“This is RuPaul’s best friend race!” exclaims Alexis Michelle as three or four other RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants kiss and make up in the workroom. What happens when queens all get along? Producers manufacture drama, silly. And, even for a show that wears its fabrications and intentionality on its rhinestoned sleeve, the machinations start to seem just a touch mannered. Following a series of episodes that effortlessly drew personality (or lack thereof) from a cast that seems more look-oriented than personality-dependent, the fifth episode of the show’s ninth season is a marked regression. And not only because I now, after all these blessed years, am forced to finally write the names of all the Kardashians, a situation for which it will take me some time to forgive Mama Ru.
She must’ve sensed I’d be personally offended, because if nothing else, “Kardashian: The Musical” marks the return of the mini challenge, and a photo mini challenge at that! The queens all attempt to shoot their hottest swimwear selfie with the Pit Crew—two members of which are new to presentating their, ahem, members on the show. Ru has a demented fondness for waiting until the isolated queens are starting to reach maximum thirst levels to bring on the bulging skivvies, though surprisingly few of them are feeling particularly flirty. Their chasteness could just be the result of them having been forced to prep in “quick drag,” which means everyone looks just a shade better than Helen Sharp and Madeline Ashton cackling away in the back row at the end of Death Becomes Her.
Except Valentina, because naturally Valentina looks like the adorable end result of mating a litter of pug puppies with a Pinkberry shop, and no one bats an eyelash when she makes Ru introduce her as “Miss Venezuela.” Like Aja said two weeks ago in Untucked, she’s gorgeous, she’s a model, she looks like Linda Evangelista. (And on that note, why is it that season nine’s two most prominently emerging catchphrases—Aja’s Evangelista bit and then Shea Coulee’s majestic “Who’s after Peppermint? Why y’all acting brand new?!”—came from the YouTube footnote of a series?)
But she doesn’t win the photo challenge. Instead, the title goes to Alexis, who had the three Pit Crew members hoist her into their arms like a beachy Coca-Cola ad from the 1950s. It’s cute enough, and she wins a $1K gift certificate to some gay retailer, only I can’t remember which because I’m still recovering from the fact that last week’s main challenge winners, Shea and Sasha Velour (who in the workroom had just admitted to having an eating disorder), are going to be spending the next year of their lives eating at Hamburger Mary’s. But Alexis also wins the right to select everyone’s roles in “Kardashian: The Musical,” a lip sync-stravaganza about the most singularly low-impact personalities to ever captivate a mass audience that apparently doesn’t care they no longer have a choice in the matter.
As if to prove I’m not alone in this, the queens that get the most excited about their parts are the ones who aren’t assigned any of the actual Kardashians. Sasha is beside herself that she gets to play Lindsay Lohan, Trinity Taylor roars her approval at being given Paris Hilton, and Shea all but shrieks that she’s handed the plum role of Blac Chyna. Eureka’s response to getting North West? “I’ll make it work,” which doesn’t seem like such a tall order until you see she’s been tooling around on crutches as a result of her popping a knee during the cheer challenge in episode two.
Also less than enthused are Cynthia Lee Fontaine as Kim Kardashian and Aja as Kourtney Kardashian. “Less than enthused” is an understatement, though, for how banjee advocate Nina Bo’nina She-Ra Jones And The Dap Queens Brown handles the news that Shea gets to be Blac Chyna while she herself has to sell Khloe Kardashian. Resignation is written all over her face, as well as her work station. Aja notes that she’s still got her bags packed, and Nina responds, “I didn’t think I’d be staying that long.” Peppermint isn’t exactly thrilled to be assigned the role of Britney Spears, but she sagely notes that there’s only one black role for a cast that includes three black queens. Nina, though, acts like she’s been deliberately sabotaged.
Aja, Cynthia, and Nina have what could technically be considered the three lead roles, and during rehearsals on the main stage, they couldn’t have less pep in their step, aside from Cynthia’s merciless impersonation of Aja’s cucaracha-smashing interpretation of a cha-cha time step. (Nina’s even caught laughing at their rehearsal in the background, suggesting just how much of her drama is due to the show’s editing.) But despite that and Farrah Moan’s inability to do a basic clap routine with Valentina, rehearsals are also reasonably low on drama. And when the episode shifts back into the workroom, it’s nothing but apologies and penitence. Trinity takes pity on her nemesis, Eureka, over her bum knee flaring up during a musical challenge. Eureka, in turn, pulls aside Sasha and Valentina and atones for scoffing at their eating disorders, which allows Valentina the chance to finish her aborted confession, which includes the touching fact that before she arrived on the set, she promised her mother that she would eat every day.
The conciliatory tone is genuine, but all the good will gets sucked out of the room when the main event kicks into gear, with an audience that includes guest judges Todrick Hall and Meghan Trainor, who has gutted a baby unicorn and is wearing its pelt. The musical, such that it is, fails to justify its own existence or that of its subjects, but almost everyone is bringing professional workhorse realness to the stage, aside from Cynthia Lee, who appears to just be lip-syncing the word “cucu” to each of her lyrics. For the lengths the producers and, in collusion, the judges are going to to set Nina up as self-defeating and mopey, virtually none of that shows up in neither her musical performance nor her absolutely spot-on Mary J. Blige-in-late-autumn runway look. She gives a flawless performance, and gets read for not acting like Khloe, an utterly preposterous critique that only makes sense if you take into consideration the possibility that forces outside of her control are setting her up to fail. Ru cautions Nina not to give into paranoia, but really, who’s zoomin’ who? Especially since the queen who got the part Nina wanted is named this week’s winner: Shea, now riding a two-week streak.
The vague sense that something outside of drama-as-usual is hanging in the air carries over to the Lip Sync For Your Life battle. Farrah and Cynthia are in the bottom, and are given the unenviable task of performing CPR on Meghan Trainor’s “Woman Up.” Neither of them exactly reverses the flatline, each delivering whatever the gay version of a golf clap-worthy performance would be, and it looks like either could go home, or even potentially both. But just as Ru is about to make her decision, a floor director wanders into the bottom of the frame and gives her a message sotto voce. In a move that takes the show’s low-key drama by the neck and slaps it around, Ru rises from the judge’s table and exits, leaving Cynthia confused and Farrah visibly terrified.
When she returns, it feels like anything could happen short of wiping the entire season’s slate clean and replacing the lot of them with season-one alumni. Ru calls Eureka to the front of the stage in a manner that’s likely to give Willam PTSD. But no, she didn’t cheat. Turns out, doctors have ordered Eureka to take time off to heal from her knee injury, and so she’s given the boot and, simultaneously, an invitation to compete in season 10. Tears, hugs, redemption, and a full-circle sense of closure against Cynthia Lee’s phoenix story arc. This really is RuPaul’s best friend race! Though Ru cautioned Nina, “No more drama,” let’s hope this isn’t the beginning of an irreversible trend.
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