RuPaul's Drag Race
Oh, what a change a week can bring. Last week I worried I might have been too harsh on my favorite television show, convinced that watching it alone in a Bloomington, Indiana, hotel room bathed the premiere in an unflattering light, and had I watched it surrounded by friends and family in my neighborhood gay bar, I would have forgiven whatever faults I saw in Indiana and given it the four stars it deserved. But after watching this week’s episode, it’s hard to blame my Indiana imprisonment at all. This is the show I’ve been waiting for months to return. Sure, the beats of tonight’s story may feel familiar — the team challenges, whether it’s an a cappella sing-off or an airline-stewardess-off, are hard to distinguish from one another — but it goes to show that if the show casts a diverse set of big personalities, we don’t need it to reinvent the wheel for it to be the most entertaining thing on television. Last week’s decision to forgo an elimination in favor of a Lady Gaga retrospective did a disservice to the queens, and it was a relief to get to know them tonight without any major twists or surprises getting in the way.
Of course, there was one major twisty surprise to contend with at the beginning of the episode, and that is the return of the cucu queen herself, Cynthia Lee Fontaine. Were any of you surprised? Elated? Disappointed? The internet spoiled this little reveal for me a few weeks ago so I’ve had some time to sit with it, and I have to say it’s … fine? I have a lot of fond memories of Cynthia from last season, but I can’t say I think she left us too early either. I could be wrong! Maybe she has a lot more to show us, but I’m inclined to believe that throwing her Miss Congeniality was more than enough of a consolation prize in the end. Personally, if Ru were bringing back a not-quite-all-star this season, I would have loved to see an April Carrion or Jasmine Masters, but we’ve been given Cucu, and all we can hope for is that Ms. Lee Fontaine will deliver and not cucu it up.
The queens are all clearly rattled by an eliminated queen’s arrival this early in the competition, but none of their grumbling feels even remotely earned at this point. It’s day one, and literally nothing has happened yet, calm down. They acted like hardened veterans limping back into the workroom only to find Naysha Lopez springing back into the competition four episodes deep, but so far they’ve only had to skate through an hour-long Lady Gaga pony show. Luckily for all of us, Cynthia is too effervescent to take much stock of their sourness and instead regales us with news of her cancer recovery. At first, Cynthia seemed like an odd vessel for a cancer-survivor story, her brand mostly centering around fun-loving chirping about her butt, but despite myself I couldn’t help but feel inspired. It’s too soon to tell what she’ll do with this second chance, but at this stage I’m getting shades of Alyssa Edwards.
After a brief and inexplicable appearance by Lisa Kudrow (seriously what was happening there — was she truly just brought out just to be Ru’s Valerie Cherish monkey and then leave? What a waste), things scoot right along to the first real challenge of the season. This time it’s a cheerleading-themed team challenge with a few vague parameters that are never fully explained. The girls are tasked with three rounds — tumbling, group choreography, and stunting — but we spend most of the time with the girls in the workroom learning their (what turns out to be pretty simple) introductions and watching them glue jewels onto their costumes. This gives us a chance to get to know how these girls are developing within group dynamics and introduces us to the bottom two edits for the week.
Poor Jaymes Mansfield. By the time he messed up his intro line for the third time, you knew it was all over for this year’s self-proclaimed comedy queen. The tragedy of this really is, I believe the girls when they say that they’re rooting for Jaymes to figure her shit out. She is infuriatingly both the center of her team’s drama while also being a complete nonentity. The one brief bit of drama the initial “sit around a circle with earbuds and assign parts” moment (a classic moment for this kind of challenge) is quickly swept aside due to Alexis Michelle’s infuriating decision to be a team player (talk about “Snoozy”). And yet, even as Alexis tries to convince Jaymes that she’s more of a “sleepy” than a “floozy,” Jaymes barely registers onscreen, and it’s the queens around him who have to step up and defend him. It’s disappointing as both a fan of reality-TV drama and someone who was rooting for Jaymes to pick it up. Or not pick it up! Give something to the camera though. Remember how fun it was to watch Kim Chi’s struggles with dancing? She somehow sold her complete lack of rhythm in ways that Jaymes just can’t sell.
On the other side of the workroom, we’re treated to a much different set of issues, all centering around Kimora Lee Blac. I have no doubt that the editors gave her a shady edit, zeroing in on every whiny sound bite as the girls play craft corner with their outfits. But as always with these things, you said what you said girl, and none of it was particularly flattering. Has anyone uttered the phrase “some of us just grew up differently” with an ounce of self-awareness? I doubt it, and Kimora is certainly not going to be the first one to pull it off. Something about her gives me the sense that she is actively gunning for the villain edit, but I’m not sure I find her compelling enough to buy it. This season can do better in the villain department, I feel.
Other than Jaymes’s struggle with saying one single line of dialogue and Kimora’s struggle with hot glue, there didn’t seem to be any giant hiccups with this challenge. Of the three sections of this challenge, we only really watch them learn to stunt which is a shame because that seems genuinely complicated, and watching drag queens struggle to learn choreo is my favorite thing on this slowly decaying earth. The performance is as fun to watch as these things tend to be, but the real excitement is the return to an actual runway challenge, and for the first time I feel like we really get a sense of who these queens are on an individual basis. Let’s chat, shall we?
Nina: A more subdued Nina compared to last week, the only thing of note here is that legendary padding.
Alexis: Not sure how glamour is “turned on its ear” here, but it’s very pretty!
Shea: Femme-bot realness. Loved the fit, loved the wig, loved the texture of the whole thing. Biases aside, I think she won this week for me.
Charlie: The judges loved it, but to me it reads a bit QVC meets Frozen.
Sasha: Glad to see her in hair! It’s a great look, but her explanation was 100 percent nonsense.
Aja: The mask did the heavy lifting here. After it was gone it just read as some Princess Leia DragCon thing.
Jaymes: This is nice, but I have a feeling this is about all we’re gonna get.
Cynthia: Pretty and boring, and I’m sorry, not very expensive-looking.
Farrah: She is possibly the fishiest queen on this season, but I wonder if we’ll see more than Vegas from her.
Valentina: This is great, but a little bit on the nose for me. Thought the nude shoes would lose it for her.
Trinity: I lost Trinity in the shuffle last week, but I like this and don’t have much more to say!
Kimora: Everything about Kimora reminds me of a 2007 Pussycat Dolls music video.
Peppermint: Sure! This is fine! I like her!
Eureka: I’ll try to stay away from these possibly unfair comparisons, but Eureka really does seem to be an elevated version of Ginger Minj. I like this a lot!
And so, despite her nude shoes, Valentina takes the first win with her spot on wedding Illusion. Valentina is turning out to be a bubbly sort of kook and adding some nice, trade-y eye candy in the work room to boot. Good for her, I hope she sticks around for a while.
And it’s poor Jaymes who’s given the boot. It feels like at least once a season Ru is forced to bring up the strength of a queen’s audition tape, and it’s usually about a queen who is so swallowed up by the competition that they just get lost. I’m sure whatever Jaymes brings to his shows in Milwaukee is fantastic, but we just didn’t get to see much of anything before he left. Beware the queen who dubs themselves a “comedy queen” in the beginning of the competition, for they are usually the queens that are least likely to make us laugh by the end. With Jaymes’s departure there doesn’t seem to be a front runner for next to go, which makes next week’s episode all the more exciting.