No one ever accused RuPaul of shying away from shamelessness, but usually the bald-faced self-promotion is a footnote, not the full paragraph. Ru’s “available on iTunes” winks have always been in tune with the show’s funhouse satire of reality competition tropes, and are more often than not balanced out by the moments when Mother Ru’s protégées unleash emotional realness: Roxxxy Andrews coming to terms with the moment her mother left her at a bus stop, Ongina revealing her HIV-positive status, Monica Beverly Hillz affirming her identity as a transgender woman. Look, RuPaul’s a high-powered businesswoman who, working in a trade that seldom allows for second acts, managed to build one of pop culture’s most unexpected empires. But she also knows from what film—basically the urtext American comedy of selling out—comes the line “We take the cash, we cash the check, we show them what they want to see.” With a smile.
Who knows why this week’s main challenge feels so crass and joyless. Maybe it’s that it arrives the same weekend that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is dropping the Tsar Bomba of franchise payload on any remaining hope that film culture might recover from its current Mobius strip of intellectual-property fan service. Or maybe it’s the inescapable—though admittedly scroll past-able—influx of DragCon ads popping up in every single one of Raja and Raven’s Fashion Photo RuViews YouTube segments. Or perhaps it’s the fact that panel discussions and “this isn’t really a question, more of a comment, really” Q&A sessions are legitimately sent to Earth by the devil herself. Or all of the above. However you slice it, an episode that kicks off by blindfolding the queens and challenging them to guess what objects they’re sitting on—fish, eggplants, traffic cones—winds up crossing the not-remotely-thin line between humorous hustle and hard sell, between cute and not-cute.
Still, just to underline an important point, “Drag Con Panel Extravaganza” starts with blindfolded queens sitting on things. Slosh-a-holics everywhere are rewarded with the spectacle of Kameron Michaels turning a pile of marshmallows into his own private S’more, and Aquaria tainting her, well, taint with a personal-sized cake. It matters not who wins, because we’ve gotten to the point in the season where Ru makes like a Montessori teacher and tells the queens to find their own groupings of three. The pretense is that they have to figure out which of the three main elements of dragging it up they have the most enthusiasm for—makeup, wigs, body—and let that guide them to similar like-minded queens. Obviously, it’s much more about engineering the social dynamics of the remaining drag racers to see whose confidence levels are on the rise and whose are on the wane.
Eureka, coming off her challenge win in “The Bossy Rossy Show,” throws a wrench into that by proactively approaching both Monét X Change, fresh off her second week in the bottom two, and Kameron Michaels, fresh off her first week managing to get any notable screen time in the edit. Skeptical observers might suspect Eureka of picking two partners that stand to make her look better by comparison. But she genuinely seems excited to work with the two of them, pulling them both in for a neck-clutching group hug, shamelessly bringing Kameron’s bulging torso close to her bosom.
Each of the three groups are told they need to design and execute a panel discussion as though they were attending RuPaul’s DragCon—taking place May 11 through 13 at the Los Angeles Convention Center (wink). They’ll educate a live group of extras, along with guest judges Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, and each of their individual scores from the audience will factor into their critiques. After this season’s many acting challenges, it’s a welcome change of pace since it requires the queens to really rely on their own personalities. Including Kameron. And that’s about the only welcome thing about the challenge, because unlike every other time Ru has plugged her own products on the show, this isn’t a twisted parody of integrated marketing. This is RuPaul’s Drag Race: The Commercial.
It’s frankly a little difficult to tell which panels are really doing particularly well as they teach the children the fine art of drag, symposium style. Usually when Drag Race cuts to a judge’s reaction shot and he or she isn’t smiling, that’s a bad sign, but here a straight face could mean just about anything. Michelle Visage could either be listening intently or dying inside; it’s really a toss-up. And that’s the fault of the challenge, not the challengers. They have to be informative, engaging, amusing, approachable, and also exude charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. And be funny, except the one team that notably goes for overt gags—wig panelists The Vixen, Blair St. Clair, and Miz Cracker—ends up falling on the sword of misfired shade. The Vixen and Miz Cracker, seated on opposite ends, wind up lobbing tense insults at each other while Blair St. Clair sits between them, struggling to keep a pretty face on their efforts. Ultimately, the Pit Crew’s thirst-trap ginger ends up in full drag thanks to his successive appearances during the teams’ demonstration segments, but the true thirst is Ru’s own, bidding her captive audience to drop extra coin on a trip to Los Angeles next month.
Lewk for lewk, this week’s runway challenge is possibly the strongest yet this season. Category is: hats. And, from Kameron’s gyroscopic headpiece to Monét’s church-lady chapeau, from Miz Cracker’s hair bonnet to Asia O’Hara’s jaw-dropping dandelion chandelier, the queens turn it out. And then they get wrung out as Blair St. Clair explains why her personality announces itself with rainbows and unicorns: Before she ever had a chance to discover her sexual identity, she was raped in college. It’s a heart-stopping admission of such pain that even Ru can’t quite muster up the appropriate level of decorum, leaving it to The Vixen, who vows to find that motherfucker and stomp him.
Adding an extra dose of pathos to tragedy, The Vixen and Blair find out they have to lip sync for their lives. And the song is “I’m Coming Out.” Maybe you’ve never had to admit that you were raped and then immediately try to embody Diana Ross-levels of self-empowerment, or at least make a song that has no ass seem as though it does, but Blair doesn’t make it look easy. Her thespianic struggle quickly takes a back seat to The Vixen’s stunts, including an invisible trombone solo. (Who could’ve predicted, after Yuhua Hamasaki’s dreadful air guitar, that this would so quickly become the season of winning lip syncs via miming instruments?) A cruel ending to a crass episode, leaving one ready for next week’s “Snatch Game” to turn this ship around.
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