Season 11 may have been shot before All Stars 4, but the producers of the past do seem to be listening to criticism — well, somewhat. This week’s main challenge is an acting task (boo!) in which the queens’ parody Get Out and Black Panther (yay!). Seeing Black films used as inspiration, particularly with a cast that is predominantly people of colour, is refreshing! Unfortunately, that’s about all that’s refreshing this week.
Let’s cut to the chase: This episode is an utter mess. The challenge, while encouragingly inclusive, is even more poorly written than most Drag Race acting task scripts. The zodiac-inspired runway is full of boots, and not the footwear kind. (Though there were some ugly footwear choices, too.) The edit remains unsubtle, with storylines not so much hinted at as screamed from the rooftop. Worst of all, the episode itself is boring — a word I never thought I’d use to describe Drag Race.
Judging by these first two episodes, it’s fair to say that Season 11 is in danger. But is it unsalvageable? I’d argue no, with the caveat that things may get worse before they get better.
The big thing to acknowledge is this: we’re coming off a stretch of Drag Race seasons that started strong but fell apart halfway through. Season 10 and All Stars 4 both fell prey to this; All Stars 3 was a mess throughout, but its first half was definitely the better of the two halves. The last season to start weak and improve was Season 9, which muddled its way through several lacklustre challenges to wind up with one of the strongest top seven casts in the show’s herstory.
I think the same might happen in this season. Already, I can tell which queens seem like long-term threats: Yvie Oddly, this week’s challenge winner, is chief among them. She does as well as can be done in the challenge and turns out a strong runway look that stands out in the mediocre crowd. Most importantly, she stirs up some drama in the workroom with Ra’jah O’Hara and comes out looking like the winner.
Yvie knows she’s on Drag Race in a way I’d contrast positively to Silky Nutmeg Ganache’s approach. Performing like you’re on a TV show is not about being loud, per se, but being aware. Both of these queens are, in vastly different ways, making sure their character is caught by the camera. When RuPaul tells Silky that other girls are throwing her under the bus, Silky wisely doesn’t blow up but asserts herself. She proudly boasts her master’s degree in organizational leadership (work, Silky!) and insists she’s going to remain true to herself.
Already, Silky’s pulling herself out of a bad first impression — at least, on the show itself. Off the show is a vastly different story, with accusations of assault and Islamophobia hanging above Silky’s head. Judging by her edit, I think she’ll be with us for quite a while, but it’ll be interesting to see how, if at all, production reacts to these real-time developments.
Brooke Lynn Hytes and A’keria Chanel Davenport are also likely to be in our top group because they know how to quietly and effectively do the work. Yes, Brooke falls into the bottom four this week, but she never seems to be in real danger, and she takes critiques graciously. A’keria isn’t making a huge splash yet, but she was smart to get noticed early, then find a way to stay safe this week. I’d place my bets on her going far.
Throw Vanessa Vanjie Mateo — who continues to get a bit too much airtime, but is killing every second — and Plastique Tiara into this theoretical top group as well. Both aren’t perfect, with Vanessa not quite getting the challenge this week, and Plastique getting clocked for wearing the same shoes for both the challenge and the runway. But despite these hiccups, both get positive edits, and Plastique even winds up in the top group again. The judges are in love with both of these girls, and early favourites rarely get chopped until late.
Together, these six are clearly our best bets heading into the season. They are occupying the same space I’d say Shea Couleé, Sasha Velour, Valentina, Trinity (at this point still Taylor) the Tuck, and Nina Bo’nina Brown were in season 9. Unsurprisingly, those five made up almost the entirety of the top seven, with the late-breaking Peppermint joining them ahead of her eventual second-place finish.
There are a few queens I could see being the Peppermint this season, including Nina West (who is similarly legendary but just needs a confidence boost) and Shuga Cain (who’s a little rough around the edges but has a ton of spirit). These next few weeks will be spent figuring that out — as well as getting rid of all the chaff. And hoo boy, there’s a lot of chaff.
Looking back at the first half of Season 9, the show was admittedly trying new things: the cheerleading challenge, a morning show challenge, and a, um, princess runway in which queens had to create animated sidekicks. (Jesus, that episode was weird.) So the strangeness of this week’s challenge tracks with that. I’d bet we’ll see even more experimentation — which, again, is good. Drag Race needs to try out new challenges. But in the process, we’re going to hit some massive speed bumps in the form of bad challenges.
So there’s plenty of compelling evidence that Season 11 will look more like Season 9 than Season 10 or All Stars 4. The question is: Is that better or worse? Personally, I preferred Season 9 to either of those; while we had plenty of bad weeks near the beginning, the show picked up incredible steam after Valentina’s “Greedy” lip sync misfire, and ended on perhaps the strongest individual lip sync performance ever: Sasha Velour’s “So Emotional.”
114. Sasha Velour vs. Shea Couleé – So Emotional pic.twitter.com/QY1UCiEIJt
— 🎀 𝓽𝓮𝓪𝓶 𝓪'𝓴𝓮𝓻𝓲𝓪 🎀 (@lgbtvelour) January 26, 2018
I left Season 9 not lamenting the start but raving about the end. I walked away from Season 10 not thinking about the first eight incredibly strong weeks but frustrated that the show couldn’t land the plane. You can see why I’d prefer Season 11 to look more like Season 9. But I know plenty of fans who couldn’t get over Season 9’s early shagginess and prefer a stronger start when more queens are involved. Entirely fair! This one is going to come down to taste.
Of course, there’s always the chance that the season just never improves. “Good God, Girl, Get Out” and “Why It Gotta Be Black, Panther?” were never going to be great showcases for the queens, but the girls arguably do even worse, as a whole, than I’d have expected. The runways are a significant issue; while I appreciate a return to a less ‘high fashion all the time’ aesthetic, the execution is too poor to excuse. (Plastique, who is arguably the most fashionable queen of the season, turns out an outfit that straight up doesn’t match colours.)
The biggest issue is that we just have so many filler queens to get through. How many weeks must we watch Ra’Jah pitifully stammer her way through drama in the workroom, only to unconvincingly tell us in her confessionals that she is not the one to mess with? How many weeks must we sit through endless runways, only to be unimpressed by all of the looks? How many weeks will every less-talented queen come up with their most traumatic story to share on the runway?
Re: that last note, all due respect to Mercedes Iman Diamond. Her recovery from a stroke is a legitimate concern, and I’m glad to hear she’s doing better. (It’s certainly more valid than Kahanna’s “it’s so hard being a Ru Girl’s daughter” from last week.) But I miss the days when girls stood on their drag alone — when something like Roxxxy Andrews’ breakdown about being left at a bus stop by her mother was the exception and not the rule. And don’t forget, Roxxxy brought that story out only after delivering one of the most iconic lip sync moments in Drag Race herstory. Again, respect to Mercedes, but neither she nor Kahanna delivered anything I’d call iconic in their “Work Bitch” lip sync.
Again, I don’t think it’s time to panic yet — Season 11 has plenty of room to grow. If we’re at top seven or eight and still saying this, though, it’ll be time to admit defeat.
💋 Scarlet Envy wins this week’s challenge alongside Yvie Oddly, but I don’t have as much faith in her as a top queen of the season. I’ll explain more in my power ranking tomorrow.
💋 With “Work Bitch,” Britney Spears becomes the most lip-synced-to artist (besides RuPaul) in Drag Race herstory. Queens have performed five of her songs — including Season 4’s “Toxic,” Season 5’s “Oops! … I Did It Again,” and Season 9’s “I Wanna Go” — a total of six times over the years. (The repeat, of course, is “Stronger,” featured both in the Season 1’s top five episode and the Season 9 finale.)
💋 Sorry to see Kahanna Montrese go out so early, but girl was truly not ready to live up to Mama Coco’s legacy.
💋 Among the non-VH1 seasons, I’d say Season 1, Season 2, Season 4 and Season 7 all had stronger second halves than first halves. Season 3 and All Stars 2 both were better in their first halves, while Season 5, Season 6 and Season 8 were strong throughout. (We don’t talk about All Stars 1.)
💋 I understand the fan base has swiftly turned on Silky, and I can’t imagine that her decision to get naked during the mini-challenge (a photobombing photo shoot) will win back any fans. All I’ll say is that we’re going to be stuck with her for a while, so preserving outrage is probably for the best.
💋 I want to perform Ra’jah’s confessional monologue at a local open mic night. “Not only does she attack me, she attacks my makeup!” Yes, Mary, you’re on Drag Race. “An ugly girl can never come for a pretty girl.” Season 5 says otherwise! The delusion is strong in this one.
💋 I really like Ru’s runway look this week, but am still waiting for the Season 11 debut of Ru’s legs.
💋 Black Panther star Sydelle Noel is an excellent guest judge this week, bringing blunt and precise criticisms even more effective than Michelle Visage and Ross Mathews’. I love a judge who shows up ready to work. Bobby Moynihan is fun, but I’m not entirely sure why he’s there. He says he’s a fan of the show, at least, which is nice!
💋 I’m changing my text tone to Mercedes pronouncing “opulence” as “uplands.”
The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 11 airs Thursday, March 14, at 9 pm ET on VH1 in the US and OUTtv in Canada.