When I’m asked what makes for a truly great RuPaul’s Drag Race season, I always say the same thing: story. You can have a killer cast (Season 6), a dynamic set of challenges (Season 10), or drama out the wazoo (Season 3), and it just doesn’t matter if the narrative isn’t there.
This is what makes Season 5 my all-time favourite season, with a “pageant or comedy?” angle perfectly explored in the Jinkx Monsoon vs Rolaskatox arc (and a compelling B-plot in Alyssa Edwards’ rivalry with Coco Montrese). It’s what makes the first five episodes of All Stars 2 so masterful, building all the way to Alyssa and Tatianna eliminating series villain Phi Phi O’Hara twice over. And it’s what made Season 2 so enthralling even as the show was still finding its sea legs, as the girls battled with eventual winner Tyra Sanchez over her attitude, while her drag continually put her in the top.
So I’m encouraged by the premiere of Season 11 of Drag Race, because it plants a whole lot of potential storylines for the future. You’ve got the redemption of Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, the returning queen from Season 10. You’ve got Nina West, the legendary queen who’s applied to the show nine(!) times, struggling to prove she belongs. You’ve got the boisterous and brassy Silky Nutmeg Ganache, already driving her competitors up the wall but charming the hell out of RuPaul.
For 90 minutes, this episode does a lot to set the season up moving forward. Unfortunately, setting up narrative forces is a bit like setting up chess pieces: dull. Combined with some odd pacing, and Season 11’s first installment is a far cry from the razor-sharp premiere of All Stars 4.
Let’s talk about our cast first. In addition to the previously mentioned Nina, Silky, and Vanessa, who occupy most of the space in this episode, we’ve also got a pretty strong international contingent in the cast. There’s Mercedes Iman Diamond from Kenya, Brooke Lynn Hytes from Canada, and Plastique Tiara from Vietnam. There’s also Soju who, while born in the States, heavily uses Korean influences in her drag.
Then you’ve got the Davenports: Honey Davenport, A’keria Chanel Davenport, and Ra’jah Davenport O’Hara. How they relate is somewhat murky, but luckily they don’t seem to be carrying any kind of rivalries walking in the door. Of the three, A’keria is the one who quickly impresses me. While the other pageant queens of the group shy away from that label to varying degrees, A’keria embraces it fully. Trinity Taylor Thomas the Tuck showed in both Season 9 and All Stars 4 that you can brand as a pageant queen while still showing versatility; if A’keria can do the same, I see big things in her future.
There are somehow still so many queens left! 15 queens isn’t demonstrably more than the show’s usual 14, and yet all the entrances this episode feels like a deluge. Of the remaining five, two are from New York (Shuga Cain and Scarlet Envy), one is a former RuGirl’s daughter (Kahanna Montrese), one is my early favourite (Yvie Oddly, so delightfully strange), and one is likely our season’s villain. Yes, I speak of Ariel Versace, who pre-season already had to defend an Islamophobic performance inspired by 9/11. Cute! Not really.
Ariel does nothing to win me over this episode, from snide and unclever confessional comments about her fellow queens to an uninspired Lizzie McGuire entrance look ripped straight from Tumblr. It’s also bizarre to listen to her brag about her Instagram following when she doesn’t even have the largest one this season. I try to keep an open mind for every queen, and I’m excited to get to know most of them better this season. But it would frankly take a lot for Ariel to change my opinion of her.
Both the challenges look to the past: the Season 11 queens pose with Drag Race alumni in the mini-challenge and use alumni-inspired fabrics to design their maxi-challenge looks. RuPaul even implies that there will be more previous Drag Race queens featured all season. I do appreciate that the show is incorporating its herstory into the fabric of the season, but it feels like that would’ve been more appropriate in Season 10. We got a few tastes of that, with queens like Alyssa Edwards and Chad Michaels popping up for segments, so I guess production decided to double down.
The mini-challenge goes to Silky, for her photo with Season 3’s Mariah Paris Balenciaga. (Come back for All Stars 5, Mariah, we miss you!) It’s honestly not the best photo — I’d give that to Yvie’s snapshot with Season 6’s Adore Delano — but she clearly bowls Ru over with her personality. This only continues during the maxi-challenge assignment, when she has Ru cackling while distributing fabrics to the other queens.
Silky comes under fire from most of the other queens for playing up to the cameras this episode, which strikes me as misguided. This is not Project Runway, where designers go into their own corners and quietly sew. This is Drag Race. Bolder is better, and Silky is the boldest in the room. Is she obnoxious? Probably! Is her stated desire for a spinoff (and a cooking show!) deeply extra? For sure! I doubt I’d want to work in the same room as her. But knocking her for making good TV only makes the other queens look insecure. And Ru already loves her, so they should get on board sooner versus later.
Ugh, okay. I have to talk about the Miley Cyrus segment. For whatever reason, the production team put a segment more appropriate for Undercover Boss than Drag Race in the middle of the premiere, with Miley going undercover as part of the film crew. (Side note: between all the shots of the crew and the queens complaining about Silky playing up to cameras, this episode is way too meta for my taste.) Because they put her in just about the worst fake beard I’ve seen since America’s Next Top Model’s beard weave, she is discovered incredibly quickly, then proceeds to kumbaya with the queens about breathing before performances. Or something. I hate it! It’s dumb. I’m sorry.
What’s worse is, between this segment and three separate clips of queens complaining about Silky being loud, we somehow are short on time by the runway. In a 90-minute episode! The pacing missteps lead to several queens’ runway walks being briefer than others, and a quick judging segment before deliberations. This early, I want as much time spent on the challenge as possible, not on guest judge antics.
So let’s talk about those looks! My personal favourite is also the judges’ favourite, Brooke Lynn’s. She’s the only queen who really embraces both her own aesthetic and her alumni inspiration’s, wisely using Season 5 legend Detox’s neon colour palette for a killer body suit look. Just behind her is A’keria, who comes out in five wigs, an act of drag daring that instantly impresses RuPaul. Plastique and Vanessa also land on the top, albeit for less impressive looks.
Filling out the bottom are a very nervous Nina West (who Miley implores Ru not to send home), Kahanna Montrese in an unimaginative and un-Katya bodysuit, the deeply dull Mercedes Iman Diamond, and the clear disaster of the week, Soju. Poor Soju clearly has a lot going on, from being diagnosed with tendonitis to, ahem, an oozing cyst. She chooses to share this on the runway, to a mixture of disgust and amusement among the queens and judges. Plastique Tiara bursts out laughing, which is the most endearing thing about Plastique all episode.
Soju’s runway is no less catastrophic, a jumble of fabric and tulle that is, at least in theory, inspired by Season 8’s Kim Chi. She cites a traditional Korean dress as the reason for the shapeless garment, and head judge Michelle Visage wisely avoids critiquing that choice, instead coming for the poor construction of the look. It’s truly an indefensible garment.
Soju and Kahanna land in the bottom two, and are challenged to lip sync to Miley — er, Hannah Montana’s “The Best of Both Worlds.” (For a show that ended in 2011, there are a whole lot of references to Hannah Montana in this episode.) Soju’s lost before she even moves, as Kahanna has her beat in lyric memorization, dance moves and attitude. The Chicago queen sashays away back to YouTube in a sad, but perhaps inevitable, ending.
While I’m not wig-over-heels for this premiere, I do think it positions the show nicely for a story-driven season. And I can’t be that mad about that! But I do hope the rest of the season sees more time spent on challenges and critiques, and less time fixated on what came before. After all, what good is rewinding when you just have to push fast-forward to keep up with the present?
💋 For your pleasure, a full list of all the alumni featured in this episode, either in person in the mini-challenge or in their drag in the maxi-challenge: Raja, Jasmine Masters, Manila Luzon, Ginger Minj, Farrah Moan, Ongina, Sonique, Porkchop, Eureka, Raven, Delta Work, Derrick Barry, Kimora Blac, Mariah Paris Balenciaga, Adore Delano, Peppermint, Violet Chachki, Bebe Zahara Benet, Alaska, Kim Chi, Laganja Estranja, Detox, Katya, Kennedy Davenport, Bianca Del Rio, Thorgy Thor, Sharon Needles, Sasha Velour, BenDeLaCreme and Valentina. That’s a pretty solid representation of the show’s rich history, though I’d be truly thrilled if Drag Race stopped bringing Eureka back.
💋 Vanessa hiding in the workroom didn’t really work for me. It was so obvious she’d come back — see: all the queens guessing her return before seeing her — that they should’ve just run with it.
💋 So, wait: Silky jumped on a mail truck in the middle of a performance? . . . How? Where was this performance? I have approximately 200 follow-up questions.
💋 “I’m just here to shock and suck cock.” Yvie Oddly has her priorities in order. We stan!
💋 There’s some weirdness in the episode’s first segment with A’keria’s confessionals: the perspective of the shot wildly changes from one to another. Combined with some pretty sloppy ADR throughout the episode, and I’m worried about the production quality of this season. Did VH1 take the extra $100,000 for the All Stars 4 double crowning out of the production budget for Season 11?
💋 Who is this Albert Sanchez person taking photos? Where’s Mike Ruiz? It doesn’t feel right not to have him here!
💋 A notable return to big gowns for RuPaul after a season of showing us legs. Since All Stars 4 was shot after Season 11, one wonders if he didn’t get a bit of a confidence boost between the two.
💋 I already miss watching Monique Heart on Drag Race. We were blessed with two straight seasons of her. Can VH1 include interstitials of her providing commentary every episode or something? I’m having ooh-ah-ah sensation withdrawal.
💋 “Whoop my ass if you have to. Then take me to dinner! Olive Garden, whore!” Fuck it, give Jasmine Masters a commentary spot, too.
💋 Among the superstar first guest judges that Drag Race has come to rely on since the move to VH1, I’d put Miley just a skosh above Season 10’s Christina Aguilera, but far below Season 9’s Lady Gaga. The latter’s dedication to helping the queens improve, including a full artist’s critique in Untucked, keeps her comfortably ahead of the pack.
💋 And we’re back! Did everyone enjoy that week off? Drag Race airs on Thursdays once again, so recaps will be going up Thursday nights, while power rankings will hit the site on Fridays. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, and I’d be lying if I said this premiere didn’t have me slightly worried about what kind of road it will be. But hey, at least we’re in it together!
The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 11 airs Thursday, March 7, at 9 pm ET on VH1 in the US and OUTtv in Canada.