Hearing that your favourite comedy program is going to somehow parody the Donald Trump administration is always a dicey affair. While social good has come out of the #Resistance efforts in the United States, its effect on the comedy world has been less positive. Even Saturday Night Live, which has seemingly thrived in this administration if you go by Emmy nominations, makes more headlines for angering the president than actually being funny these days. It’s like Trump is a comedy repellant, dragging everyone in his wake down into dumb “Drumpf” jokes.
So news of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s “Trump: the Rusical” episode didn’t exactly thrill me. Yet in retrospect, it’s the most appropriate thing for latter-day Drag Race to do. It’s well-meaning, but not that entertaining or well-constructed, and is only funny when the queens are elevating the material. The result is an episode that’s not nearly as bad as the first two installments of the season, but can’t quite keep the momentum up from last week.
The queens are shook in the wake of last week’s six-way lip sync, and understandably so. They realize RuPaul could’ve sent any number of them home, and it would’ve been justified. Scarlet Envy calls it a push from Mother Ru, as if she’s saying, “Don’t fuck it up, this is your last chance.” Which, yes, Scarlet, those are indeed the exact words Ru says every episode! We love when a queen understands the premise of the show she’s on.
The contestants thus sink their teeth into both challenges, eager to prove why they deserve to be there. I give massive props to Team Britney from last week not resting on their laurels; they’re just as fired up as the six-way survivors are.
We start with a Rachel Maddow-themed teleprompter reading challenge that recalls one of America’s Next Top Model’s most iconic tasks. (“Magnetic?”) Ask anybody who’s had to read off a teleprompter: it’s hard! It’s all the stress of an eye exam board, except you’ve got to read like these words are naturally coming out of your brain. Most of the girls struggle, while a couple (particularly Nina West) do better. Mercedes Iman Diamond delightfully explains that she doesn’t know Rachel Maddow, because “where I’m from, we didn’t have a Rachel Maddow, but we did have a goat.” Now all I care about is Mercedes’ goat.
For some reason, Scarlet, whose makeup look and wig for Rachel Maddow are kind of a mess, wins the mini-challenge over Nina. Fine, whatever. This seems mostly designed to give Scarlet the task of casting the Rusical, but sure.
To Scarlet’s credit, she actually does that task very well, both hearing out what the girls want and making executive decisions to make sure the best queens are found for each part. This includes having to tell Silky Ganache she’s going to be Oprah Winfrey, despite her desire to be the lead role. (Upon moaning about being typecast, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo tells Silky, “It’s not typecast, it’s fierce.” Which is a terrific way to respond to any criticism!)
Yanis Marshall takes over choreography duties from Todrick Hall, and thank Ru for it. Yanis is a killer, who turns out complex moves, but actually helps the girls understand the moves and hears them out when they explain their difficulties. Of particular note: When Yvie Oddly talks about her connective tissue disorder, Yanis is deeply sympathetic, and they figure out a solution together.
That said, Yanis is still harsh on the girls who overstate their skills, like Ra’Jah Davenport O’Hara claiming all sorts of dance expertise she actually hasn’t used in 15 years. Ra’Jah struggles throughout rehearsal, and is the editing room’s new target for the villain treatment. That’s because their other picks are no longer viable: for example, Ariel Versace has been quietly doing the work these last couple of weeks. She manages to turn things around from a terrible rehearsal into a very decent performance in the lead role.
The other potential villain is Silky, after her utter meltdown in Untucked last week. However, that won’t work, as RuPaul loves Silky. The last time RuPaul loved a villain who won was Tyra Sanchez, and look at how that worked out. The editors aren’t going to make Silky a villain; in fact, with her win in the main challenge this week, she’s arguably one of the heroes of Season 11. So Ra’Jah it is.
The Rusical is just fine, as most Rusicals are. It’s not very funny, and the roles are so wildly different in size that it’s hard to compare people’s performances. I will say the writers did a nice job interpolating the Trump theme with the Grease template — because, yes, this Rusical is also a Grease parody. It sounds like a trash fire, but it goes together better than you’d expect.
Silky winning for a pretty good Oprah over Yvie’s truly excellent Kellyanne Conway is a crime, though. Yvie got the kind of critiques literally only winners get — Michelle Visage said she couldn’t take her eyes off her. Perhaps the judges didn’t want to give Yvie another win that quickly, or wanted to get Silky a win while they could. But it’s a straight-up robbery.
Brooke Lynn Hytes joins Silky and Yvie in the top three (quite deserved for her Ivana Trump), while Miss Vanjie’s take on Rosie O’Donnell lands her in the bottom three (not deserved in the slightest). That said, there are really only two contenders for elimination here: Ra’Jah, who serves a deeply uninspired Omarosa, and Mercedes, whose Ivanka Trump is dead on arrival.
Mercedes does get a nice moment in the workroom, when she addresses the awkwardness with her fellow queens from last episode. To refresh: Silky, A’keria Chanel Davenport and some others wanted to talk religion with Mercedes. Mercedes’ response: no, thank you! But she gives herself the space to both unpack that reaction and get into her Muslim faith with the other queens, who are very receptive. I especially appreciate Scarlet acknowledging that she and the other queens may not have made it the most comfortable space for Mercedes, and apologizing for that. That is about as positive a note as this conversation could end on.
Onto lighter things! We have to talk about the runway. Specifically, guest judges Tiffany “New York” Pollard and Joel McHale’s behavior on the runway. It is The Most. Tiffany shows why she’s been a fan-requested judge for seasons, firing off one-liner after one-liner. “I’ll eat that orange!” “She’s giving me Nicki Minaj from the back!” “The Juice is loose!” She is living, laughing and loving. It’s perfect. Every single future guest judge should take notes; this is the attitude to bring to Drag Race.
Over on the left side, Joel won’t stop shouting throughout the runway presentation, fully pissing off Michelle. She shoots him glares throughout, which only goads him to be even more ridiculous. She mutters “Jesus Christ!” under her breath at one point, and later gives him a “Stop looking at me.” It’s such delightfully bizarre chemistry, but it works.
The runway looks are uniformly a major step up this week, with Yvie’s citrus circus look and Nina’s Hello, Dolly! Homage coming in at the top for me. I also deeply covet Brooke Lynn’s coat. But it’s Silky’s curvy runway that gets Tiffany’s biggest kudos — and, of course, the win. Meanwhile, a jumpsuit and chaps from Ra’Jah and a polished face from Mercedes can’t save them, so down into the bottom two they go.
I don’t know what to make of Drag Race turning to male singers for lip sync songs. “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” provided the absolute worst lip sync in All Stars 4. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, of course. But it is worth noting that for the first 10 seasons of this show (eight regular, two All Stars), the only non-RuPaul lip sync song with male vocals was Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” in Season 8 — still performed by a queer artist and drag performer. (That lip sync, by comparison, was excellent.)
There have been a couple of male vocalist-inclusive songs chosen since, like Season 9’s “Love Shack” by the B-52s and “Macho Man” by the Village People. But “Love Shack” features primarily female vocals, and “Macho Man” comes from a band deeply steeped in gay culture. “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” and now James Brown’s “Living in America” don’t have that advantage. I do think Ra’Jah turns it out this week, but something doesn’t quite click for me.
Perhaps I’m limited in my thinking to restrict Drag Race solely to female artists for the lip sync. Like I said, Bob the Drag Queen and Derrick Barry’s Sylvester lip sync was fantastic. But I do think featuring straight male artists shifts the window a bit too far away from the original mission.
Regardless, Mercedes can’t keep up with Ra’Jah in the lip sync and gets sent home. I’m very relieved she goes out more comfortable than she’s been all season, able to be honest about her faith. Though I don’t think her skills are a great fit for the Drag Race format, I do think she’s an utter sweetheart. I want nothing but the best things for her — and her goat.
💋 She may not have been the rightful winner in my eyes, but I’ll admit, nothing this episode made me laugh harder than Silky responding to news of a “leak” in the workroom with “Soju’s back?”
💋 Silky registering as a Republican to fight gerrymandering — Silky, who lives in Chicago — is truly wild.
💋 Nina West explaining her backstory is both horrifying and awe-inspiring. I totally understand why experiencing hate and the threat of violence in the time of Matthew Shepard would motivate her to be a political queen. Hearing her speak about it is galvanizing and endearing. No matter how she does this season, Nina has made a lifetime fan out of me.
💋 Ariel Versace pulling out a Bridesmaids reference during rehearsals is doing a lot to win me over.
💋 We’re just gonna have Ginger Minj come play Donald Trump in the sketch and not hear her speak then, huh?
💋 As could be made clear from my recap, I’m head-over-heels for Tiffany Pollard as guest judge this week. She’s enthusiastic but not simply a fan, able to offer criticism and praise in equal measure. She and Troye Sivan easily lead the pack among this season’s guest judges. Joel McHale . . . is a lot. But purposefully a lot! How funny to see the two of them on the same panel 13 years after the then-host of The Soup would regularly roast “New York” on Flavor of Love. And they’re here together on a VH1 show, no less!
💋 Clock how choppy Joel’s intro is before the challenge. Something is very clearly cut from the edit. Remember that this season was shot early last summer, and remember what Joel could have been there promoting that is no longer relevant. Whoops!
💋 Speaking of judges: is Carson Kressley just never coming back? I’m not mad about all the Ross Mathews, I love him, but this season’s alternating judge spot isn’t so much alternating as “Ross has been here every episode.” That said, as a massive Big Brother fan, I’m glad Ross is here this week to talk about his experiences in the Celebrity Big Brother house with Omarosa. They shared a toilet!
💋 Upon hearing Silky does her eyebrows with Sharpie, Brooke says, “Silky gets her makeup from Office Depot!” Okay, so maybe one thing this episode made me laugh harder than Silky’s Soju line.