“If you don’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else?” The closing question of every RuPaul’s Drag Race episode is the best place to start when describing the appeal of the most fabulous show on television. Underneath the make-up and fake tits, behind the snappy dialogue and masterful editing, is a show about embracing who you really are, even if that means changing everything about you. Especially if that means changing everything about you. In the transformation from man to woman, the thirteen contestants show their control over who they want to be, and the competition is about who can keep that control through a combination of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.
Drag Race approaches reality television the way drag approaches femininity, heightening every element for maximum entertainment value. After the opening montages, “RuPocolypse Now!” begins with an epic shot of the queens’ neon pink workroom underscored by sweeping instrumental music, establishing that this is not a reality television competition, but a reality television experience. All the standard tropes are here, but the very nature of drag performance puts a new spin on them. The queens first meet each other in drag, and each new impression gives the producers tons of catty material. Then the contestants meet each other again when they’re out of drag and there’s more cattiness, but also new vulnerability, softness, and the added “holy shit!” factor of seeing the queens out of makeup.
In between the two intros is the big twist of this episode and another reality TV cliché: the return of a previous contestant. When a box of explosives opens to reveal Shangela, the first-eliminated contestant of season two that was brought back last season, I jump off my couch in joy. Not because I want Shangela on the show, but because it’s such a brilliant slap-in-the-face to the reality competition genre. RuPaul’s bias on this show has come under scrutiny (season two winner Tyra was basically RuPaul Jr.), and bringing Shangela back is a way for RuPaul to essentially say “this is my show, I do what I want, and fuck what anyone else thinks.”
Thirteen drag queen stink eyes and one perfectly placed commercial break later, RuPaul’s reveals that it’s all a massive fake-out, and as Shangela is carted away, I find myself wishing she were staying to “Hallelloo!” once more. I didn’t know it was possible for reality TV shows to have running gags across seasons, but Shangela has effectively become that, an enthusiastic clown of a queen that will gladly be eaten by a horde of drag zombies if it means more screen time. Get it, girl.
The first challenge of Drag Race tends to be a photo shoot of physical humiliation, and this week the queen have to pose on a spinning turntable while two men in gas masks and briefs spray them with neon paint. The theme this week is “post-apocalyptic couture fierceness,” and nothing says zombie nuclear holocaust like drag queens rolling around on black tarp. Plus-sized models Jiggly Caliente and Latrice Royale both take big tumbles, and then proceed to work it after falling on their asses. RuPaul has amazing lines during the toxic waste photo shoot, but my favorite is a direction that no one should ever have to take: “Give us toxic shock!”
The humiliation challenge is designed to strip the diva drag queens of their egos, putting them in a situation where they can’t compete with nature: wind in season two, gravity in season three, and centrifugal force in season 4. RuPaul is going to push these girls like they’ve never been pushed before; they’ll have to create outfits, wigs, sketches, and routines by the time the competition is over, and it will be under unreasonably tight time restrictions and an incredibly high stress environment. As the show’s budget increases, so do the prizes, and the winner now receives $100,000, which – along with a lifetime’s supply of make-up – will make being a drag queen a lot easier.
When Project Runway does a location challenge, Heidi takes the contestants to Central Park or the Golden Gate Bridge. When RuPaul takes her girls out, she brings them to a rundown motel, then unleashes zombified past contestants on them carrying the clothes the queens will use to make their post-apocalyptic runway fashions. It’s ridiculous and just an excuse for the editors to go wild, and they do a fantastic job turning drag queens scrounging for fabric, netting, and aluminum foil into a campy horror movie. It’s also nice to see some familiar faces from the past, and a clever way for the show to work in the “back from the dead” theme.
You can’t have a good reality television show without drama, and Drag Race some of the most outspoken, fearless characters of any series, scripted or not. The more popular the show gets, the crazier the queens, and with a bigger audience and higher stakes, there’s no reason to be in the background. These men are performers for a living, and it’s always intriguing to see which ones can keep the spotlight on them when the make-up comes off. When naïve Dida Ritz announces to the group that she loves all the girls and hopes that they can “all just get along,” it becomes fairly clear that she’s missing one of the four cardinal characteristics of a drag superstar: nerve. You just can’t make it far in this competition without stirring up some shit, and there’s even a challenge completely dedicated to the art of reading a person’s flaws and calling them out. Throwing shade is a part of being a drag queen, and it’s one that makes for amazing television.
The panel of judges is described by RuPaul as “a bunch of bitches,” and this week we get a hall-of-fame of Drag Race judges: the glamorous Michelle Visage, studly photographer Mike Ruiz, and lovably scruffy Santino Rice. Just when you think the show can’t get any gayer, RuPaul uses a quote from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies to introduce Santino, and suddenly there’s no limit. The guest judge this week is Elvira, Mistress of the Night, who is actually quite good, providing intelligent, constructive critiques without playing it up for the cameras. Elvira is the perfect guest judge for this series, cheeky and charismatic, but never pulling focus from RuPaul. Naturally, Elvira is Sharon Needles’ childhood idol, and she loves Sharon’s scabbed-over swamp corpse outfit, especially the blood dribbling down her chin.
If the runway show is any indication, this is going to be an amazing season of Drag Race, with plus-sized queens that aren’t afraid to show off their bodies, bombshells that can also design, and more than a few hot messes. The judges make a strange decision with the top and bottom three, actually picking a top two, a lukewarm two, and a bottom two. LaShawn Beyond impresses the judges with her towering globe headdress and sophisticated silhouette, but it’s Sharon’s bloody zombie in a soiled bed sheet that wins the challenge, gaining her immunity for next week. I’m happy to see the judges embrace Sharon’s style of drag, but it’s going to be interesting to see if she can do girly drag too. Between Princess and Kenya Michaels, it’s unclear who is in the top two, and one of them should definitely have been put in the safe pile to make room for Phi Phi O’Hara’s sexy barbarian look at the top. I already like Phi Phi because she’s from Chicago, but add in her out of drag male hotness and she’s one of my early favorites.
There’s only one reaction to Jiggly Caliente’s runway outfit, and that is hysterical laughter. It’s the kind of costume an elementary school student makes for the school play, constructed from foil, feathers, fabric, and glue. It looks like she just didn’t use any of her time, and there’s no design sense. A tutu, some feathers in a headband, and a couple dead legs worn as bracelets do not translate to post-apocalyptic, unless the outfit is supposed to look like the wardrobe of someone that suffered a severe mental break after the end of the world.
For anyone wondering just how much bigger the budget has gotten on this show, they use “Toxic” by Britney Spears for the lip sync, which is definitely more expensive than the newest singles from Fantasia Barrino and Latoya Jackson. Jiggly tears it up when her life’s on the line, with a relentlessly energetic routine that shows why she is in the competition. Like Shangela, Jiggly has the performer skills – she throws down the big-girl split that is always a hit with the judges – but not the design sense, and I hope that she’ll show the more that she promises to the judges. Alisa just strolls around the stage playing with her boobs, but as one of the queens says, “This is called ‘drag race’. Not ‘drag walk.’” The lessons to learn from this week’s elimination are that breastplates are best used as accessories, not centerpieces, and that getting a DUI while in drag isn’t the best sob story (being unable to go to your mother’s funeral because of an 18-month jail stint is).
If it’s possible for Drag Race to have a more exciting season première than “Rupocalypse Now!”, I can’t wait for season five. During the opening montage, RuPaul announced that they were taking it “over the mother&$^!in’ top” this season, and this episode more than delivers. RuPaul has no tolerance for mediocrity, as seen by her telling the safe contestants to step up their game next week, and I can’t wait to watch her abuse her power in making the lives of these queens a living hell. Thanks for showing your support for this fantastic series, one of the few reality shows that truly rewards individuality and self-respect, and I’m excited to take this ride with you every week!
- In the opening montage of clips coming up in the season, someone sings “Jesus is a biscuit, let him sop you up.” Can this please happen next week?
- I’m loving the Absolut ad with last season’s top 5, although I wonder how Carmen Carrera feels about being left out.
- Jiggly describes Latrice Royale as going from Aretha Franklin to Biggie Smalls out of drag, which is perfect.
- Chad Michaels’ plastic surgery looks horrific when he’s not Cher, and it’s not that great when he is Cher.
- It’s always cute fun to see the queens flirt, but when it’s Sharon and Princess, its somehow even more adorable.
- “I just wanted to just pee on the floor and start doing flip flaps.” Get ready for some broken English!
- “A girl for all seasons, but not this one.” Eloquent and harsh, all at the same time.
- “It’s cute for a taste, not for a swallow.”
- For those that don't have Logo as part of their cable package, "RuPocalypse Now!" is streaming on Logo's site, so watch it.