Is this season of Drag Race a Microsoft video chatting product? Because we are dealing with a lot of Teams!
I’m largely enjoying RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 5 so far, and I actually liked this episode a lot. “She-MZ”, a take on tabloid site TMZ, enters into the same proud tradition of “Bossy Rossy” and “The Bitchelor,” an improv challenge that produces more funny performances than poor ones. But suffice it to say I do have some notes, largely about the season’s structure so far. While the storytelling is proving compelling, and the drama is juicier than it has been in seasons, the competition itself feels a little low stakes.
So many group challenges in a row are a big part of this problem. While there can occasionally be a clear winner (like Shea Coulée in “I’m in Love”) or an obvious losing team (like India Ferrah and Mayhem Miller this week), often the performances feel so tied to each other in each group that it’s hard to parse exactly who should win and who should be in the bottom. Miz Cracker wins this week, for example, and she does well! Does she do better than Jujubee, her fellow top-dweller and teammate, or Alexis Mateo, who is somewhat surprisingly ruled to be a low-scorer? I’m not sure! I don’t think Cracker’s win is a mistake by any measure—in fact, I think it’s the most I’ve enjoyed Cracker across her two seasons of Drag Race—but it just doesn’t feel definitive.
Another problem is the one winner per episode, which makes this season feel a bit less competitive than previous All Stars seasons. Let’s do a quick thought experiment on how this season would look with two winners an episode:
👉India and either Alexis or Cracker would’ve won the premiere. I’ll give the edge to Alexis, since I personally liked her performance more, and this is a flight of fancy.
👉Shea and Juju would win Episode 2—Blair was also a high-scorer, but I think Michelle’s negative critiques of her runway would’ve knocked her out of contention for the win.
👉With Juju’s first-ever win out of the way, I think Ru would’ve stuck with her preference for the 24 Karat Experience in the hotel challenge, and handed Blair and Mayhem the win.
Which brings us to this week, when Cracker would’ve won alongside her fellow high-scorer Jujubee. That would give us seven total challenge winners so far versus four, and Jujubee would have two challenge wins (maybe three, if Ru still wanted to give her the win for the hotel challenge over either Blair or Mayhem). That feels more competitive, right? Instead, we have just four winners so far, and queens are going home without making much of an impact on the competition in terms of their track record.
I do love the Lip Sync Assassin twist this season and think it’s given us enough good to justify the change in the number of challenge winners. But with every change comes a cost, and that cost is a field where it feels like anyone could win.
It’s a shame that the competition feels somewhat tepid, because what’s working about All Stars 5 really works! Take the cold open this week as an example. Juju reads the votes, and Shea learns two of her fellow queens voted for her to go home: Alexis and Mayhem. Mayhem cites her closeness with Mariah Paris Balenciaga (and notably doesn’t cite her alliance with India), while Alexis says she thinks Mariah worked too hard to vote her out, and India’s performance was too good to eliminate her for. Shea is bemused by these excuses and promises to play some games of her own in the future.
The emergence of Shea as a game-player immediately bears fruit, as she is put in a group (at least RuPaul doesn’t call it a “random” selection this time) with Alexis for the improv task. The two shade each other constantly during their prep for the challenge, keeping a smile on the whole time. Shea brings up that someone from her team has gone home in the last two challenges, Alexis responds, “If someone goes home, it better be you, bitch!” Without missing a beat, Shea says, “Well I already know that I have your vote!” It’s a hilarious frenemy dynamic, and the show is better for it. Similarly, when it comes time to vote and she has the chance to vote for Mayhem, Shea delights in returning the favour by voting Mayhem out.
These are things we likely wouldn’t see in a return to the old format. Yes, Mayhem cites Shea being a “powerhouse” as the reason for voting for her but also assumed the other queens would join her in the said vote. I’m somewhat doubtful that Mayhem would’ve made such a move on her own. And even if she did, Blair would’ve still voted to eliminate Mariah, and since keeping Shea around is in the season’s best interest, Blair would’ve likely won the lip sync. (If that sounds too tinfoil hat to you, remember that there were a lot of reports around All Stars 2 that Katya was edited unfavourably in her second lip sync against Alaska when she would’ve sent Roxxxy Andrews home instead of Tatianna.) So we’ve traded wins for drama, and your mileage may vary on which you prefer.
Contrast this season to Season 12, which was relatively conflict-free, but featured a tight competition, with a final three that genuinely felt like anyone could win. Is it possible that Drag Race will ever again have a season where both the competition and the conflict are at a 10 for the whole season? The last time we saw such a thing was Season 10, but even that season burned out, leaving us with an unsatisfying back half after such a strong start. All Stars 2 even fizzled a bit after “Revenge of the Queens,” although a strong finale helped that season’s endgame.
I know we’re talking a lot about the show in a meta sense this week versus focusing on the challenge, but that’s because I don’t have a lot to say about “She-MZ.” It’s very fun! Alexis and Shea kill it as fired cast members from The Fake Housewives of Tuckahoe, each revealing the other is faking a pregnancy over lunch. The frenemies have a blast filming it, and it comes through in the performance. Blair, Cracker, and Juju are similarly delightful in a sketch about a college admissions scandal. Cracker plays the admissions officer in a fraught relationship with Juju’s overbearing drag mother character, while Blair plays a take on an Olivia Jade-style influencer daughter.
Honestly, any of the five could’ve won. They were all solid, and other than the runways and the judges’ critiques, there’s no clear way to delineate the top performers of the five. In terms of the critiques, though, it’s hard to put too much stock into them, since the judging has been so haphazard this season so far. (At least no one calls a killer runway look “crafty” this week—that really was one of the worst critiques I’ve ever heard on Drag Race.)
Of the camo runways, Blair’s and Shea’s are my favourites. Love the pants on Blair’s, and Shea’s watering jug is a brilliant touch. But nevertheless, they’re the two sent to safety, while Cracker and Juju—who both have great wigs this week, it must be noted—earn highest marks. Again, it’s splitting hairs (get it? splitting hairs? great wigs?) in terms of who deserves to win, but Cracker’s performance ultimately edges Juju’s out.
Meanwhile, the clear bottoms of the week are India and Mayhem, and they take drastically different approaches to deliberations. Mayhem all but gives up, saying she’d be fine either way. She seems furious that she’s in the bottom this week, and seems ready to leave the competition. Meanwhile, India has to fight for her survival for the third week in a row and throws Mayhem under the bus to do it. It’s a vicious, Survivor-esque play from India, but it works.
It really works, actually, considering both the group and Cracker vote to eliminate Mayhem. We know this not because of the Untucked reveal, but because both Cracker and the Lip Sync Assassin win their lip sync to Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been.” It’s a dubious choice on Ru’s part—I think the assassin clearly wins, but it’s a rough lip sync all around. What’s disappointing is that the Lip Sync Assassin is legendary queen Morgan McMichaels, who (as she notes in Untucked) is capable of a really sharp, tight performance. Both she and Cracker are too all over the place in this number.
I’d wager that production didn’t want the assassin to win alone a third time in just four episodes, since it would give off the impression that the queens in the competition weren’t up to snuff. That, plus the relative lack of wins in comparison to other All Stars seasons, would’ve really made this group seem lacklustre—and they’re not! This is a talented group! But perception matters, and so Cracker wins a lip sync she doesn’t quite deserve to. Mayhem is sent home by everyone, in similar fashion to how Phi Phi O’Hara and Chi Chi DeVayne were both eliminated twice-over in their All Stars seasons. (Valentina would’ve also been eliminated in this fashion, but was spared by a non-elimination in All Stars 4.)
Again, I do think so much of this season is really working. The storytelling is some of the best we’ve seen in Drag Race’s VH1 era without ever feeling too heavy or toxic. It’s a fun group, and their drama is just juicy enough to entertain us. And despite this week’s lip sync, the Assassin twist is still really working for me. It’s so fun to see returning queens, and we’ve seen some great performances so far. Yvie Oddly’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” lip sync alone justifies this format change! But it’s not a season that’s firing on all cylinders yet—and I hope it can find a way to turn up the competitive heat moving forward.
💄While I appreciate Sarah Hyland’s notes about improv as a guest judge, I’m a little surprised she gets the solo guest treatment. I’d have appreciated another voice on that panel (or even Ross Mathews, since he participated in the challenge!) to beef up the critiques this week.
💄“It’s like a Juju sandwich with two pieces of white bread! I’m aroused!” Big credit to Jujubee, she does a great job of breaking up the Blair and Cracker tension without being a fun-sucker. She gets them back on task while still relishing in the drama.
💄Both Alexis and Shea’s fake Real Housewives taglines are fun. Shea’s “I might be pretty on the outside, but on the inside, I’m pure garbage!” is truer to the formula, while Alexis gets points for referencing one of her catchphrases with “I’m not just sickening, I’m contagious!”
💄Catch me screaming that Cracker, Blair, and Juju’s college admissions scandal was about getting Blair into Drag U.
💄I love Mayhem addressing Michelle Visage’s accusation that she had “an attitude” on the runway during Untucked: “Michelle thinks I had an attitude… and she was damn right! Yeah, I had an attitude! I was in the bottom! Wouldn’t you have an attitude?”
💄“Two Shea… Touché!”
💄Programming note: The weekly Kiki With Kevin livestream on Facebook will be off this coming week—we’ll return on July 10. But, we also will be starting Canada’s Drag Race coverage next Thursday! Recaps will come out Thursday nights directly after the episodes, and power rankings will come out Friday mornings. I’m very excited to start this season, it looks terrific.