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RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars returns with its most cannily on-brand queens yet

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RuPaul’s Drag Race has had quite a 2018, going from the controversial All Stars 3 right into the Emmy Award-winning Drag Race season 10. Now All Stars is back for season four, and in its first episode, it’s off to a solid start. However, fans will need to wait to see whether RuPaul and the rest of the producers have learned from the mistakes of All Stars 3.

The season starts, as always, with the queens’ entrances to the workroom, and it’s immediately clear that this is a savvy and focused cast. Almost every queen’s entrance look is on brand and they’re selling the instant they’re on camera. Monique Heart, from season 10, hits several of her catchphrases and has a terrific “Heart of season 10” look. Trinity Taylor the Tuck, from season nine, comes out in a body bag before unzipping to reveal a neon green, plastic, Sarah Paulson-inspired look. Naomi Smalls, from season eight, is all about her legs; Gia Gunn, from season six, goes big with Our Lady of Guadalupe and other religious imagery; Farrah Moan, from season nine, sparkles in Christina drag; Jasmine Masters, from season seven, rocks a floral pantsuit; and Valentina, from season nine, immediately plays on her villain persona and fashion-plate aesthetic. Only Monét X Change, from season 10, fails to make a strong impression, saving her branding callbacks for the maxi challenge.

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Just as the queens are discussing that the cast seems a bit thin, the alarm sounds for their introduction video and RuPaul enters the workroom for the first time, welcoming the queens to All Stars 4 and promising the usual All Stars rules, as well as a few twists. The first “twist” is hugely oversold. Ru introduces Latrice Royale from season four and Manila Luzon from season three, who competed together in the inaugural All Stars as Team Latrila. Both Latrice and Manila will be getting another crack at All Stars, and they’re revved up and ready to go. Latrice’s purple look is fabulous, but Manila’s roadkill take on her Big Bird look from her season three lip sync with Delta Work is a step above, and another example of the meta awareness the queens are already bringing this season.

With the cast fully introduced, Ru kicks things off by announcing the first mini challenge, opening the library for the fan-favorite “Reading is Fundamental” challenge. As has become increasingly clear over the seasons, reading is hard and while a handful of queens over the course of the series have had a real knack for it (Bianca Del Rio comes immediately to mind), the structured nature of the reading challenge has robbed it of any sense of immediacy or truth. Everyone knows this challenge is coming, so everyone is well rehearsed. This robs what should be an off-the-cuff, fun, and shady exercise of its playfulness. There’s either no sting in the generic reads, or too much, in the overly calculated ones. Jasmine Masters does well and Latrice Royale walks away with the win, but the best line of the bunch comes from Naomi Smalls: “Farrah Moan is so dumb, she thought Valentina was her best friend.” It’s a great read, the right balance of perceptiveness and shade; if only she’d nailed the delivery.

Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars
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As quickly as it opened, the library is closed, and it’s time for the first maxi challenge. RuPaul announces that, as in seasons two and three, they’ll be kicking off season four with a talent show. This time, the theme will be a star-spangled variety show for a group of LGBTQ troops. The episode spends a little time on planning and backstage prep, and hinting at problems to come, but before long, it’s time for the show. First up is Monique Heart, who takes advantage of this expected first challenge to debut a single, “Brown Cow Stunning,” playing on her memorable brown cow/giraffe print mistake in season 10. This could feel tired and overly referential, but thanks to her energy, and because she can indeed dance and sing well live, Monique revitalizes and brings something new to her catchphrase. Naomi Smalls goes next, modeling and dancing in a routine that’s alright, but not particularly compelling until its final delightful moment, when she pulls off part of her wig to reveal an old grandpa twist to her glam look. Gia Gunn completely changes the mood with a kabuki performance that is lovely and grabs everyone’s attention, quite a feat given its more lyrical feel and focus on beauty over comedy. The entire judging panel leans forward to watch, and it’s a surprise when she’s not in the top three. Bringing the energy back up is Trinity the Tuck, who does a comedy routine around tucking that is well conceived and culminates in revealing one of her trademark ridiculously tight tucks.

Things start to take a turn with Farrah Moan, who does a strip tease routine that starts well enough, but hits a snag when she slips on a discarded piece of fabric and falls down. Farrah tries to recover, but is clearly shaken. Next is Monét X Change who, like Monique, sings live and dances to an original song. Unfortunately, she has some vocal trouble and doesn’t bring much new to “Soak It Up,” her post-season 10 single. Whereas Monique’s brown cow bit feels energetic and refreshed, Monét’s sponge gag feels played out, a retread rather than elevation of her previous hits. It’s not a surprise when both Farrah and Monét wind up in the bottom. Manila Luzon goes more offbeat, painting an upside-down bouquet of flowers while wearing a painter’s smock before flipping the canvas and doing a quick-change behind it to reveal a matching dress. It’s not enough to put her near the top, but it’s distinctive and fun, and a nice change of pace from the vocal, lip sync, and dance performances that make up a majority of the variety show.

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Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

Also distinctive is Jasmine Masters, who comes out to do a brief stand-up set. The editors make sure to lampshade her decision not to prep any material or even write an outline, so as expected, she bombs. Timing is everything in comedy; it’s possible the routine went over better in person than we’re shown here, with cutaways to reaction shots disrupting her rhythm. What we do see, though, is rough. As with Farrah and Monét, Jasmine earns her place in the bottom. Next is Latrice Royale, who dances and does a flag routine, the only queen to take into consideration the “for the troops” part of the brief. Rounding out the show is Valentina, who calls back to her infamous season nine elimination and lip syncs her butt off, in Spanish. Her choice of talent makes sense as a way to declare herself this season and convey that she’s learned her lesson, but particularly as the final act, it’s less than thrilling. Each of these queens is expected to be able to lip sync well; it’s a huge part of the show. At most, this performance shows her to be the equal of her fellow queens, and that’s not a great way to start All Stars.

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After a quick round of judges’ comments (welcome to the show, guest judge Jenifer Lewis! Please come back again and again and again, you beautiful, hilarious lady!), Trinity and Monique are revealed as the top two queens, with Farrah and Jasmine as the bottom two, up for elimination. The backstage deliberations make Trinity and Monique’s choice clear: Farrah wants to stay and will fight for it in a way Jasmine won’t, but Jasmine is much more centered and less emotionally draining. Based purely on their variety show performances, Jasmine should go home, as Farrah at least started well, but Jasmine’s flame-out feels much less likely to recur. Both Trinity and Monique nod to the responsibility and emotional weight that comes with eliminating a fellow queen, but thankfully, both know this is what they signed up for and don’t waste much time with unnecessary guilt and hand-wringing.

Screenshot: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars
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Lipsticks chosen, it’s time for to Lip Sync For Their Legacy. The song, “Emotions” by Mariah Carey, is an excellent choice and both Monique and Trinity do a terrific job. Monique manages a new twist on the tossed wig tradition when her wig winds up stuck on the lighting rig, and she rocks her bald head for the second half of her performance. Even with a pivot to entertainingly broad physical comedy at the end, though, she doesn’t quite match Trinity, who particularly nails the whistle tones at the end and pulls out the win. Trinity reveals her lipstick and announces that Jasmine Masters is the first queen eliminated from All Stars 4. While it’s not undeserved—her standup really didn’t land—it’s a bit surprising; the editing hints more strongly towards Farrah, just based on interpersonal dynamics. That being said, Trinity clearly respects a fighter, and that was Farrah’s pitch in the deliberations. We’ll see whether she lives up to Trinity’s faith in her. There’s definitely room for improvement for some of the queens, but All Stars 4 is off to a good start, and if the producers can avoid falling into familiar traps, this could be another strong and memorable season.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 4! I’m thrilled to be taking over for Oliver Sava covering the show week-to-week and I look forward to reading all your thoughts in the comments.
  • I may not be her biggest fan, but it’s exciting to have Gia Gunn back this season, one of the first openly trans woman to compete in Drag Race, along with Peppermint. As she says here, she’s “a woman who participates in the art of drag.” I know the question of what defines drag and who it’s for can be knotty and complex, but I’m glad to see more inclusion on the show.
  • Seriously, how did it take this long for Ru to bring on Jenifer Lewis to guest judge? She’s perfect. I second the whole judging panel’s “AMEN!” to her, “Leave that nervous shit at home. It’s boring.”
  • Ross Matthews’ feedback to Jasmine is also on point and shows what an asset he is to the judges’ panel. Compassionate, but honest and well-articulated.
  • I really like this group of queens, and it feels like the most balanced All Stars cast we’ve had. It’s admittedly overly weighted toward seasons nine and 10, but bringing back Latrice and Manila helps with that and right now, at least five of the queens feel like real contenders.
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