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Drag Race season 9 finally reaches excellence when the queens make TV pilots

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RuPaul's Drag Race

"Your Pilot's On Fire"

Season 9 , Episode 9

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It finally happened. RuPaul’s Drag Race season 9 had its first great episode. I’ve been tough on this season, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting the moment when it would kick into high gear and give me the heightened drama and spectacle that I crave from this series. “Your Pilot’s On Fire” is that moment, a game-changer episode that delivers big laughs, amplifies the tension within the group, has a killer runway, and ends with an elimination that majorly shakes up the season. The main challenge has the queens breaking into three groups to devise, write, and perform a pilot episode, and it’s a great test of skills that the queens should learn in the era of drag webseries.

After last week’s Untucked, there’s a new source of drama courtesy of Nina’s claim that Shea has been talking about her behind her back. The Conspiracy Theorist in me wonders if Shea and Nina did some off-camera plotting to create the drama that this season is missing, because Shea has been so openly supportive of Nina that it feels strange to call her out for talking shit. Creating drama is a good thing for this series, and Shea is a smart enough player that I could imagine her suggesting to Nina that they start a feud to get more camera time and make Nina a more active participant in the competition.

I can imagine that, but it’s probably not the truth. I think Nina is paranoid and insecure, and wouldn’t be surprised if she’s been betrayed by people that she confided to in the past. I sense a lot of pain from Nina, and I think her exile from the Atlanta drag community is a big part of that. I don’t know the specifics of what happened in that situation, but it’s taken a big toll on Nina’s confidence and might be the reason she keeps herself separate from the rest of the queens. That could also just be her general personality, though.

The other queens should be very nervous whenever Sasha and Shea team up, because their combined brains, talent, and passion make them especially formidable. Their pilot, “Teets & Asky”, is one of the funniest scripted bits this show has ever had, packed with jokes and physical comedy with two performances that are exaggerated but still specific. My first thought after seeing the final clip was: “This is their WOW Presents audition video.” Their performances are really big, but their individual energies blend very well and create strong chemistry that makes me want to see more of them together. It helps that they have a genuinely hilarious script. The espadrilles! The shoulder pads! The cliffhangers! I would gladly like and subscribe to this series on YouTube and watch Teets McGee and Natasha Asky investigate crimes against fashion and punish the perpetrators.

I like that this season has highlighted major issues faced by the LGBTQ community during the pre-runway painting sequences, but it’s nice to break away from the negative and have the queens speak positively about a subject tied directly to what they’re doing on the runway. Club kid fashion had a huge impact on the drag community, and we learn about that history (from Sasha, of course) and see how different queens were inspired (or not) by the club kids. It adds an emotional element to the runway walks, and the queens that have the best looks are the ones that understand and appreciate the club kid movement.

Sasha’s “Marcel Mar-no-she-betta-deau!” is the perfect exclamation for Sasha’s look, which is like the Pokemon evolution of Bianca Del Rio’s clown drag. She’s a clown in a glamorous gown, and she blends mime and modeling during her runway walk to give a really fun performance. Shea comes out wearing a bathing suit again, but in this instance it’s a smart choice that keeps the focus on her cape and mask. She’s channeling Leigh Bowery and it’s a stunning look, showing off Shea’s ability to rock the runway with most of her face covered. (Having one visible eye in the midst of the mask’s abstract face is extremely effective.) Bowery is also one of the big influences for Peppermint’s incredible peppermint candy look, which also throws some Klaus Nomi in the mix for a gorgeous blend of avant-garde styles. I absolutely adore this look, and Peppermint’s performance this week is when she become a real contender for the Drag Race crown.

Trinity has never done club kid drag before because she’s afraid that she’ll look stupid, and I totally get that given her pageant background. She’s used to a more fishy, less conceptual style of drag, and I hope that her experience this week inspires her to be more playful and think outside the box with her future drag looks. The look is all over the place, but in this case the chaos works, and she sells it with a runway walk that is stiff and robotic and kind of uncomfortable to watch. She’s embodying a character that is very different from the Trinity we normally see, and I think she has a lot of fun letting herself do something so outside of her comfort zone.

Trinity, Peppermint, and Alexis is a team with a lot of raw performance talent, but there are also some big egos in the mix. Their pilot, “Mary, Mother Of Gays,” casts Alexis and Peppermint as two mothers with gay sons and Trinity as Sister Mary Koont, a nun that forces the women to accept their sons’ homosexuality. Trinity is the breakout performance, but everyone does pretty well and they have lines that they’ve learned and brought some kind of motivation to. It’s a solid, but sloppy pilot, but it becomes a rich source of drama during the judges’ critiques. When Alexis gets read for not matching Trinity and Peppermint’s energy and an underwhelming runway look, she tries to make herself look better by claiming that a lot of the things the judges liked about the pilot were her ideas.

This backfires spectacularly. Alexis’ teammates are not going to sit back and let her take credit to save her ass, and they both call her out and make sure the judges know that this was a team effort. Even if Alexis did contribute ideas that were praised by the judges, she should understand the risk in making this kind of claim when all of them are up for elimination. She’s downplaying the roles Peppermint and Trinity had in the development process, and leaves herself vulnerable to justifiable attack when they clap back. Peppermint and Trinity are also on the same side, and teaming up against Alexis to say this was a team effort makes Alexis look even worse in front of the judges. I can’t wait to watch Untucked after this, and I predict that Alexis’ behavior this week is going to be fueling conflict for as long as she stays in the competition.

Nina and Valentina’s pilot, “Nina & Tina,” is a total disaster. They decide that they’ll improv most of the video, and showing up without a script to follow immediately puts them at a huge disadvantage. They have a basic concept—prostitutes become drag queens and fall in love on Drag Race—but they’re making up everything else as they go along. It’s exactly as messy as it sounds. Nina and Valentina look completely out of their element the entire time and make no connection as a comedic pair. They’re just trying to stay afloat, and they have to focus so much on what they’re going to come up with next that they don’t give each other any attention. If you have the opportunity to write a script, write a script. There’s too much pressure to trust yourself to be able to do funny improv. Write the script so you have something to say, and even if it sucks, you can put more work into creating a character because you’re not concerned with making up lines.

The partners don’t fare much better on the runway. Valentina looks great, but Michelle rightly points out that it’s more high fashion than club kid. It’s a better matador look than what Cynthia Lee Fontaine whipped out for the Madonna runway, but it doesn’t have the edge you expect from a club kid outfit. Nina gives herself a cool skull paintjob, but the rest of her look is messy and confusing. The crow on her head isn’t upright so it looks like a weird piece of hair, she didn’t finish painting her open chest so it just looks totally sloppy, and the tutu with thigh highs look is completely uninspired. All of the work is in the face, but this isn’t a face-painting competition. She’s supposed to put out a cohesive look, and she fails.

Nina and Valentina are both up for elimination, and it’s an unforgettable lip sync. Not because the of the performances, but because RuPaul stops the lip sync partway through so she can tell Valentina to take off her mask. “This is a Lip Sync For Your Life, we need to see your lips,” RuPaul tells her. “Take that thing off of your mouth.” There’s fire behind these words, and when Valentina says she’s going to leave the mask on, we get an epic face crack from RuPaul. Eventually Valentina takes off the mask, and when the song starts again we learn why she wanted to cover up her mouth: she didn’t know the words. Ariana Grande’s “Greedy” is an awesome lip sync song, but Valentina is so lost without the words that she can’t connect to it.

Nina is taking charge and really feeling the music, and it’s no contest who is the winner. Losing Valentina is a major shock given that she’s been a frontrunner up to this point, and I can’t wait to see how it changes the dynamic in the work room to have one of the season’s strongest performers get the boot so suddenly. Of course, there’s always a previously eliminated queen that returns later in the season, and Valentina is the most likely to come back given the quality of her performance thus far. Elimination is still a major wake up call, though, so I expect her to come back harder than ever if she does return.

Stray observations

  • Trinity keeps saying that she looks like a venereal disease. Is she talking about a microscopic view of one, or is that a comment about the little blue bumps?
  • I had to Google who Lisa Robertson is. Gaga obviously took a big bite out of the guest judge budget.
  • I love Noah Galvan’s critique that “Nina & Tina” plays more like a movie than a TV show. A show needs a formula that the writers can work with every week.
  • Apparently Raven and Delta Work are doing RuPaul’s makeup and costuming this season, which explains why RuPaul doesn’t look as sharp this season. They appear to be figuring out how to make RuPaul look her best, though, and I love her look this week (especially that Lisa Frank tiger dress).
  • Nina and Alexis’ top halves both read as very masculine on the runway.
  • Nina says she’s the first queen to walk backwards on the runway, and the awkwardness of her backwards walk is probably why no queen has done it on the runway. (Can anyone fact check that for me?)
  • “Nina needs to call Patti LaBelle because she needs a new attitude.”
  • Sasha: “You now have lice.” Trinity: “I’m from Alabama I’m used to that.” Sasha: “Aw, you told a joke.”
  • “I’m not not happy that I have to write something. It’s just I feel like I have to prove that I have a talent that I might not know that I might have. but I hope I do.”
  • Trinity: “Well, if she goes missing. I didn’t take it.” Sasha: “Good luck fitting in it!”
  • “BDSM lollipop guild.”
  • “Bitch, I asked you where are the espadrilles?! Don’t make me bring yo’ mama into this.”
  • Shea: “Why are you using all these shoulder pads?” Sasha: “How else can I make myself look like strong woman?” Shea: “Vote, bitch!”
  • “Please don’t jump! You have so much to live for!”