Photo: RuPaul’s Drag Race
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All Stars 4 saved its acting challenge for its penultimate episode, reimagining Sex And The City with its top five queens. The writing was bad, the performances were middling on the whole, and it was an uninspiring final challenge in a season full of creative and fun takes on Drag Race staples. Season 11 learns from this and pulls out its acting challenge right away, splitting the queens into two teams and sending them off to camp up Black Panther and Get Out. Questions of identity, appropriation, and violence run through both films, not unfamiliar topics for Drag Race. There’s a lot to unpack and a thoughtful look at the intersections between black cinema and drag culture would be fascinating.

Alas, Drag Race isn’t particularly interested in potent thematic discussions at the moment. They have 14 queens to wrangle and not nearly enough time to dive deep. Instead, they keep things simple and go for broad, campy comedy, using the plot and aesthetics of their inspiration films and jettisoning many of the specifics. Whereas the All Stars struggled to capture the nuances of the Sex And The City characters and actors, the queens here are freed up to interpret their characters however best serves the scene, and encouraged to go big. The results are far more engaging and while not everyone shines, several of the queens distinguish themselves. There are some questionable choices in the costuming and performances, but the challenge does an excellent job of highlighting who in this large cast is most comfortable in front of the camera and who still has a ways to go.

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The episode begins as the queens return to the workroom after Soju’s elimination, speaking fondly of her and reacting to her questionable choice to disclose her oozing cyst. It’s no Miss Vanjie, but “cyst-ers” could easily become a recurring shout-out this season. The next day, after a few rounds of FMK, Ru enters the workroom and announces the next mini-challenge: It’s time for the quick drag photobomb. Each of the queens will have 15 minutes to get ready and shoot an image to be green-screened into a famous celebrity photo. It’s clear the queens have been told off-camera which pic they’ll be interacting with—the quick drag outfits are far too complementary to be pure coincidence—and watching how each queen interprets their celebrity image gives a welcome glimpse into their personality and creative style. Quick drag mini challenges are always a lot of fun. Seeing what each queen prioritizes (painting or outfit? Hair or padding?) is neat and the level of polish several of the queens are able to deliver in only 15 minutes is impressive.

The maxi challenge requires two winners, so Brooke Lynn’s political message to the Trumps and Macrons gets one of the spots, but the clear standout is Silky. It takes a lot of confidence and trust to be naked on camera and Silky deserves credit for going fully nude for her photo bomb of Tom Brady, celebrating her body and nodding to the history of streakers in professional sports. After the queens finish their shoot and Ru declares the winners, it’s time for the maxi challenge. They’ll pick teams and tackle parody scripts, over-acting to the hilt to wring as much comedy as they can out of “Good God Girl, Get Out!” and “Why It Gotta Be Black, Panther?”. Brooke Lynn gets to pick first and assembles her team based on theater background and subdued personality. Silky wants POC on her team, along with bigger personalities, and both get teams they’re happy with.

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Photo: RuPaul’s Drag Race

Everyone settles in to work right away, divvying up the parts. Scarlet is salty about being picked last, but this winds up working in her favor. As the only white queen on Team Silky, she’s who Silky casts as the odd-person-out lead, Christine, in “Good God Girl, Get Out!”. Kahanna is worried about only having a few lines and Vanjie is nervous—acting is not her strong suit—but as a whole, the teams seem to be getting along. When Ru comes in for a walk-through, however, the drama picks up. Brooke Lynn is confident Team Silky will collapse under the strain of too many outsized personalities, and she is practically gleeful at the idea. It’s not a good look. Who knows what wound up on the editing room floor, but Silky comes across much better this episode than she did in the premiere, given an underdog edit that makes Team Brooke Lynn look petty for calling her out. Ru’s confusion at their assertion that Silky’s too big of a personality, in a challenge specifically designed for over-acting, is entertaining, nicely deflating their over-confidence.

Before too long, it’s time for filming. Ross Matthews and Michelle Visage step in to direct the sketches. They’re always entertaining in this capacity and watching them interact with the queens and each other is a hoot. “Why It Gotta Be Black, Panther?” has clear standouts and weak points: Brooke Lynn’s lead is irritating and Ariel can’t stop saying “Girl”. Ra’Jah commands attention, but she can’t remember one of her big lines. Meanwhile, Plastique, Shuga, and Nina all deliver, taking direction well and nailing their lines, while Honey gets lost in the shuffle (and that distracting headpiece).

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“Good God Girl, Get Out!” has similar highs and lows. Yvie and Scarlet do very well as the two leads. Silky doesn’t rise to the occasion as one might have expected, but she’s alright and A’Keria is a lot of fun in a supporting role. Vanjie is totally lost, but delivers her lines accurately and keeps cracking up Ross and Michelle. It’s a very Alyssa moment for her. She’s not giving what the script intended, but if it’s entertaining, who cares? Mercedes and Kahanna, unfortunately, struggle to connect with their background roles. Lest anyone blame their ultimate placement in the bottom on Silky’s casting, consider that Betty Gabriel’s performance as the maid/grandmother in Get Out is arguably the most memorable and striking of the entire film.

On elimination day, there’s plenty of mirror talk. The drama from Ru’s walk-through returns as the queens paint and most of those involved do not come out well. Yvie wants Team Brooke Lynn to own up to what they said to Ru about Silky, but only Ariel does. That spins into tension between Yvie and Ra’Jah that culminates with Ra’Jah positioning herself in her talking heads as a season three Heather, “An ugly girl can never come for a pretty girl.” None of this is particularly interesting or consequential and thankfully the discussion pivots to a much more engaging topic, the queens’ experiences on the pageant circuit. Mercedes in particular has stories to tell. As a Kenyan-born immigrant and Muslim, she wound up on the No Fly list and was unable to fly for a while. She had to drive to pageants instead and the strain and lack of sleep contributed to her having a stroke mid-pageant. Mercedes is 31.

Photo: RuPaul’s Drag Race

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After a little more cyst banter, it’s time for the runway. Category is: What’s Your Sign? There are a few question marks, but overall the queens turn it out. Brooke Lynn, Plastique, Yvie, and Scarlet look particularly fabulous, while Kahanna and Mercedes underwhelm. After the runway, Nina, Vanjie, Silky, Honey, A’Keria, and Ra’Jah wind up safe. Plastique, Shuga, Scarlet, and Yvie wind up in the top, and Brooke Lynn, Ariel, Mercedes, and Kahanna are in the bottom. It’s good that Drag Race has gotten away from picking a winning and losing team in group challenges like this one. The joint winners, Scarlet and Yvie, are from the same team as the bottom two queens, Kahanna and Mercedes. It’s much more satisfying to see each queen judged on their performance rather than on the overall average of their team.

Both Mercedes and Kahanna have come across well in their talking heads so far this season, but both have struggled in challenges and runways, compared to their fellow queens. It’s not a surprise when they’re in the bottom. It is a surprise when they turn out a battle of a lip-sync to Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch.” Kahanna showed she had moves and can slay a lip-sync with the premiere’s “Best Of Both Worlds,” but she goes even further here, doing a cartwheel into a back handspring and sticking the landing in her heels. Mercedes vogues the house down and serves face, delivers a Naomi Smalls back-bend, then goes into a split, albeit one that’s slightly mistimed. Guest judge Bobby Moynihan spends the lip-sync with his mouth agape, throwing his hands up in disbelief as the queens’ performances build and build. That is how you Lip-sync For Your Life. Ultimately, Mercedes’ performance better captures the energy of the song so while Kahanna shows herself well for a second time, Ru sends her sashaying away. Kahanna may be leaving early, but she’s up against fierce competition this season and with these two lip-syncs under her belt, she can leave with her head tall.

Stray observations

  • I’m with Ross- I really like this set of queens. I hope the season does them justice!
  • Bobby Moynihan and Sydelle Noel are both fun guest judges. I always appreciate the show bringing on actors for the sketch and acting challenges.
  • I’m still not sure how I feel about the decision to give the Black Panther spoof, complete with African-inspired costuming and makeup, to the majority-white team. I wasn’t comfortable seeing white queens dressed and made up to evoke a film so defined by its African setting, and with African and Black excellence as such an important part of its themes and messaging. I would love to hear how viewers of color feel about this. I also didn’t love Brooke Lynn asking Plastique to put on a stereotypical Vietnamese immigrant accent for Nails, though Plastique did well in the challenge.

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