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RuPaul’s Drag Race celebrates the charms and excesses of “Gay’s Anatomy”

Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race/i celebrates the charms and excesses of “Gay’s Anatomy”
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Acting challenges have been a staple of Drag Race since early in its run and over time, the show’s priorities have become clear. The task is not to execute a strong script, but to take an underwritten, uninspired role and elevate it into something interesting. Drag Race chooses its parody subjects with love and a wink, but it’s rare for these re-imaginings to connect to their source material beyond the broad strokes. Not so with “Gay’s Anatomy.” Each scene draws from memorable installments of Grey’s Anatomy’s 15-season run, and because of the heightened, frankly ridiculous nature of the medical drama, the material doesn’t need much of a twist to go from primetime to parody. Fans of Grey’s Anatomy will appreciate the specificity and shout-outs and having more concrete resolutions to draw from makes for a more satisfying script. Throw in arguably the deepest bench Drag Race has ever had for an acting challenge—11 strong queens—and it’s a match made in TV parody heaven.

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It may not be the laugh riot that season 11’s Church of Britney sketch was, but “Gay’s Anatomy” doesn’t step a toe out of line, and oddly enough, that consistency winds up as the biggest mark against the episode. The top 11 queens all do a good job. There are a few standouts but no lowlights, and that makes for frustrating judging. Most of the critiques are vague and as in most acting challenges, the queens stuck with the smallest roles find themselves at the bottom, while those given the juiciest parts are at the top. When the bottom two feels more determined by the whims of casting than the queens’ performances, it’s hard to engage with the show. If the season 12 queens continue to deliver at this level, the judges will need to step up their game.

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The episode begins as always with the queens’ post-elimination debrief. Several of the season’s threads are center stage. Brita has joined the grand tradition of established, popular queens struggling on Drag Race. Nicky is still insecure, despite her positive critiques, and that insecurity will come back to bite her if she’s not careful. Aiden remains defensive, closed off to Jaida’s clear-eyed advice. All three queens are falling into the same trap: They’re making excuses when they should be reassessing their work and seeing what more they have to give.

It’s a new day in the workroom, and it would appear the doctor is in. After a RuMail filled with medical puns, Ru enters the workroom in a lab coat to announce the next maxi challenge. No mini challenge this episode. The queens will be over-acting in “Gay’s Anatomy,” a send-up of the long-running medical soap. It’s an excellent choice and one of the few shows that caters to as big a cast as this one. Ru summons the Pit Crew to help randomize who will get to cast the parts, and much silliness ensues. Keeping with the medical theme, Gigi and Nicky wind up with pink pills, instead of silver placebos, giving them the power to assign the roles. The queens head over to the couch and read through the script, chiming in with their preferred characters before Gigi and Nicky retire to finalize their casting. Widow and Aiden are a bit salty about their parts—neither got their desired role—but the queens mostly seem happy with Nicky and Gigi’s choices.

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Jaida is concerned heading into rehearsal, and after the palpable tension between Widow and Nicky and Aiden’s not-great Mae West impression, she may be right to worry. Ru comes back for a walk-through and surprisingly, focuses less on stirring the pot and more on lighting a fire under Brita, Aiden, and a couple others. The episode is surprisingly streamlined so far; most of the queens aren’t getting much screen time. Showing so little rehearsal is either a good sign or a bad one. Either filming is about to go swimmingly, and the editors don’t want to give away the jokes, or the few queens we’ve spent time with are about to crash and burn.

When the queens arrive on set, Carson is there to greet them. He’ll be directing their scenes, pushing them to go bigger as needed, or in Jaida’s case, to make a rare Drag Race call for subtlety. There are a few hiccups here and there, but compared to previous acting challenges, the season 12 queens are in fine form. Sherry and Widow are clear standouts and will likely vie for the win, and both Nicky and Brita are in trouble. Nicky looks great as a drag baby, but her nerves are evident every time she gets direction from Carson. As for Brita, her delivery is solid when she needs to go broad, but she struggles when Carson asks her to pair that tone with a few more clinical line readings.

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The next day, the workroom is positively buzzing with anticipation as the queens get ready for the runway. Jaida is a little nervous, but most of the queens are excited and confident. Things take a quick turn when the topic of mothers comes up. It’s clearly a difficult conversation for some of the queens. Jackie opens up about her strained relationship with her mom, who doesn’t know she does drag. After a little prompting, Widow shares that her mother died when she was a teen. She never had a chance to come out to her mom, and the two fought during their last interaction. This weighs heavily on her, and several of the queens come over to console her. Season 12 has had some thoughtful and emotional moments in the workroom, but this is the most fraught yet. Eventually Jaida breaks the tension, and the queens hurry to finish their prep.

Illustration for article titled iRuPaul’s Drag Race/i celebrates the charms and excesses of “Gay’s Anatomy”
Photo: VH1
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It’s time for the runway. Ru walks out in a fabulous green gown and welcomes guest judge Normani. Category is: Planet of the Capes. Jaida is first, with a striking pink look featuring dramatic, tall shoulders. Brita has a Little Red Riding Hood-inspired ensemble that’s cute, but could use a more substantive cape to better fit the brief. Jackie goes slinky as a belly dancer, complete with headpiece and golden cape. Jan’s look is solid, a black and silver take on a skydiver, but her cape could use more volume, especially to better invoke a parachute. Gigi’s look is much more tailored, a Troop Beverly Hills Wilderness Girls-inspired outfit, while Sherry goes full Elvis and Heidi sports a black body suit and multicolored cape. Crystal’s yellow and purple look is strong, with the volume one expects in a cape category, and Aiden goes spooky with a black Silence Of The Lambs-inspired cape and a moth across her mouth. In contrast, Widow’s watermelon look is underwhelming, at least until she goes full Janet Jackson and pops off her bra cups to reveal pasties. Last out is Nicky, who looks great in her Joan of Arc armor, but misses the brief a bit by casting aside her massive white cloak early in her walk.

The moment has arrived. “Gay’s Anatomy” is screened in its entirety, and as mentioned above, it’s really fun. There are a couple strange choices—why put the Christina stand-in in the Denny storyline, instead of Izzy?—but most of the references are on point, from the ghost sex to the bomb to the two patients skewered on a pole. There aren’t any weak links, and Ru agrees. She compliments the entire cast, singling out Jan, Widow, Jackie, Sherry, Gigi, and Aiden out as the top queens before giving the win to Sherry. That leaves Jaida, Brita, Heidi, Crystal, and Nicky in the bottom.

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The judges make sure to specify that all of the queens did well in the challenge. What has put these five in danger of elimination is a sense that they could have made more of their smaller roles—Brita is the only queen in danger whose character has more than two scenes. In theory to help with the decision, and in actuality to stir up drama, Ru asks the queens who they think should be eliminated. Everyone except Jaida says Nicky. Even Nicky says Nicky. Jaida goes with Heidi, based purely on her runway, and is seconded by Nicky, when Ru pushes her to choose someone besides herself. From here on out, the elimination is a foregone conclusion. Nicky has given up, and it’s sad to see.

After deliberations, Ru concurs with the queens. Heidi and Nicky will Lip-sync For Their Lives to “Heart To Break” by Kim Petras. Both queens serve drama and face, but Heidi takes command of the stage, forcing Nicky to make way. She’s fighting harder; she wants it more. That’s all Ru needs to see. Heidi is safe, and Nicky is eliminated. Nicky Doll has been a strong competitor, and in a different season, she would have gone much further. Even in this season she would have gone further had the more language-based challenges come later in the season. Ultimately what held her back was not her difficulty with English, but her lack of confidence in herself, her fear of tripping over her tongue. Drag Race demands a lot, but more than anything, it requires supreme self-confidence. Hopefully Nicky will be back with buckets to spare for her eventual All Stars return, and fans will get to see what she can really do. We’ve only gotten a glimpse in season 12.

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Stray observations

  • Jaida said it best, “This is not RuPaul’s Excuse Race.”
  • The Grey’s Anatomy parody is fun, but the episode strangely under-serves it. Too much time is spent trying to misdirect the audience, instead of letting us anticipate a job well done and speculate about how Ru will parse the details to choose a bottom two.
  • I appreciated Ru’s “You wanted to play Blac Chyna, is that right?”, but I actually think Widow is right. Mother is a more serious role. Yes, it’s comedic, but there’s substance to Meredith and Mother’s relationship, there’s stuff to play with. Mimi Dearest is threadbare in comparison and Widow had to spin gold with her performance to earn her spot in the top.
  • Aiden is fun as Henny despite her Mae West, not because of it. This is the most animated she’s been all season. It’s an intriguing tease of what we may get from her if she comes out of her shell a bit more.
  • Welcome back to Dahlia, everyone’s favorite broccoli! There are worse ways to be remembered on Drag Race.
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