[11 February 2010]
I came to Season Two of RuPaul’s Drag Race with an unbelievable amount of prejudical goodwill. Unbelievable for me, because I’ve long been a strident critic of gay cliché burdensomely called “culture”. RuPaul and I have a long history from back in the high schools days when, like any credentialed dork, I had a long distance debate camp friend. She was the cosmopolitan Atlantan; I was the rube. She used to send me video tapes full of Atlanta public access shows which included the inimitable “Star Booty”, a series that followed the trials of a cross-dressing hooker (RuPaul) with martial arts moves borrowed heavily from renowned sensei, Miss Piggy. Here I learned the true meaning of “good bad”.
The first season of Drag Race was a slapdash riot, sloppily sewn, but with a cast of characters that held it together and an intensity belied by the quality of the gift baskets. Drag Race had momentum that glossed over the webcam quality and the viewer think that surely “they’ll fix some of this stuff once it catches on”. Nope.
At several points during the Season Two launch the latitude granted for a scrappy upstart begins to feel like throwing good faith after bad . The biggest let down came from disappointing Deja Vu. Don’t get me wrong, “Ongina” was fantastic the first time around, but the Drag Race contestants were barely enough for an original, let alone this craven act of casting reincarnation. Nearly ever single first season cast member gets reprised here.
Is it possible that RuPaul doesn’t want the best and brightest, that the contest itself is a ruse to prove, Highlander style, that there can be only one? That would be something sinister I could get behind. It’s more likely just laziness and the misguided literalism of repeating the first season’s success.
Simple things count. The show’s editing quality hasn’t gotten any better despite the fact that it’s basically Project Runway with the designers rolled into the model roles. In fact there are so many templates (they use Kitchen Nightmares, for God’s sake), that it’s really unforgivable that the show has a pace that could best be described as “injured”. Worse, RuPaul still hasn’t grown into the show’s uneven host role. Most of this friction comes from RuPaul not being himself and using the show to test out several versions of his own brand aspirations that can’t be reconciled without an intervention of A&E proportions.
Even the show’s false narrative of RuPaul passing the torch to a younger diva (how many torches does it take for succession to work in the drag world?) has the undercurrent of RuPaul wanting to do something else, something other than the show we’re tuned into right now. When he tells one of the bigger girl’s that she has to look at her lack of fabric as being about “overcoming adversity”, the viewer feels that weird mission creep tug, the Oprah mugging that is simply not going emerge organically from the judge’s chair of low-rent queen carnage.
After eliminating one of the contestants in the lose-lose humiliation that is “lip syncing for your life” (though if any violent cult organization ever seriously does this, I would, I don’t know, quite simply die laughing), RuPaul ends the show with the probing question: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” There are several philosophical problems that plague these kind of platitudes; most glaringly, that they don’t belong on a show that actively encourages people to undermine each other’s sense of self worth. It’s kind of like walking out in the middle of a pitched battle to announce to triaged soldiers that you want them to take their amputated limb as a lesson in “getting along with others”.
The show furiously fights the imposition of this awkward sentimentality. The strained “face off” at the end of Episode 1, where two frenemies who supposedly didn’t know they were both in the competition lip-sync against each other for elimination, isn’t remotely convincing. You need professional fakes (actors, not just people who naturally come by disingenuousness) to pull this off and it’s simply not believable that Sahara was torn up inside to oust Shangela. Viewers couldn’t care less.
The worst part of all these reality contest shows comes from the attention-seeking disorder side drama. Be the best drag queen, make the best clothes, cook the best meal, but please spare the viewer the made-for-camera intrigue.
None of these fixes require sacrificing the guerrilla feel of the show, which honestly, for anyone who’s ever known a drag queen personally, is surprisingly tame. Seriously, that no one has cut a bitch is miraculous.
I’m not ripping on this show because it’s easy to do (although it is). I want it to succeed and I want it to get better because I want to sit a season not screaming at the television “Why am I watching cutting floor footage? Alms for another take, sir?” Every component for solid entertainment can be found here and made to work better. RuPaul needs to loosen up, while the rest of the show needs drastic tightening.