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The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPaul’s Drag Race

on March 30, 2018, 12:00pm

(Note: This feature originally ran in January 2018. It has been updated in the wake of the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars and the premiere of the tenth season of Drag Race proper.)

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 week’s season premiere — the tenth in the show’s history, give or take a few All Stars seasons — is only one of them. First, it’s great. Even the show’s most lackluster seasons are great (again, give or take an All Stars season or two). 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 when it comes to transphobic language and ideas. That’s a conversation that continues, and 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 (and now ten) regular seasons, 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 week’s premiere is just waiting for you, so start your engines. And remember — don’t fuck it up.

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What is this show?

ru paul The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPauls Drag Race

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 (last week, Christina Aguilera). Michelle is the savage one, and she’s usually right. Ross is the funniest one, but they’re all funny. Carson is from the original Queer Eye. (That’s a read. You’ll learn about reading below.)

This is the tenth season of the show. In related news, I am old. There have also been three seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, which is about what you’d expect. Queens from previous seasons return and compete against each other. There was a short-lived spin-off and makeover show, RuPaul’s Drag U, and several seasons of backstage show Untucked.

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How are winners and losers chosen?

drag rac ejudges The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPauls Drag Race

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)”.)

You could probably write a Ten Commandments for Drag Race lip syncs. Thou shalt not forget the lyrics, lest thou reveal thine ill-preparedness. Thou must not pick up another contestant without her permission, for that is super dangerous. Thou shouldst remember that ripping off one’s clothing does not always a winner make. Thou must always remove thine face mask. Thou shalt not remove thy wig, unless [spoiler]. The list goes on.

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.

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Wait, lip-syncing? Like Lip Sync Battle?

Oh, honey, no. Lip Sync Battle is like Drag Race, or rather, is like drag performance in general. Drag pulls from all corners of pop culture, so lip syncs aren’t merely about doing one’s best Rihanna (though that certainly helps). 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 season nine 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 happened frequently in the third season premiere of All Stars. 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.

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What’s reading?

It’s fundamental.

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.

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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.

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On Your Mark, Get Set, Binge…

rupaul drag race 2017 The Essential Guide to Finally Starting RuPauls Drag Race

In brief, here’s one highlight from each season. This should give you a crash course in all things Drag Race. You can skip RuPaul’s Drag U, as well as all the Untucked seasons. There are some memorable moments in the latter, but Untucked is best when watched right after Drag Race. Some good news on that front: VH1 will be showing Untucked immediately after each new episode of Drag Race this season, so if you live for the drama, you’re in luck.

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 in Pandora Boxx’s Carol Channing and Tatianna’s Britney Spears.

Season three, episode eight, “Ru Ha Ha.” This one, in turn, features a terrific performance from Drag Race favorite Shangela, as well as a glimpse of why she rubs some of the other queens the wrong way. It also ends with a lip sync that’s easily in the top five of the show’s history.

Season four, episode nine, “Frock the Vote.” This is still a highlight of one of the show’s best seasons, but frankly, you can pick just about any episode from season four. Here, Ru and guest judge Dan Savage ask the top five to run for “Drag President.”

Season five, episode seven, “RuPaul Roast.” Another comedy challenge, ending with a lip sync that coined perhaps the most canonical Drag Race rule: don’t take off your wig, unless [spoiler.]

Season six, episode six, “Oh No She Betta Don’t.” This is a rap challenge, which sounds like a nightmare and is nowhere near as bad as you’d think. It also features a dynamite lip sync performance from Trinity K. Bonet, one of the show’s best “lip sync assassins.”

Season seven, episode nine, “Divine Inspiration.” Worth it for the runway theme alone, “Ugliest Drag,” but this one also includes some divine Divine tributes and the always entertaining Library is Open mini-challenge.

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, so if you have a hard time tracking down any of the early seasons, you’ll get a glimpse of all the glamour here.

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 nine, episode 14, “Grand Finale.” I have to cheat and throw in this finale, which features 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.” If you can skip all of season one, you should really watch all of season two. It might be the single best season of the series as a whole. If you’ve only got time for a single episode, however, choose this one — it includes what you might call “the face-crack of the century.”

All Stars, season 3, episode 3, “The Bitchelor.” The most recent All Stars season was uneven, to say the least, but there were some highlights, and most of them came courtesy of season six standout BenDeLaCreme. DeLa’s always great, but she’s particularly funny here, as is fellow season six queen Kennedy Davenport.

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About last night…

Be forewarned: There are spoilers galore up ahead.

After a lackluster All Stars season, it sure felt good to watch an energetic episode of Drag Race again. That was true of last week’s excellent premiere, “10s Across the Board,” and it’s equally true here. “PharmaRusical” might feature the single strangest premise for a challenge in Drag Race herstory — though early season two mini-challenge “Chicken or What” would probably beg to differ —  and a lip sync musical about fictional drag-adjacent pharmaceutical companies adds a dollop of surrealism to a show that’s already A Lot. Best of all, this is an entertaining cast, featuring quite a few serious contenders and precious little in the way of cannon fodder. These early episodes can feel unwieldy, particularly if some of the queens neglect to serve up either great looks or a dynamite personality, and that’s not a problem this season. Maybe it’s the cast, maybe the super-sized episode length, but whatever change in the Drag Race alchemy is at work here, I’m fully on board.

There are a few off-notes, however. Messy drama is a fundamental part of the Drag Race formula, but this viewer, at least, likes it in small doses. There’s an element here that’s more interesting than such things usually are, and it’s The Vixen’s commitment to dragging all the drama out into the open. While the episode could have benefitted from either less Aquaria vs. Miz Cracker or Asia O’Hara vs. Eureka, the real struggle here — Eureka vs. herself — is a compelling one. It’s easy to see how others could be irritated by Eureka, who’s both chatty and obviously determined to get plenty of screentime (smart girl.) But the real conflict is the one within her, as a dancer contends with a career-altering injury.

As is often the case with these early, all-skate performances, there are few real standouts, but Eureka and Kalorie both struggling with the lyrics is enough to see them in the bottom, and Eureka’s deeply felt (if tonally strange) lip sync is enough to send Miss Karbdashian packing. As for the winner, choosing the winning captain is a predictable choice, and while The Vixen didn’t give my favorite performance or show the best runway look, it makes perfect sense to reward a focused team captain. Plus, she’s from Chicago, so we at Consequence of Sound are required to cheer her on

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MVP: Always and forever, Alyssa Edwards. This challenge might actually have been a disaster if she weren’t around to remind the competitors that they should, you know, perform. Dear VH1, please give Alyssa her own show. Maybe a Dance Moms situation, or a Making the Video series for all those drag queen singles. Whatever it takes, put her on TV a hell of a lot more.

Judging the Judges: Ross — in rare form and wearing a killer jacket. Michelle — watching Ms. Visage make Ru laugh by repeating “Miss Vanjie over and over again was a goddamn delight. Ru — see above. Halsey — unexpectedly, one of the best guest judges the show has ever had. Very funny, great critiques. Padma — obviously well-practiced at the whole reality show thing.

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