Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

RuPaul’s Drag Race’s coronavirus special limits its scope and its impact

Illustration for article titled RuPaul’s Drag Race’s coronavirus special limits its scope and its impact
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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In May of 2020, RuPaul’s Drag Race was one of the few TV shows to find a work-around for COVID-19, filming its final episodes of season 12 remotely, with the queens shooting from their homes. The traditional spectacle and scale of the Drag Race finales had to be set aside, but the producers and queens did a terrific job of working within their limitations to produce dynamic episodes that sent a strong, if unusual season off well. These episodes were undoubtedly challenging to put together, but filming a full season of Drag Race during COVID is something else entirely. RuPaul’s Drag Race: Corona Can’t Keep A Good Queen Down documents this massive undertaking, promising fans a behind-the-scenes look at the production of season 13. Unfortunately, while this is a compelling topic, the special falls short of its potential, limiting its scope and curiosity and by extension, its impact.

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The special walks through the season 13 queens’ 2020, tracking their experiences leading up to being officially cast—the queens were notified in June—the mad scramble to prepare for the season, and then detailing their time in production and shortly afterward. RuPaul narrates the special, providing connective tissue to the segments, but he otherwise stays out of the proceedings. The season 13 cast are front and center, but a more interesting take would have followed the series’ producers and crew as well. What were conversations like prepping the season? How did the shutdowns impact casting conversations and budgets, and how did the judges’ experiences compare to previous seasons? There’s plenty of compelling material to dive into around the crafting of a reality show during a pandemic, but alas, this is not that special.

Another disappointing choice is the downplaying of Drag Race season 12. The special picks up in January of 2020, establishing the season 13 queens’ normal routines and plans for the year, but season 12 didn’t start airing until February 28th. Most of season 12 may have been shot in 2019, but the show’s reunion specials and finales are traditionally filmed shortly before the season finishes airing. These live tapings had to be scrapped entirely. Before the producers could worry about launching season 13, they needed to figure out how they’d put together a satisfying conclusion to season 12. The special follows the season 13 queens as they adjust to life during lockdown and do their best to come up with remote opportunities for work, but what about the season 12 queens who in any other year would have been raking in lucrative bookings and tours, coinciding with their appearances on the show?

As a more limited look at the emotional journeys of the season 13 cast, Corona Can’t Keep A Good Queen Down works well. Several queens share their experiences contracting and recovering from COVID-19 and the emotional and psychological toll of the various lockdowns. Particularly affecting is the inclusion of the sudden death of New York drag legend Mona Foot in March of 2020. Mona was the picture of health, before dying from an illness suspected to be COVID-19. The special also touches on the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, though it does so with kid gloves. The queens’ discussion of police brutality and their personal connections to protest movements are much more keenly felt in season 13’s “The Bag Ball.” Here the conversation stays squarely centered on Drag Race’s role as a platform, celebrating its potential to reach large audiences without taking advantage of that megaphone to say anything specific.

Gottmik serves pandemic shopping realness
Gottmik serves pandemic shopping realness
Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race

Once the timeline moves to June, the special focuses in, laying out the challenges faced by the queens after they got the call that they’d been officially cast. Due to pandemic restrictions, many queens’ income streams dried up. Going on Drag Race is an expensive proposition in the best of times. Throw in store closures, shipping and online ordering delays, and a wig shortage, and it’s remarkable this cast managed to put anything together. Getting a more specific sense of that adds to the viewing experience—Rosé fans will be playing spot the painted pump for the rest of season 13—and highlights the creativity and persistence of the cast.

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The special eventually gets into the nitty gritty of filming, and here is where it picks up. The snippets of the queens’ two week quarantine are neat to see, as are the changes to the Werk Room that allowed for socially distanced filming. In what is implied to be a break with tradition, RuPaul was particularly chatty during walkthroughs and though filming restrictions led to many fewer celebrities dropping by, the production found ways to make the most of the time the queens had with these guests. Then there’s the consistent testing, omnipresent hand sanitizer, and masks and face shields worn by the entire crew. The psychological impact of going from at-home social distancing to complete isolation to being able to physically interact with other people is given the weight it deserves, and several of the queens remark on the power of touch and how strange it is to have intense, albeit short-lived relationships with crew members who they’ve never seen without masks.

This special may not pack the emotional punch it promises, but it’s an interesting snapshot of what Drag Race and 2020 in general felt like for the season 13 queens. It was a strange and hopefully unique time, filled with tremendous isolation, fear, and uncertainty, but also, where it could be managed, beauty and joy. Drag Race fans are certainly happy to have a new season to watch and shedding some light on the queens’ experiences during production is as good a way as any to fill an off-week for the series. Now with nine queens still remaining, bring on the Snatch Game and the rest of season 13.

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Stray observations

  • Joey’s state of emergency alert is too perfect. It’s great to get so much time in the special with the queens who were eliminated early.
  • Kahmora’s hope that his mother will see how much joy he gets from drag is an absolute highlight of the special.
  • I appreciate the special’s focus on how isolating and overwhelming the experience of filming even a standard season of Drag Race is. I hadn’t considered the additional stress of not being able to check in with first responder friends and family members to make sure they’re alright. It’s surprising that more queens haven’t hit a breaking point yet, though perhaps that’s coming.
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