RuPaul's Drag Race: “Black Swan: Why It Gotta Be Black?”
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RuPaul's Drag Race: “Black Swan: Why It Gotta Be Black?”

(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)

When trying to get people to give RuPaul’s Drag Race a chance, I tell them that it’s not just the most self-aware reality show on television, but that it’s basically five shows in one. Any time a Top Model, Project Runway, or Face/Off contestant wants to complain about a challenge, someone just needs to point them in the direction of Drag Race, where the girls are expected to do everything from those shows and then some. They’re one women vamping machines, and the fact that they also manage to be some of the funniest characters on television is just a bonus.

That all said, this wouldn’t be the first episode I’d show to a Drag Race newcomer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine – but “perfectly fine” is a disappointment after the first three episodes of this season came roaring out the gate with some of the most fun challenges the series has ever had. Drag Race at its campy best when making drag queens lipsynch through RuPaul-shaped gloryholes; Drag Race at its laziest throws a bunch of afros at the girls and makes them do a dance-off. I know they were going for Soul Train, but this mini-challenge felt more like the awkward beginnings of a wedding reception conga line. Jinkx somehow takes the win, even though Ru might as well have picked her name of out a hat.

Mini-challenge thus completed, Ru moves on to the main event: the queens will be splitting into teams to dance out the story of RuPaul’s life as a ballet, which Ru has of course named, “No RuPaulogies: An American Odyssey (The Greatest Story Ever Told”). Ru also informs them that this week's guest judge is Chaz Bono. He might not have any expertise about drag queens or dancing or whatever, but Alaska sums up his qualifications the best: “Chaz Bono came out of Cher’s vagina.”

Ru designates Jinkx and Coco as team leaders, and it takes approximately four seconds for Coco to inspire the dramatic “Oh She Went There” music cue when she picks Alyssa first. GASPS all around! Alyssa can’t believe it! How could Coco pick Alyssa when they hate each other so much because of that thing that happened at the pageant! But apparently we’re still not going to know what happened until they’ve milked this drama for all it’s worth, which, yawn. Like everyone else, I’ve been teetering on the fence about whether Alyssa and Coco are actually mortal enemies or just incredibly savvy reality show contestants who know the producers feed on unresolved drama. Let’s face it; four episodes in without any explanation beyond “she knows what she did,” those are the only options. At this point, I kind of hope they’re not coming clean because they’ve both just forgotten what the hell they were mad about in the first place. One thing’s clear, though: the longer Alyssa and Coco go without explaining just what the hell actually happened between them, the less I care.

For now, though, we have to settle for Coco’s shrug and smirk as she explains in a confessional that she knows Alyssa’s the best dancer there, and winning’s more important than fighting right now. Jinkx and Coco then whittle the queens down until only Jade and Vivienne remain. A sullen Jade goes to Team Jinkz, and Vivienne shuffles off to Team Coco with a frozen smile that only barely conceals her rage. She complains in her confessional that she’s stuck “on a team with a bunch of loudmouths” again, and that they’re all underestimating her. A decent rule of thumb for reality shows: whenever a contestant says they're being underestimated, they’re probably being estimated just right.

The teams will be dancing “No RuPaulogies” in pairs, with each dance number representing a significant part of Ru’s life. It’s the kind of assignment that would make me roll my eyes clear out of my head if Tyra Banks assigned it, but when Ru asks each girl, “which RuPaul are you playing?” I eat that shit up. The difference between Ru and just about every other reality show host is that she knows exactly how ridiculous this show is, and ultimately, that’s the difference that matters.

Team Jinkz takes Act One, or Ru’s origin story. Alaska gets the opening solo number, but admits that this is going to be a hard challenge for her because she doesn’t really dance. I’d say this seems like a major limitation for a drag queen, but as it turns out, the queens are getting their choreography from a pair of ballet experts instead of creating it themselves, so Alaska’s more just concerned she won’t be able to keep up.

This is where the episode started to lose me. The most memorable challenges are the ones that force the queens to get creative; this strictly choreographed ballet just forced them to fall in line. Sure, the choreographers are totally dreamy, but when the actual performance comes around, it’s obvious this would have been a hell of a lot more fun if the girls had come up with their own dances. While Coco and Alyssa crush the Black and White Swan routine (which represents the dark time in Ru’s life when she was battling herself, natch), the only one to make a real impression was, ironically, Alaska. She knew she wasn’t going to nail the dance moves, so she just threw herself into her opening solo as Ru’s mother with a wink, casting any prima ballerina aspirations aside so she could channel Lucille Ball instead. The judges love it. But when Alaska’s sent backstage with the other safe girls, it’s clear the win’s going to the more obvious choice. So condragulations to Alyssa, the professional dancer who won the dance challenge for dancing well!

The final round of questioning also went down an inevitable reality show route, as Ru asked the dreaded, “who would YOU send home?” question. They girls are split between Vivian, still stuck on the bottom for the sin of being boring, and Honey Mahogany, who committed the equally horrifying sin of having a revolving door of neon caftans. But Alyssa, who knows she’s about to win, throws a wrench into the proceedings by nominating Jade for elimination, even though Jade is already safe backstage. I know everyone’s been annoyed about Jade’s lackadaisical workroom presence, but it’s a weirdly pointed move that makes it clear Alyssa’s just out to make trouble. If anything, it nudges me more towards the side of “Coco and Alyssa are faking it.” She knows how to play this game.

In the end, Honey and Vivienne are sentenced to lip-synch for their lives to the seminal Britney classic, “Oops!… I Did It Again” (though sadly without the Titanic dialogue). Vivienne seethes that “the anger I have is preventing me from being nervous” and that she’s going to bring it, but there is no evidence of said bringing it in her lackluster performance. Meanwhile, Honey gives great face, but turns out that's the only face she has. Ru is not amused. More importantly, Ru is bored. She sends both Honey and Vivienne home, and it’s a mark of how flat the challenge was that Drag Race’s first ever double elimination comes out of apathy.  “From here on out,” Ru declares to the line of shocked queens, “I will NOT tolerate no half-steppin’.” Can I get an amen?

Stray observations:

  • For this week’s post-elimination segment, we have everyone gathering around the triumphant Coco to ask in hushed tones, “what was it like, girl?” like she had just lived through a major trauma. Lipsynching for your life is some serious business, you guys.
  • The runway show was rushed, but I liked Alyssa’s fro and top hat combo more than I expected, couldn’t believe no one called Jinkz out for doing straight up Lady Gaga drag, and actually burst out laughing when Vivan came out. If a bright red wig is her idea of going outside her comfort zone, she was never going to be long for this competition.
  • According to Ru, his mother’s favorite phrase was “you pussy-mouthed motherfucker.” Ru’s mother and I would have gotten along.
  • Ru casts a discerning eye on her protégés through golden opera binoculars, obviously.
  • Still no explanation for why Ru calls Ivy Winters, “EYEEEEE-VEEEEEEEEE-WINTERRRZZZ.” Also, Ivy’s clearly a talented designer and seamstress, but it would be cool if she could reveal a personality soon, please.
  • I may have been disappointed by the episode, but not by Untucked, because it was awesome. It includes many a ridiculous pun as well as an adorable video message from none other than Sharon Needles, who tells Alaska how much she misses her “ghoulfriend” and demands to know if she took Sharon’s “GODDAMN OUIJA BOARD TO LOS ANGELES” (miss you, girl). Also: Alyssa tells Jade she threw her under the bus, and Honey informs a room of drag queens that really, “the look doesn’t matter.”
  • “Nobody puts baby Ru in the corner.” “EVAH!”

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