The best reality TV show currently on the air does not maroon its players on a desert island, feature contestants pitching their business ideas to cutthroat venture capitalists, or send teams on a globe-trotting obstacle course. It does not lock them in a house or pit them against each other to win the affection of a rakish bachelor. It is not on network television or Bravo; it does not feature aspiring chefs, fashion designers, dancers, or socialites. It’s on a little network called Logo, and it features drag queens. The best reality TV show currently on the air is RuPaul’s Drag Race.
And the fact that it has even managed to hit the airwaves is a triumph. Populism tends to dictate reality TV programming: everyone likes music, so Fox greenlit American Idol. When “foodie” culture became mainstream, Top Chefdebuted. But RuPaul’s Drag Race showcases a subculture (drag queens) within a subculture (the gay community) and it lives on Logo, a little cable network that prides itself on programming that is “outrageous, smart, and inclusive.” (Fear not, cord cutters! Drag Race episodes can be streamed on LogoTV.com, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and iTunes.) Still, it manages to be, minute-for-minute, the most entertaining, inclusive, and subversive reality show on television.
If you’re unfamiliar with Drag Race, you’ll recognize its bones from other reality competition shows: individual contestants perform in weekly challenges in which they are judged on their “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent” (which makes for quite the intentionally racy acronym) ranging from stand-up comedy routines, song and dance numbers, photo shoots, makeover challenges, and team competitions. Part of the show’s appeal is its wide variety of challenges; entire reality shows have been launched on each of these challenge concepts (Last Comic Standing, American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, America’s Next Top Model, Extreme Makeover, and The Amazing Race). In this way, Drag Race almost feels more like a variety show: one week the queens are serving up a roast of RuPaul, the next, they’re transforming grooms-to-be into blushing brides. Each week, based on their performance in the competition and their runway look (there are echoes of Project Runway, as each queen must create or at least conjure up an ensemble in which to strut her stuff — and, oh, what stuff it is!), two queens are put up for elimination. From there, they must lip-synch for their lives to a pre-selected song and one of them is sent home. The winner is crowned America’s Next Drag Superstar.
But what sets this show apart from the rest of the crop of reality competition shows is the sly genius and business savvy of the show’s creator and star, RuPaul. Leveraging her cachet as the world’s most famous drag queen (don’t come at me with this Dame Edna nonsense), RuPaul has created a vehicle that not only highlights her brand, but also serves to each season launch the brand of the competing queens, giving them exposure and a leg up on making a living in the entertainment industry — through post-show gigs, tours, merchandise sales, dance tracks, etc. RuPaul didn’t start out as the world’s most famous drag queen, after all. She clawed her way to the top, making smart and calculated business decisions in a world that wasn’t necessarily dying to embrace a man dressed up in women’s clothing. She has paved the way, changed the culture in a way that makes a show like this even possible, and is, therefore, the ideal mentor, judge, and, yes, queen reigning over this competition.
And let’s talk about the branding: it’s aggressive. The show is chock-full of catchphrases — “Shante you stay/Sashay away,” “Sissy that walk,” “Don’t fuck it up!,” “Gentlemen, start your engines and may the best woman win,” “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” The list goes on. And with the numerous product placements, whether they’re for show sponsors or RuPaul’s own songs, make-up line, signature fragrance, etc, they are deployed so knowingly — sometimes accompanied by a literal wink — that you can’t help but be charmed by the blatant pandering. And, likely, you can’t help yourself from quoting them in your day-to-day life. These catchphrases have made their way into the vernacular of the show’s fans — how satisfying is it to dismiss someone with a simple “sashay away”? — and serve the purpose of strengthening the brand and coalescing a community.
The term “shante” itself is indicative of another thing that makes the show so powerful: its acknowledgment of and reference to the history both of drag and of the gay community. “Shante” pays homage to a line in the excellent 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. In addition to subtly referencing the documentary, each season RuPaul opens up The Library, another drag convention showcased in Paris is Burning, where drag queens are forced to “read” their fellow competitors. (Saeed Jones at Buzzfeed provided the best definition of “read” I’ve come across: “to insult someone ruthlessly without breaking a sweat; see: Mariah Carey every time she refers to Nicki Minaj.”) She also is committed to educating the contestants — and, by association, the audience — in LGBT and drag “herstory.” This season featured a John Waters/Divine-inspired challenge, along with a lesson about how groundbreaking they were in terms of drag visibility. Past seasons have included herstory lessons on Stonewall, gays in the military, and iconic divas. As far as RuPaul is concerned, educating her audience about these important trailblazers and moments in history is — like reading — fundamental.
Part of RuPaul’s savviness and subversiveness is the fact that she opens up the circle and involves others — sometimes gay, sometimes not — in the show’s challenges. Some of Drag Race’s most powerful episodes have centered on challenging the contestants to provide drag makeovers on people who have likely never considered — much less tried — drag: macho jocks, dads, grooms-to-be, and gay veterans. What could be a recipe for afterschool special schlock often turns out to be something much more poignant, bridging a gap between communities that might, on the surface, appear to have very little in common. And Ru knows exactly what she’s doing: by charging the contestants to make over these often heterosexual, often macho outsiders in their own drag image, they are queering and challenging concepts of gender, masculinity, and machismo.
And we can’t forget about the queens. Each year, a new cavalcade of contestants is selected to compete for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. RuPaul’s savvy also presents itself in just how diverse each new crop of queens is. This diversity shows in the contestants’ races, certainly, but also their socioeconomic status (Season Six’s Adore Delano rose to the top three, even without the opulent wardrobes some of her competitors were working with), level of experience (it’s not unusual for a relative newcomer to compete alongside a career queen), their body shape (Latrice Royale forever!), and their drag style of choice (comedy queens and pageant queens, scary queens and campy queens), making this one of the most diverse casts on any television show — reality or otherwise — currently on the air.
Reality TV has made its name on stirring up drama between its participants. It’s a rare Real Housewives episode that doesn’t involve a glass of wine thrown in someone’s face, a physical altercation, or general catty backstabbery. Even other competition shows, like Project Runway, often focus more on the interpersonal dynamics between contestants than pure talent and skill. But onDrag Race, the “drama” is often relegated to the show’s cold open — a minute or so of shady barbs and chit chat before the opening credits, underscored with over-the-top dramatic music — and to the behind-the-scenes webseriesUntucked, which shows the contestants’ backstage interactions. But once those credits roll, it is all about characters and craft: we see the work room and the runway (with some cutaway confessionals where the queens narrate the action and throw a bit of shade). But ultimately, drama isn’t the engine that runs the show; it’s characters and craft.
While most competition reality shows require contestants to develop or adopt a character type — the cutthroat “I’m not here to make friends” shit-stirrer, the faux-naif who is actually pulling the strings behind the scenes — to play the game, the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race arrive as fully formed characters. Drag is a fundamental party of their livelihoods. What then becomes most interesting is seeing how they adapt their individual characters to find success on the show. Who could have predicted that the foul-mouthed, insult-slinging Bianca Del Rio would transform into her season’s mother hen and mentor, helping less experienced queens navigate their way through the challenges? Or that Trinity K. Bonet, who spent the first half of Season Six complaining that she couldn’t do anything (sing, act, tell a joke), would shed her insecurity and absolutely slay it in a comedy challenge?
Unlike most reality competition shows, which rely heavily on editing to drum up drama and amplify suspense, the editorial hand at work on Drag Race feels refreshingly light. Unlike a show like The Amazing Race, which often utilizes editing to make it look like teams are more neck-in-neck than they actually are, the editing on Drag Race, especially in the crucial “Lip Synch for Your Life” segment, is remarkably fair — as is Ru’s ultimate judgment. If both queens turn it out (as was the case with Roxxy Andrews and Alyssa Edwards in Season Six), they both stay; if both queens fall flat (as was the case with Vivienne Pinay and Honey Mahogony in Season Five), they both sashay away. Even last week’s controversial elimination, which saw fan favorite Katya sent home by Kennedy Davenport, who gave one of the most exhilarating lip synchs of the series, was — and I’m already anticipating the hate mail I’m going to get for saying this — the right call and completely fair.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is that rare reality show that rewards risk-taking, flexibility, generosity, and — strangest of all — kindness, while also reveling in wit, sexual double entendre, and frivolity. It manages to be sweet and subversive, silly and poignant, and it serves as a vehicle to introduce drag in its myriad forms to a wide viewing audience. It functions as both a parody of reality television and as a prime example of just how great the genre can be. The show, like its creator, has a big, beating, radical, sarcastic, filthy heart. And as long as it is on the air: shante, I’ll stay.
By Brett Barbour – posted by lonelygirl also a binge TV watcher.