Now that’s more like it!
After a shaky premiere and a second installment I found to be even more of a mess, Season 11 delivered its first strong episode in its third outing. And it just took an unprecedented, bizarre, gimmicky lip sync to get there!
I kid, I kid. We’ll talk about that lip sync in a bit, but in truth, there are quite a few different factors to credit for this turnaround. First, this week’s challenge is a strong one, just the right blend of weirdness and difficulty that sits in RuPaul’s Drag Race’s sweet spot. The queens are split into two groups and asked to put on The 700 Club-esque televangelist programs — but instead of God, they’re worshipping their favourite pop goddess.
Nina West and Ra’Jah Davenport O’Hara win the mini-challenge — also fun, as the queens attempted to get in the door at a club with increasingly absurd stories — and get to choose their teams. Nina winds up with most of the queens who were in the bottom last week (Mercedes Iman Diamond, Brooke Lynn Hytes, Ariel Versace), but she also gets two of the three main challenge winners (Yvie Oddly, Brooke Lynn again) and season standouts Vanessa Vanjie Mateo and Silky Ganache. Ra’Jah, on the other hand, gets the whole house of Davenport (Honey Davenport, A’keria Chanel Davenport), plus another challenge winner (Scarlet Envy) and two other strong queens (Shuga Cain, Plastique Tiara). A fairly even match, no?
Well, not quite. While Nina’s group quickly settles on worshipping Britney Spears, and has the depth of knowledge to properly do so, Ra’Jah’s group decides to go with Mariah Carey, an icon they somehow have very little collective knowledge about! So little knowledge that when one of them brings up “Emotions,” Ra’Jah sings “So Emotional” instead!
What follows is as textbook of an example of how to ace a Drag Race challenge as I can remember, and how to fail one. Guess which was which!
Let’s begin with the disaster. The Mariah team names their program When You Believe — a good start — and that’s as good as it gets! Scarlet and Shuga are twitchy messes as hosts, losing the pace of the skit immediately. Because this is a live task, like the excellent morning show challenge in Season 9, they don’t get a chance to reset themselves outside of a couple of commercial breaks. Unfortunately for them, every commercial break also adds a new pair of participants to the mix, all of whom roundly fail.
Of particular note is Plastique, so far a standout in the challenges, making a goddamn mess of her live conversion segment. Granted, A’keria isn’t great as a non-believer — an Ariana Grande stan, naturally — but she’s at least fairly controlled. Plastique tries all kinds of gimmicks, including a demonic voice whenever she says “Ariana Grande,” that don’t land. It’s a clusterfuck, and it only gets worse when the Davenport Sisters join in on piano. Saying it was tuneless somehow feels like too generous a descriptor.
It’s too wild to watch the team flop at every possible point. The fact that they call Mariah’s infamous bomb movie Sparkle instead of Glitter earns an audible gasp of “Sparkle!” from judge and director Ross Mathews. The worst thing is, this was completely avoidable. RuPaul clocked the queens in the workroom for not really knowing about Mariah, yet they still decide to stick with her anyway! It is truly a perfect storm of bad decision-making.
The girls seem shocked when Ross tells them they better bring it to the runway, but they shouldn’t be. The other team could have taken a nap, and they’d still have had a chance of winning this week.
The Britney devotees hardly nap, though. Team Nina genuinely smashes the task, at every single angle. Nina and Brooke Lynn make for terrific hosts, getting the tone of a televangelist show exactly right. This interaction, in particular, makes me howl:
BROOKE LYNN HYTES: “When I was a young woman, I felt like a Genie in a Bottle. And it was dirty.”
NINA WEST: “You didn’t!”
BLH: “But then Miss Britney Spears? Her spirit has come in me and has filled me up — ”
NW: “Oh, that’s filthy.”
This works on three levels at once. The testimonial vibe is equally righteous and appropriately shamed for past actions. The Christina Aguilera joke is smart and funny. And Nina’s interjections are the perfect punctuation. It sets the tone immediately, and Vanessa takes it and rolls with it during her live conversion.
As Nina says during the segment, there’s something purely magical about watching Vanessa work. She is a hurricane of charisma, but not a destructive one. She carries weaker performers in her winds and lifts them up, rather than drowning them out. The way she boosts both Yvie and Mercedes is amazing and only strengthens her own performance. Were I judging this week, she would get the win.
Another strong contender for the win, despite my general distaste for her, is Ariel Versace. She teams up with Silky Ganache for the musical portion, coming up with a genuinely catchy riff on “This Little Light of Mine.” She adds all kinds of Britney-isms to the performance, making for a genuinely funny skit. Ariel also brings exactly the right attitude to working with Silky: yes, they had drama, but it’s time to move on. (Silky is significantly more bitter, and it’s a bad look.)
The whole package is just so impressive, and deserves more than just a default win against terrible competition. It’s one of my favourite group presentations ever on Drag Race.
On the runway, Nina earns the win — and though I would have picked Vanessa, I get why. She’s excellent in the challenge, and she also led the team well as captain. I do appreciate that Vanessa and Ariel get special shout-outs for doing well before the team is dismissed; to me, this should be standard, so as to signal who did well beyond the winner in the top group.
The bottom group quickly realizes their asses are grass, and stick together rather than throw each other under the bus. Not that they’re particularly good at taking responsibility; each has an excuse. The most absurd easily goes to Plastique: she claims she didn’t know about pop culture until three years before. (She then says she didn’t know about Beyoncé until four years before, and I like the idea that Plastique knew about Beyoncé before the entire concept of pop culture.)
I can already sense that some fans are going to make some excuses for these queens, as many of them (Scarlet and Plastique especially) are fan favourites. But here’s the thing: Nina is right early in the episode when she cites acting challenges as important. Latrice Royale didn’t become a legend because of her outfits, she became a legend because of her persona. “I couldn’t tell you what she wore on the runway! But I can tell you what she did in an acting challenge,” Nina says, and she’s right-on. These kinds of challenges, for better or worse, are part and parcel of the Drag Race experience. There’s no excuse for not being able to conquer a challenge like this.
So Ru tells the losing team they stunk, in no uncertain terms, and asks them to name who’s responsible. All refuse to name anyone else. So Ru decides he’s going to take them at their word, and makes all six lip sync for their lives.
A stunt? Absolutely. A gag? 100 percent. This is the kind of gimmick on Drag Race that I love. It’s something we’ve never seen before, and genuinely pushes the queens to figure out a challenge. You can hear the panic in Scarlet’s voice when she realizes the stage isn’t big enough for the six of them. Conversely, I love the fighting spirit it brings out in Ra’Jah, who all but vows to make Nancy Kerrigans out of her opponents.
The lip sync itself, to a remix of Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight,” is not so much good as it is batshit. There’s so much going on at once that your eyes literally can’t take it all in. From what I can tell in the edit, Scarlet and Plastique make out the best, while Shuga has some good moments and A’keria mostly picks bad places to stand but otherwise does well. The two clear worst are Ra’Jah and Honey, our Davenport twins, who also bomb the challenge the hardest. A trick involving falling off the stage and flailing around sends Honey home.
Hopefully, this six-way lip sync is a wake-up call twice over: first, for the queens, who truly need to wake up and serve it, and second, for the show. Season 11’s cast is still too large, and some of the editing still isn’t working for me. But this episode is a return to form — and, hopefully, a promise for even better work moving forward.
💋 “You gotta pick a struggle! You can’t struggle at everything, bitch! You’ll go home!” Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, a philosopher for our time.
💋 I don’t know what to make of the conversation about Mercedes’ religion. She’s clearly very uncomfortable, and I’m sure she hears no end of terrible jokes about her faith. (Hell, she’s still hearing them now from Silky!) I don’t think the other queens were being malicious, but they come across incredibly tone deaf. This isn’t exactly how I hoped the conversation about her being Muslim would go, to say the least.
💋 My thoughts on this Vanessa and Brooke romance subplot? To be determined, I’d say. There’s definitely something there, but I feel like the edit (complete with A’keria clocking their kiss and cuddling in her confessional) is working hard to make us recognize it. We’ll see.
💋 Which is more delusional: Shuga calling the problems in the Mariah group’s skit “hiccups,” or Honey saying she slayed her performance? At least the latter admits she’s probably having a Milk-esque fit.
💋 In this age of reveals we’re in, I can’t stress enough: hide your damn reveals. I was annoyed when Gia’s looked obvious during the lip-sync extravaganza in All Stars 4, and I’m annoyed now that you can clearly see Scarlet’s brown wig under her white one on the runway.
💋 “Y’all left me in the nosebleeds with Mercedes.” A’keria, girl, if you don’t get it together, you’re gonna stay in the nosebleeds.
💋 A bit of a letdown on the runway from a green-clad RuPaul — at least, fashion-wise. Attitude-wise, I couldn’t have stanned harder. I love when Ru gets pissed and knocks the girls around a bit. His annoyance that the queens wouldn’t name one of their teammates as the problem child was palpable, and I can’t blame him for throwing them all into the bottom.
💋 Terrific work from both guest judges this week. Guillermo Diaz gets some nice, specific notes in, while Troye Sivan takes the early lead as the best guest judge of the season. He’ll face some stiff competition all season — Tiffany Pollard and Kandi Burruss are still to come — but his combination of enthusiasm and smart critiques really helps him stand out. (Side note: It’s great to see two gay men as guest judges together. That’s rarer on Drag Race than you’d think.)
💋 If it seems like the girls weren’t that surprised when they were all asked to lip sync, there’s good reason for that. This is the first episode of Untucked this season I’d recommend watching.
The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 11 airs Thursday, March 21, at 9 pm ET on VH1 in the US and OUTtv in Canada.