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Illustration for article titled Charmers, and some clunkers, come to the fore as iRuPaul’s Drag Race/i gets competitive
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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After two strong non-elimination premieres, RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 is finally underway, and as suspected, it’s shaping up to be a good one. While there’s some entertaining jockeying and crowing between the two groups of queens as they meet, it seems as if the delineation likelier to stick is New York versus everyone else. This season has four eligible New York queens; in a season of 12, that’s a significant subgroup.

With the introductions out of the way, the queens de-drag and the competition begins in earnest. Ru comes out and summons the Pit Crew, are an essential part of this episode’s popular returning mini challenge: Tops and Bottoms. The two premiere winners, Widow and Jaida, need to place the queens they just met in order, from who they consider their biggest competition to their weakest. They’ll have to base their rankings entirely on reputation and snap judgments, and fortunately both Widow and Jaida embrace this, keeping the tone playful and cocky. From the second premiere group, Widow picks Sherry as her biggest competition, then Jan, Dahlia, Rock M., and finally Aiden. Jaida orders the first premiere queens with Gigi highest, then Brita, Nicky, Jackie, Crystal, and last, Heidi. Neither Aiden nor Heidi are excited to be picked last, but their frowns turn upside-down when Ru names them maxi challenge team captains, along with Widow and Jaida.

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For the maxi challenge, the queens will be broken into four teams and they’ll tackle improv comedy sketches, going on an American Idol-style reality competition show, World’s Worst, that’s searching for the very worst entertainers in the world. It takes a lot of skill to sell a bad performance and still make it entertaining; this challenge should be telling. The team captains size up their fellow competitors and make their picks, with the final remaining queen, Rock M., allowed to choose her team. When the dust settles, the groups are: Aiden, Sherry, and Brita; Heidi, Jackie, and Gigi; Widow, Nicky, and Crystal; and Jaida, Jan, Dahlia, and Rock M.

Right off the bat, there’s friction on Aiden’s team. Brita is quickly frustrated with Aiden, who she sees as dead weight. It’s hard to read how much is editing, but Brita does not come off well. Her complaints about Aiden aren’t borne out by the clips of their rehearsals or by their eventual performance. Heidi, Jackie, and Gigi work together much more successfully. Jackie takes a leadership role, as the member of the group with the most improv experience, and Heidi and Gigi are eager to pitch in. Widow’s team also seems to be getting along, though Nicky is not excited about her allotted role as her sketch’s “sexy one”. Rock M. is similarly concerned about her rather thankless role as an orange. There’s a nice transparency to the episode with Nicky, Rock M., and later, Gigi addressing the writing for these Drag Race sketches. They always have certain roles that are winners and certain roles can easily get one eliminated, and it’s nice to see that at least mentioned.

Ru takes a quick lap to talk to the teams, stir up some drama, and shout out El DeBarge, in reference to Crystal’s mullet, and like that, it’s time for the performances. Carson is the host of World’s Worst, introducing the queens and giving them a chance to set up their characters before they head in to the judges. Those judges turn out to be, delightfully enough, Charo, Ross—who reprises his Bossy Rossy character—and Ornacia, who long-term fans will remember from season six.

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First up are Heidi’s team, The Del Rio Trio. They’re a sister act of elderly triplets whose attempt to break through as the new Andrews Sisters hits a snag when one of them, played by Gigi, appears to die on the way in. Jackie and Heidi quickly decide to Weekend At Bernie’s their sister and manage to make it through the audition, earning a ticket to the next round. Heidi’s team kicks the maxi challenge off on a high, committing to their physicality and having a lot of fun with their characters. All three queens do terrific work, and while Heidi and Jackie later are singled out, Gigi deserves serious props for playing the apparently dead sister, who wakes up just in time to walk out a winner, dragging her two now actually deceased sisters behind her on the way out the door.

Second in are Widow’s team, The Squirrel Scouts, who are there to sell nut butter. While Widow nails her character, the drunk one, both Crystal and Nicky struggle with theirs, who are supposed to be the smart one and the sexy one. Neither read as such in any meaningful way, and they all bungle the softballs Ross and Charo lob their way. If they don’t have anything ready for, “Is it organic?” or “Does this have squirrel juice in it?” these queens don’t have a prayer at shining in the Snatch Game. Should they make it that far, they’ll have to step up their game considerably.

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Next are Jaida’s group, The Fruity Patooties, a trio of LGBTQ activists who tell jokes. Jan is a bunch of grapes, Rock M. is an orange, and Dahlia is a head of broccoli, the odd vegetable out. Jan and Rock M. are high energy and fun, if not particularly memorable, but right from the jump, Dahlia struggles. She doesn’t have a strong enough sense of her character, who is a far cry tonally from the others, and none of the queens play off that contrast to comedic effect. Eventually, Jaida bursts in as the group’s former member, a bad apple, who spills the beans: the grapes and orange are actually straight produce who are pretending to be gay. A food fight breaks out and while it’s silly and the queens manage the scripted interactions with Ross well, the sketch could have been much more successful with better preparation and character work.

Aiden’s team—3 Girls, 1 Brain—is last. They’re a set of scorched lightning strike survivors who all speak as one, claiming to share one brain. That is, until Sherry’s character decides the jig is up and leaves. Ross and Charo eat this sketch up, as do the rest of the judges, but it doesn’t come across particularly well. Its shtick gets old rather quickly and there aren’t more levels to it, at least until the very end. The group gets minimal screen time, so more flattering editing would likely have helped, but while all three queens do well with their performances, it’s a surprise when 3 Girls, 1 Brain prompts such glowing feedback later in the episode.

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Illustration for article titled Charmers, and some clunkers, come to the fore as iRuPaul’s Drag Race/i gets competitive
Photo: VH1

Back in the workroom, the queens prepare for their elimination day runway, making conversation and stewing over their performances. There’s surprisingly little mirror chat, aside from Dahlia talking about her identical twin brother. It’s possible the queens may not have had much to say this episode, but this editing choice feels more tied to the material the queens delivered in the maxi challenge. The mid-makeup interactions are a significant part of the show, but at this early stage, that time is better spent with the challenges, if the queens’ work merits it.

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On the runway, category is: Buttons and Bows. Ru welcomes guest judge Olivia Munn to the show, and they quickly get down to business. After the premiere runways, these looks are somewhat underwhelming, but what’s interesting is how big and different several of the queens opt to go with the category. A few present rather straightforward looks—Jaida, Crystal, and Brita’s pink dresses, Aiden’s sweater look, even Gigi’s stylish orange button-bedecked dress—but the rest put their own stamp on it. Dahlia hops down the stage as a mauve and mint green bunny. Rock M. channels Alice In Wonderland. Widow goes full clown and Jackie pays tribute to the pearlies with her bright, pearl button-decorated dress. Jan’s voodoo doll-inspired look might need a little explanation, but it’s certainly unusual, and Sherry’s creepy Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? doll is likely to linger in many viewers’ memories. However, the two best looks of the episode, with much love to Gigi, are Heidi’s cute and very polished Pinocchio look and Nicky’s chic, yet playful Cinderella-in-process, complete with giant, hair-covered button fascinator. Both looks show their personalities and humor, and Heidi’s even comes with a specific backstory.

It’s time for judging. Widow, Jaida, Jan, Rock M., Gigi, Aiden, and Brita are safe and it quickly becomes clear that Dahlia, Nicky, and Crystal are in the bottom, while Heidi, Jackie, and Sherry are the top three. Gigi arguably deserves a place in the top, but it’s hard to argue with the bottom placements. Dahlia, Crystal, and Nicky each struggled in their sketches and have a ways to go to live up to the other queens, at least in an improv challenge. After some deliberation from the judges, Ru declares Sherry the winner, awarding her $5000, and tasks Dahlia and Nicky with lip-syncing for their lives to “Problem” by Ariana Grande, featuring Iggy Azalea. The lip-sync isn’t great, but Dahlia and Nicky are both solid. Dahlia appears to lose her words for a bit during the rap, though, and Nicky earns a few points for her sleek second wig look. Ru seems to agree, saving Nicky and eliminating Dahlia.

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Fortunately, though she is the first eliminated queen of season 12, Dahlia has had plenty of opportunities to show just how stylish a queen she is. The decision to split the premiere and hold off on eliminations has already begun paying dividends, and based on “World’s Worst,” it will continue to do so all season. Bring on the next episode!

Stray observations:

  • All things considered, Drag Race is handling the Sherry Pie disqualification well. She’s as cut from this episode as is possible, which is a welcome change from the second premiere. Matching her prize money with a donation to The Trevor Project is a nice touch.
  • I absolutely love the looks the first premiere queens pop up in to meet the second premiere queens. Crystal’s Frida look is great, but the standout for me is Heidi’s colorful look, with that amazing mohawk.
  • Speaking of Heidi, she is crushing the talking heads and looks to be the narrator of the season, and I am very much here for it. I’m less excited about Ru pressuring her to change her name.
  • Of all the alumnae Ru might tap to return, I never would have guessed Vivacious, let alone Ornacia. What a fun surprise! And Ross is terrific in the improv challenge, as always.
  • Olivia Munn doesn’t make much of an impact as a guest judge, but her advice to Crystal is good. So is Carson’s to Nicky, to not be afraid to throw some French into her sketch and character work.
  • My favorite line of the episode is Ru’s absolute groaner: “Dahlia Sin, you’re a beautiful queen, but the judges had some beef with your broccoli.”
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