitch around, thinking the distraction might mess with others? Do you save a friend, knowing you risk looking like you play favorites? Or do you send that friend home, knowing it might make you an enemy?
Like I said, delicious.
Wait, lip-syncing? Like Lip Sync Battle?
Oh, honey, no. Lip Sync Battle is like Drag Race, or rather, is like drag culture. Drag pulls from all corners of pop culture, so lip-syncs aren’t merely about doing one’s best Rihanna. It’s about commanding the stage. Some queens are primarily there to be fierce as hell, and that can be thrilling. Some are funny, and that’s also great. Some, like last season’s winner, Sasha Velour, use them as a jumping-off point to create something weird and wonderful — performance art, with someone else’s voice. More recently, queens can even lip-sync to their own tracks, a thing that happens frequently in this episode. It’s become something of a tradition for Drag Race stars to release a single or two. Some are very bad. Some are great! Most are in the middle somewhere.
Reading, also called throwing shade, is taking an insult and elevating it to high art (i.e., reading someone like a book.) The best reads are exaggerations of truth and are so funny that it’s hard to see them as truly mean. The worst reads aren’t funny and are usually both mean and a little inaccurate. A great read makes a queen seem brilliant. A bad read makes a queen seem petty and small. It’s a fine line. Reading sessions are typically announced with the phrase, “The library is open,” and often involve silly glasses. You know, for reading.
Pro-tip: if a queen is great at reading, they’re probably going to do very well elsewhere. It takes a very quick wit, and that’s a huge key to success on this show. Here are some great examples.
What else should I know?
Snatch Game! It’s like Match Game, but filthy and with celebrity impersonations, instead of celebrities. It’s reliably one of the best episodes of every season, because when it’s good, it’s heaven, and when it’s bad, it’s so bad.
Also, there’s a thing about puppets, because everybody loves puppets. Don’t overthink it.
Oh, one last thing: a quick way to get a sense of the history here is to watch Paris Is Burning, the excellent 1990 documentary about New York’s drag, ball, and vogue scene. Drag Race didn’t invent most of this stuff, and by the way, neither did Madonna.
On Your Mark, Set, Binge…
In brief, here’s one highlight from each season. This should make you at least somewhat familiar with most of the competing queens, and more importantly, will give you a crash course in all things Drag Race. You can skip all the Untucked seasons. There are some memorable moments, but they’re really only fun when you watch them with the season proper.
Season one, episode four, “M.A.C./Viva Glam Challenge.” If you can find it, this one is essential. One competitor has a manipulative emotional meltdown, but another’s moving, joyful performance inadvertently shows it to be the charade that it is.
Season two, episode four, “The Snatch Game.” The first-ever Snatch Game features two of the best Snatch Game performances ever. It also shows this season’s Morgan McMichaels at her best and worst.
Season three, episode eight, “Ru Ha Ha.” This one, in turn, features a terrific performance from Shangela, as well as a glimpse of why she rubs some of the other queens the wrong way. It also ends with lip-sync that’s easily in the top five of the show’s history.
Season four, episode nine, “Frock the Vote.” None of these queens are on All Stars, but this is still a highlight of one of the show’s best seasons, asking the top five to run for “Drag President.”
Season five, episode seven, “RuPaul Roast.” Another comedy challenge, ending with a lip-sync that coined a new Drag Race rule: don’t take off your wig, unless [spoiler.]
Season six, episode six, “Oh No She Betta Don’t.” An essential introduction to this season’s Milk, a controversial queen. Better still, this is a rap challenge, which sounds like a nightmare and is nowhere near as bad as you’d think.
Season seven, episode nine, “Divine Inspiration.” Worth it for the runway theme alone, “Ugliest Drag.” This will give you a solid look at both Trixie Mattel and Kennedy Davenport.
Season eight, episode 1, “Keeping it 100!” The 100th episode of the series is appropriately packed. It’s a tiny crash course on all the previous winners — meaning this is a way to see Bebe in action.
Season nine, episode 9, “Your Pilot’s on Fire.” A fun challenge — the queens have to create TV pilots — and a great runway lead up to a truly shocking elimination. Count on it being referenced frequently this season. Season 9 competitor Aja’s been eliminated by this point, but honestly, this one can’t be skipped.
Season nine, episode 14, “Grand Finale.” So I’ll cheat and throw in the finale, which gives you a little taste of Aja but also three great lip-syncs, including what might be the best in the show’s history, from Sasha Velour.
All Stars, season 1, episode 5, “Dynamic Drag Duos.” Honestly, you can skip the first season of All Stars. A bad concept really held it back. Still, watching two great drag queens sob through Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” is worth a look.
All Stars, season 2, episode 5, “Revenge of the Queens.” Honestly, just watch this whole season. It’s basically perfect. If you only watch one, however, choose this one — it should give you a hint of things to come this season.
About last night…
Be forewarned: There are spoilers galore up ahead.
It was pretty good! There’s some unpleasant cattiness, much of which feels pretty drummed up — for example, there’s no way that anyone involved actually believes that DeLa hasn’t worked since season six, as she’s toured with some of these queens and done multiple stage shows in both Seattle and New York, in addition to, you know, living life and being an artist. For the most part, though, it’s a good showcase for a strong cast, and even those that didn’t do as well in the variety show part of the challenge still grabbed some solid camera time.
The addition of season one winner Bebe Zahara Benet is pretty thrilling. It’s understandable that the other queens might be a little miffed that a season winner is joining the cast of a show specifically for people who didn’t win, but Ru’s point is a great one: The show is so, so much bigger now than when it started, and the prize is much bigger.
Bebe never got the visibility of even the other early winners, because season one is pretty much unviewable — Logo, the original Drag Race network, ran the entire season again in 2013, calling it the “lost season,” but as of this writing, you can’t purchase it on Amazon, iTunes, or even eBay. So she’s a winner, baby, but not one who reaped the benefits that nearly every other winner has enjoyed.
The top two are right on. The bottom two, maybe not — I didn’t love Morgan’s performance, but I liked it at least as much as Milk’s. She’s not the queen I’d have sent home, either, but as season four’s Lashauwn Beyond memorably said, “this is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.” (I told you this show is great.)
MVP: I’m a huge DeLa fan, but what makes a great Drag Race episode is not always a great performance, so I’m going to have to give this one to Trixxie Mattel, who was a fountain of bon mots.
Judging the Judges: One of my favorite things about the celebrity guest judges is how many of them look like they’re in heaven while they’re sitting behind this counter. Ross Matthews gets in the best one-liner of the hour, calling a comeback “two of my favorite things,” but Hudgens is just so delighted to be there, and that’s before she lip-syncs against a pork chop.
Up Next on TV Party: We’re talking about the Grammys, naturally!