Where Did RuPaul’s Drag Race Go Wrong This Season?

Photo: VH1

First off, condragulations, sweetie! Pop off your heels and treat yourself to a vodka tonic, because you did it! You did your homosexual duty and got through RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3, truly one of the roughest seasons of the show ever. After a stellar, jaw-unhingingly good All Stars 2, this season felt more like an embarrassing cousin you brought to gay happy hour who wears double polos. Each episode front-loaded annoying interpersonal drama, leaving the actual content — the challenges, the runway — feeling as empty as a bottle of poppers at 4 a.m. at the Cock. Whether it was Milk’s sense of humor, Bebe’s anti-wig reveal, or Trixie Mattel’s ultimate win, this season of All Stars has been baffling, anticlimactic, and padded in all the wrong places.

Let’s start with Trixie’s win. I’ll begin by saying this: Trixie is a nice girl. She’s sharp and funny, and eats sandwiches. She’s doing great in the real world with her own Viceland TV show alongside former All Star Katya. But this competition isn’t about how well you’re doing IRL. During All Stars 3, Trixie Mattel fumbled constantly, whiffing a Snatch Game impression of RuPaul, and turning in generally mediocre performances. She didn’t get a single outright win (I’m including the lip sync for your legacy here), and overall, she’s been better as a talking head commentator out of drag than a competitor in it. With BenDeLaCreme recusing herself from the competition (which, at this point: whatever), Shangela was clearly the one to beat. Sure, she has a tendency toward broad comedy, but she studied hard and came correct almost every challenge, including the final “live” performance.

And yet, somehow Trixie was in the top two alongside pageant staple Kennedy Davenport, because — twist! — the eliminated queens returned like a nasty foot fungus, and in a Survivor-style vote, got to choose the top two. Ultimately, their decisions had less to do with merit and more about likability or who they felt “worked hard.” (Miraculously, Thorgy is the only one who had some sense and voted for Shangela. Thorgy, we see you.)

To be fair, this isn’t Trixie’s fault. Everything about this season felt rushed. The production has been sloppy and harried; the challenges were underwritten. Instead of getting a full-on original musical number like “The Baddest Bitches of Herstory,” we got one rearranging RuPaul’s old songs. There was a Warhol tribute where you dress up as a … soup can? Nowhere was this more evident than in the dearth of mini-challenges, which are sometimes delightfully pointless — with everything from creating dolls (Lil’ Poundcake!) or posing with a leaf blower in your face — but also surprisingly illuminating in how they reveal who can think on their feet. Instead, All Stars 3 filled that time (and then some) with ever-increasing sniping between the contestants.

But why were we even doing another All Stars season, anyway? VH1 seems hell-bent on wringing every dollar and ounce of joy out of this show. In order for an All Stars season to work, you need to actually wait for the talent pool to accumulate, queens to evolve, and feuds to foment. (Top Chef is an excellent model.) All Stars seems to be going the way of Project Runway, which spun off an All Stars franchise that has essentially driven itself into the ground.

Maybe part of the issue is that All Stars 2 set new heights the show couldn’t reach. The challenges were brilliant and allowed the contestants to show off what they could do. Just compare the work during the Snatch Game, lip syncs, and the four finale looks from last season with this one to see who did their homework and nailed the assignment. During All Stars 2, every moment seemed titanic, and you could feel just how tight the competition was. Even the drama was better crafted as a result. Phi Phi O’Hara had the true face crack of the century when she saw Alyssa Edwards return. Alaska’s tantrum when she landed in the bottom for the first (and only) time that season was some truly inspired theatrics. Meanwhile, on All Stars 3, we were treated to a tedious litigation of why every queen was cut when the eliminated queens returned. Who cares!

This gets us to the core of the problem: RuPaul’s Drag Race is a competition, which means for better or worse, it’s merit based. This isn’t Miss Congeniality. It’s not about whose career will be best served by winning. I don’t care if you’ve shown improvement, and I don’t just want to see the best drag out of you, but the best drag. Period. The judges didn’t help, either. Someone needed to step in and be the voice of reason, but there was no “Wake up, Pearl!” moment or Tom Colicchio–style dad lecture. Instead, they mostly threw softballs this entire season and spent the final runway gassing each contestant up. Maybe they got skittish after Adore Delano’s post-critique breakdown during All Stars 2, but the commentary this season has been so timid as to seem disingenuous.

But here’s the truth about RuPaul’s Drag Race: Even at its worst, it’s still one of one the best, if not the best goddamn reality competition show on television. While the show only recently has been getting Emmy love, for 11 seasons it has consistently featured excellent drag and heartfelt pathos. Remember the delight of seeing Sharon Needles step out as a post-apocalyptic zombie during her first runway? Or when Ongina came out as HIV positive? Or Shangela’s stand-up comedy routine as Laquifa the postmodern pimp-ho? Even this season has had its delightful moments, from Bebe’s ratatiki-tata number to Shangela’s Mariah Carey to Aja’s million-dollar death drop. And while I respect every man and woman who has the courage to put on heels and shake their ass on television for our entertainment, this is All Stars baby, and we want to see you step your pussy up.

RuPaul’s Drag Race: Where Did It Go Wrong This Season?