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Illustration for article titled Improv strikes again on iRuPauls Drag Race/i, pushing the top six out of their comfort zone
Photo: VH1
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The queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 12 are an impressive lot, and it’s hard to think of another season with as deep a bench. However, while these queens are talented, a pattern has emerged. They tend to do well in the show’s signature challenges. The group musical performances, the acting challenge, the Rusical, the makeover, these were all terrific. But when faced with an unexpected challenge, or one they can’t prepare for in advance, they’ve faltered. This is such a charismatic and likable set of queens that even their stumbles have been entertaining, but improv is not their bag, and season 12 has tested their comedy chops over and over. After a very strong showing in “Superfan Makeover,” the queens once again struggle in “One-Queen Show,” delivering a mixed bag of comedic, dramatic, and even confounding performances.

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The episode begins with the queens reacting to Jaida’s third win and Heidi and Jackie’s double shantay. Jackie is relieved, but Gigi is less than enthused that after scraping through another challenge as safe, she’ll be up against the same queens again. Jaida can relate, but she’s already focusing on the next challenge. She’s ready to do what it takes to stay in the competition, no matter how many times she has to send her competitors packing.

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The next day, it’s time for one of the show’s best mini challenges, puppets! The queens each reach into a pink glittery hole—this show is beautifully ridiculous, may it never change—and pick out a puppet representing one of their competitors out of drag. They’ll need to drag up their puppets and then do a few minutes of stand-up with them, holding a conversation and getting some good jabs in. Crystal gets Jaida’s puppet, Jackie gets Sherry, Sherry gets Heidi, Heidi gets Crystal, Jaida gets Gigi, and Gigi reaches deep to pull out Jackie. After 20 minutes, Ru calls the “bitch-fest” to a start, summoning Crystal to the stage. These queens are charming and fun, but unfortunately, comedy isn’t their strong suit. They reference memorable moments from earlier in the season, but most of the queens don’t do enough to twist and amplify them. The result is enjoyable, but forgettable. The exception is Jackie, whose exchange with PuppetSherry is consistently funny, even with Sherry having been as cut out of the season as possible. Jackie’s timing and performance is spot-on, and she’s rightfully declared the winner.

Ru gets right to announcing the maxi challenge. The queens will be putting on one-woman shows. They’ll be in front of a live audience and will need to decide whether to perform as themselves or to adopt a character, or multiple characters. The shows should be five minutes, and the queens will be coached by guest judge Whoopi Goldberg. While younger viewers will be most familiar with Whoopi from The View, the EGOT-winner got her first break in the industry thanks to her one-woman show on Broadway.

As the winner of the mini challenge, Jackie gets to decide the show order. She wants to go first, but the rest of the queens all seem to want to go third. This isn’t particularly helpful, but it’s hard to blame them. No one wants to go last and have to either follow the other queens if they’ve done well or try to do damage control if they haven’t. When they refuse to budge, Jackie puts herself first, Crystal second, and Heidi third. That leaves Jaida, Sherry, and Gigi. After a little coaxing, Jaida sighs that she doesn’t care and Jackie jumps on that as Jaida signing up for last place. It’s a stretch to say the least, but it keeps things moving. Jackie puts Gigi fourth and Sherry fifth, and they have their order.

It’s time for the coachings. Jackie is up first and things start out rough. She’s trying for stand-up with her Brief Herstory of Drag Race concept, but nothing is landing. She’s not putting anything of herself into the show, so there’s little specificity. Whoopi encourages her to stop thinking of it as stand-up and instead, go for storytelling. She needs to tell the audience who she is. Next is Heidi, who plans to take the audience to one of her family’s barbeques. She’ll be acting out several family members and playing on familiar types, from the granny to the drunk uncle. After a brief drunk acting lesson from Whoopi, it’s time for Crystal. She’ll be giving a demonstration as a male exotic dancer. Ru’s skeptical, but open to Crystal playing a male character in drag, a marked change from earlier seasons. Crystal is focused on bringing the funny, wanting to commit fully and get the audience laughing. Whoopi’s advice is smart: Crystal needs to make sure whatever she does is funny to her. Everyone in the audience will have a different idea of what’s funny, so rather than chase that, she needs to clarify her voice and stick to her own sense of humor.

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Sherry is planning to play a punny, psychic goldfish. She throws out a few lines, none of which land, and Ru tweaks her concept. Instead, she should play a human who psychically channels the goldfish, holding the audience’s hand a bit more with the premise. Gigi is up next. She’s written a full sketch, playing a flight attendant on a flight to hell. It’s very scripted and lacks spontaneity, and with such a distinct character and premise, as soon as Gigi puts down her notepad, she’s at a loss. Whoopi tries to encourage her—Gigi needs confidence more than anything else—but she’s struggling. Last is Jaida, who is an engaging storyteller, but is talking too fast. Whoopi slows her down, comparing her show to a flower that needs to open one petal at a time. Jaida feels overwhelmed. Whoopi and her performance as Celie in The Color Purple is a big inspiration to her, and she’s very moved by Whoopi’s presence. Whoopi brings her in for a hug, ending the coachings on a lovely note.

The next day, the queens are in the zone, preparing for the show. Crystal is itching for a win, knowing the door is closing on opportunities to get her first win before the finale. Jackie has thrown out her original concept—thank goodness—and is going with something far more personal and vulnerable. It should be catnip to Ru, if she can pull it off. Gigi is still in her head, trying to power through despite a lot of insecurity. Heidi is excited to share stories about her family, and as she starts to reflect, Jackie dubs her the Rose Nylund of the season. The other queens agree, except Jaida, who needs a reminder of who Rose is. Hopefully by now, Jaida has sought out some Golden Girls.

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Illustration for article titled Improv strikes again on iRuPauls Drag Race/i, pushing the top six out of their comfort zone
Photo: VH1

On that moment of levity, the episode moves to the main stage. Ru comes out in a sparkling lavender look. She welcomes Whoopi, and it’s time for the show. Jackie is up first, sharing some of her experiences growing up. There are two stools on stage, each with a different set of glasses, one for Jackie’s mom and another for her dad. It’s simple and effective, and Jackie pops back and forth between both, narrating her journey to discovering drag. She wisely keeps herself and her perspective at the center, with her parents as supporting players, and the show works well. It’s not the laugh riot Ru is likely looking for, but it’s smart and well crafted. Jackie’s got to be in the top for this.

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Crystal is second as Phenomenal Phil, an exotic dance instructor. Crystal has her boy hair out, but a full face and a muscle suit. Phil is ridiculous and silly, and Crystal goes all in with Phil’s various dance moves. The humor doesn’t translate all that well in the edit, but the audience, the judges, and the other queens are loving it. Heidi comes out next for her cookout-themed show. She introduces her various characters—Granny, Sharon, drunk Uncle Rob, and Cousin Slick—and narrates a cookout fraught with tension over Sharon’s controversial potato salad. The individual characters work well enough, but there’s too much going on. The show lacks focus. Gigi, on the other hand, is a bit too focused. She establishes a good rapport with the audience thanks to some decent crowd work, but keeps returning to her planned structure and outline, losing momentum instead of building on the laughs she’s landing.

Sherry dances out to start her show, playing a psychic who communicates with her fish, Bubbles. She trips over her tongue at first but recovers, before getting sidetracked playing off of the audience. She doesn’t even introduce her fish until she’s six minutes into what’s supposed to be a five minute show. She ultimately goes on for 17 minutes, milking the audience for everything they have. Jaida is not excited to follow that. She starts strong, grabbing the room with confident stand-up comedy energy. Unfortunately, she goes for gross-out humor and wavers back and forth, winning over the audience and losing them. Crucially, she doesn’t stick the landing. With a stronger closer, Jaida could have pulled it off, but the show just kind of ends, and her whimper of a last line seals her fate. Jaida’s going to be in the bottom.

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It’s time for the runway. In honor of Whoopi, category is: The Color Purple. Jackie comes out as The Purple People Eater, a fun and campy look that’s a nice change of pace for her. Crystal is second, in a whimsical multi-toned purple look inspired by Nick Cave’s soundsuits. It’s well-executed and she sells it; she looks great. Heidi is up next, looking absolutely gorgeous in a glamorous pageant gown and beautiful makeup. Gigi is back on her reference game, coming out in a look legally distinct from Scooby-Doo!’s Daphne (somehow). It’s pristine, but compared to the others, it falls a little flat. Sherry is fifth, coming out in a purple look that’s inspired by the Cheshire Cat, but feels more flapper or showgirl. The final look of the night is Jaida, who wins the runway for this Trek fan with a look that feels like a drag twist on Whoopi’s Next Generation character’s distinctive purple costume.

The judges are mixed on Jackie’s look, but they loved her show. Michelle and Ross give Crystal some of their highest praise, living for how daffily stupid her show was. Heidi gets some gentle criticism from the judges for not nailing the specificity of her characters, but she is complimented for her look and specifically her makeup. If only Nicki Minaj were on the panel! Ross calls Gigi the Don Rickles of drag, and he’s right. Had she gone all in on an insult comic persona with her premise loosely draped around it, rather than vice versa, she would have been much more successful. The judges love her look, and they urge her to trust her instincts more. As for Sherry, Michelle loves her look and specifically her paint, but the judges all ding her for going way too long. Michelle rightly scolds her that going so long over her time is selfish. Jaida takes some ribbing from Ross over her subject matter, but the main note from the judges is her energy. Jaida resigned herself to her show not working while she was still on stage instead of pushing through. Ru remarks on Jaida’s perhaps unintentional Next Generation shout-out, and wraps up the judges’ comments by commending the queens for their work and remarking on the high caliber of the season.

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After deliberations, Ru declares Jackie, Gigi, and Sherry safe, and Crystal gets her first win, an important milestone heading into the final pre-finale elimination. That leaves Heidi and Jaida in the bottom. In a rare move, Ru announces them not by outlining their missteps, but as a product of them being the final queens on the stage. This slight tweak to the usual approach highlights just how much Ru respects the remaining queens, bottom two included. Heidi and Jaida prepare to lip-sync, fittingly to Prince’s “1999,” and it looks to be a battle. They both have their game faces on and both have shown themselves to be strong lip-syncers.

Jaida gets some points early on, taking off her hat and long wig to reveal a Prince-inspired short blonde bob. Both Heidi and Jaida can move, and they do the song justice, but in the end, one has to go home. This is Heidi’s fourth time lip-syncing for her life and Jaida has three wins. It’s clear what needs to happen. Ru declares Jaida safe and sends Heidi packing. Despite her continual growth over the season and entertaining talking heads, it’s her time. The roughest queen in her premiere episode, Heidi has done incredibly well this season. She’s cemented a place in Drag Race fans’ hearts and is a shoo-in for Miss Congeniality. Like Widow, Jan, and several other queens this season, she’ll undoubtedly be back in a future All Stars season. May she return to delight Drag Race fans again, and soon.

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Stray observations

  • RuPaul’s Therapy Race is my new favorite spin on RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.
  • Heidi’s hepiphany moment this episode is maybe the most relatable she’s ever been. Speaking of…
  • With Heidi gone, will Jaida be the new queen of the talking heads? She’s pretty great here.
  • Seriously, Ru, stop it with the El DeBarge. It stopped being funny midway through the season, and it wasn’t all that funny to begin with.
  • Whoopi doesn’t add much to the runway banter, but she’s a great coach and the judges clearly have fun with her on the panel. It’s nice to see Whoopi get so much love from the queens—Jackie’s Counselor Troi cosplay looks good, by the way—and for them to take so much away from working with her.
  • How about that All Stars 5 cast announcement? These queens had been rumored for a long time, but it’s nice to see them officially confirmed.
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