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Drag Race All Stars returns with new rules to liven the competition

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RuPaul's Drag Race

"All Star Talent Show Extravaganza"

Season 8.5 , Episode 1

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“Don’t fuck it up.” That’s the warning RuPaul gives before the queens lip sync for their lives on RuPaul’s Drag Race, but in the case of the show’s first All Stars season, RuPaul didn’t listen to herself. Partnering the 12 All Stars and eliminating two queens per episode was a major mistake, and while it allowed the show to spotlight more contestants in its shortened six-episode season, it didn’t give the returning favorites (and Mimi Imfurst) much time in the spotlight. The second season of Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars also tries new things, but these decisions are much smarter. Gone are the teams, but there’s a new elimination process that guarantees a steady flow of drama now that the queens are responsible for sending each other home. Instead of the bottom two queens lip syncing for their lives, the top two queens lip sync for their legacy, with the winner earning $10,000 and deciding which of the three bottom queens goes home.

This season premiere goes way over the top in depicting the contestants’ reactions to each piece of new information, but that’s to be expected from this series. Cartoonish exaggeration is a huge part of Drag Race’s charm, and the changes to the format allow the producers, writers, and editors to expand the show’s ongoing dragification of reality TV conventions. Contestants eliminating each other is a tried and true way of creating tension on reality TV competitions, and this premiere revels in how this twist changes the power dynamics within the group. The contestants constantly reiterate how personal friendships are on the line, and there’s genuine conflict regarding whether these elimination decisions should be determined by the individual performances of the losers or motivated by personal strategy to wipe out the biggest competition if the opportunity arises.

These elimination discussions happen when the contestants deliberate backstage while the judges sip on cocktails, which is a very clever way of folding Untucked into the episode. (I don’t know if there will be an All Stars Untucked, but I would assume not given how this premiere plays out.) I’m still not completely sold on the “lip sync for your legacy” conceit because it removes a certain element of desperation from the performances—although the queens are still hungry because of that $10,000 cash tip—but it shakes things up enough that I’m excited to see how this new rule plays out over the course of the season. Then there’s the delightfully overblown way the potential winners choose who should go home: walk up to a mirror, open a box with three lipsticks for each bottom queen, pick out a tube, stuff it in your top. Drag Race demands pageantry, and the choosing of the losing lipstick brings that pageantry to the reality TV tradition of peer elimination.

These changes make this season a different beast from what came before, but not in a way that detracts from the things fans love about the series. Whereas the first All Stars season forced queens into teams, this second season premiere is focused on showcasing what they can do as individuals, and that’s really what everyone is here to see. The joy of All Stars is watching the best of the Drag Race alumni return to the series that made them drag superstars and discovering how they’ve changed as people, drag queens, and players in RuPaul’s game. With this second season, RuPaul has invited back some of the biggest bitches from seasons past to offer them a chance at redemption in the public eye, and that is definitely influencing how some queens are approaching the competition.

Phi Phi O’Hara is the queen that needs the most reputation rehabilitation; her rivalry with Sharon Needles in season 4 made her look extremely immature and unprofessional, and she wants to show people that she’s grown up, improved her attitude, and evolved her drag aesthetic. Roxxxy Andrews is the other prominent past villain, but she’s not as concerned with changing the public’s perception of her. Neither are Tatianna, Coco Montrese, or Ginger Minj, who are also on the redemption track but aren’t fixated on making sure people like them the way Phi Phi is. Tatianna is in an especially interesting position because she’s the only queen from a season before the fourth, and the other contestants waste no time reminding her that she’s from the old school of Drag Race. They expect her to be gone quickly because she doesn’t have the name recognition of the more recent All Stars, but Tatianna’s performance in this episode shows the others that they shouldn’t underestimate her just because she was on the show before it broke into the mainstream.

After their grand entrances into the workroom, the queens are invited to the library for a fundamental Drag Race mini-challenge, and as is typically the case, the quality of shade varies from queen to queen. Alaska wins the challenge, but Katya gives her some tough competition and Phi Phi has a surprisingly strong showing, delivering the best read for Tatianna, who is a common target. Here’s an assortment of the strongest reads (and one of the worst), including Katya’s brutal read of Roxxxy Andrews calling back to that time Roxxxy’s mom abandoned her at a bus stop:

  • “This is so hard when they’re your friends. Which is why this should be easy.”
  • “Sweetie, if you don’t have a wristband, you can’t be in here for the meet and greet.”
  • “Coco Montrese: I always wanted to know what the female Gremlin would look like in 25 years.”
  • “Ginger Minj: In my eyes, the true winner of season 7…of TLC’s I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.”
    “Roxxxy Andrews: I think about you all the time. Especially in the morning, at the bus stop.”
  • “Alaska: I’m sure Katya can see you from her backyard.” (I’m spotlighting this one because it’s a truly horrible read.)
  • “Coco: Thank you for proving in season 5 that orange is the new black.”
  • “Roxxxy Andrews: It’s good to see a filler bitch this season and I’m not talking about that ass.”
  • “Detox. No really. I mean it. This is actually your intervention. You should really stop this.”
  • “Adore Delano: These other girls are going to say you have terrible makeup skills, you have no fashion sense, and you’re dumb as a rock. But they’re wrong! You don’t have terrible makeup skills.”
  • “Roxxxy Andrews: Obviously a diet consisting of nothing but hatred for Jinkx Monsoon does a body good!”

Alaska and Katya’s showings in the library are indicative of their general strength in this episode, and while they aren’t the top two queens, they’re the ones who have the most fun being back. The redemption queens have the weight of their past bitchiness weighing down on them, Detox is bitter that she didn’t make it to the finale in her season, Adore Delano is worried about being put back in a box after finding success doing her own thing, and Alyssa Edwards is leaning into her quirks so heavily that it brings an almost Laganja-esque artifice to her time on screen. Alaska and Katya are playing it cool and it makes them even more starry, and while I’m sure they want that $100,000 cash prize and a spot in the Drag Race hall of fame, they give the impression that they’re mostly just elated to be back on an international stage showing the world how they’ve grown in their time away.

The episode’s maxi-challenge is a talent show that basically asks the queens to show the judges what they do in their acts away from Drag Race, and most of the contestants understand that this is the time to do what they do best instead of taking unnecessary risks. Katya performs a gymnastics routine full of handstands, splits, and a back-bend walk that evokes The Exorcist. Alaska sings a funny song about how gay she is. Alyssa performs a wacky routine that includes a puppet, lots of lip syncing, and an energetic dance finale. Detox channels Blue Man Group by splashing herself with paint as she sings. Ginj doubles down on her Adele-ness by singing an empowering ballad. These queens are all safe, and while the judges have a few critiques for Ginj and Alaska, they are small issues that don’t put them anywhere near the bottom.

Adore doesn’t take a big risk with her song, but the judges (specifically Michelle) take her to task for her lackluster appearance and dismissive attitude to criticism. The dress picked out for Adore by season 6 winner Bianca Del Rio doesn’t match her grungy riot grrrl aesthetic, and compared to the dramatic drag looks on stage, Adore’s appearance falls flat. She still fares better than Phi Phi and Coco, though, who both make extremely misguided choices for their acts. Singing an engaging ballad at a drag show is already a challenge, but Phi Phi’s decision to do it a cappella spells disaster when she can’t find the key and loses the rhythm. Coco’s dance number is painful to watch in a different way; it’s performed well enough, but her classic Hollywood choreography is totally wrong for the venue. Phi Phi could have done well with her song if she had more control over her vocals, but Coco’s routine falls completely flat even though it exhibits much stronger technique.

Roxxxy and Tatianna are the two top queens this week, and they do excellent work getting the crowd and the judges excited. Roxxxy impresses the judges with her charismatic burlesque act, and Tatianna delivers the biggest surprise of the night with a cheeky spoken word piece about hooking up with men who thinks she’s a biological woman, a piece that could have been a disaster but is sold by Tatianna’s attitude and flawlessly fishy appearance. Given how long it’s been since Tatianna was on this show, it makes sense that she would try something riskier to make a greater impression, and that risk pays off for her. RuPaul is particularly enthusiastic about Tatianna’s performance, and getting in Ru’s good graces is the best way to guarantee success on this series, even if Ru isn’t doing the eliminating this season.

The combination of Tatianna’s performance and her demeanor during the deliberation makes her easier to root for than Roxxxy, who makes a big show out of the deliberation by sitting down for one-on-one interviews with each of the bottom three queens. She’s working it for the cameras, which is smart, but Tatianna is much more real about this situation. She understands the strategy involved in the elimination process, and even though the fairest course of action is judging based on the performances that week, Tatianna makes it clear that she’s not necessarily going to be fair all the time, especially if it means keeping someone who is a potential threat. She also specifies that the judges’ critiques don’t necessarily line up with her own, and she’s going to follow her gut rather than letting the judges’ opinions dictate her choice. I respect Tatianna’s honesty, and it makes her all the more formidable an opponent now that the rest of the queens know that she will eliminate them if it brings her closer to success.

Roxxxy and Tatianna face off to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” and the best thing about the lip sync is that it suggests we’ll have big hits for the music this season. The queens don’t do anything especially spectacular with the song (I wish Roxxxy had another double wig to shake off), and I can’t help but think about what someone like Coco would do with the song if the lip sync was fueled by the fear of going home. $10,000 is a nice reward, but it’s still a reward instead of a potential punishment, and that fear of being eliminated is what inspires the best lip syncs. Roxxxy wins and sends Coco home, and it’s the right decision given how poorly Coco performs in both challenges this week. She still goes home an All Star, but Coco’s elimination serves as a warning to the other queens: Don’t go outside the box until you show the judges how good you are inside the box. Coco wants to try something different when the judges want to see her at her best, and that decision ultimately costs her the crown.

Stray observations:

  • I hope Alaska finds a way to bring Lil’ Poundcake back this season. Maybe she’ll have her as a prop on the runway!
  • Katya’s hammer and sickle red latex dress is incredible. I love it when the queens show off how much their fashion has leveled up since they left the show.
  • Adore’s first look of the episode may be my favorite Adore look ever. Those braids look great on her!
  • Phi Phi’s hair and make-up looks a lot like current Sharon Needles during the talent show. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
  • I hope Phi Phi brought some cool cosplay looks to show off. I want a good cosplay queen after the disappointment of Dax last season.
  • Todrick Hall joins Drag Race as a regular judge this season. If you haven’t checked out his Lemonade-style visual album, Straight Outta Oz, you should do that right now:
  • I love it when guest judges drag themselves up for their appearances on this show, so I’m all about Raven-Symoné’s look tonight. Did she go to Michelle’s stylist?
  • The conversation between Detox and Adore about Adore’s dynamic with Michelle on tour is fascinating for how it explores how these queens’ relationships with the judges outside of the show plays into their performance on the show. I wonder if that will come up more down the line…
  • (In Russian) “Happy Hunger Games!”
  • “I didn’t get my fucking Tic Tac lunch and I want it, damn it!”
  • “Come on, All Stars! Let’s get (pause to remove jacket)…this over with.”
  • “I just came from Party City. I had a Groupon, girl.”
  • “My name is Adore Delano and I’m a messy slut.” Anyone catch what Adore followed that up with when the producer told her to say something Logo will sign off on? Something about big dicks…
  • “Smell my poonani Poetic Justice realness.” Katya needs to right a goddamn book because her imagery is on point.
  • “I can’t believe you’re back! Really, I can’t believe you’re back. I thought the restraining order was still in effect.”
  • “I could walk away from this competition with at least $350,000. (Pause.) I didn’t go to fucking school for math.”
  • “Roxxxy, don’t unpack. It’s a talent show.”
  • Tatianna: “I’ve figured a lot of things out.” Alaska: “Like what?” Tatianna: “Like to not shop at Wet Seal when you’re coming on RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
  • “Some of the girls might be more focused on rehabilitating their reputation rather than just winning the competition. But I’m here to show the world that I’ve turned into a total fucking monster. (Cackles maniacally.)”
  • “‘This piece.’ Ha!” Michelle reminds me of a drag Edna Krabappel in this moment.
  • Michelle: “Literally I couldn’t take my eyes off your vagina.” Ginj: “Thank you.”
  • “See me with them hands, bitch.”
  • Ru: “Are you cinched?” Tatianna: “A little.” Ru: “I am gonna key your car.”
  • “You had me at ‘piece.’”
  • “You’re all wrong, because it’s Porkchop!”