Critic's Notebook: 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Demands the Impossible — and Therein Lies Its Greatness

RuPaul's Drag Race Season 12 - Publicity -H 2020

In upping the competitive stakes and standards ever further, the current season has confirmed the reality series as the most challenging — and riveting — of its kind.

[This article contains spoilers for the current season of RuPaul's Drag Race through the April 10 episode.]

The twelfth season of RuPaul's Drag Race (VH1) debuted in February with a twist, with the introduction of the queens to the audience — and to each other — spread out over two episodes. But the true shocker of the season emerged at the end of the second week, as it became clear just how prodigiously talented this season's contestants are. In most other seasons, a queen with the edgy wardrobe, overall polish and ready storyline (as the "drag daughter" of Aja, a two-time Drag Race competitor and fan favorite) like Dahlia Sin would be a shoo-in for the top six. But this season, she went home first.

On Drag Race, as six-time Emmy winner RuPaul relishes explaining, the judges look for "charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent." (Naturally, the rubric's mnemonic acronym was intended.) But that only scratches at the surface of the near-impossibility of Drag Race, billed as "the Olympics of drag," as a reality competition. To outsiders, the series is most concisely explained as a cross between Project Runway and America's Next Top Model. But that comparison does little justice to the staggering breadth of Drag Race's challenges — an essential ingredient in the show's longevity and thrilling unpredictability.

To merely compete on Drag Race, a contestant needs to have at least a rudimentary grasp of several of the drag arts: makeup, wig styling, padding, tucking and walking in six-inch heels. But to last beyond the first few weeks, competitors need to possess a dizzying array of skills: acting, dancing, lip syncing, interviewing, spokes-modeling, sewing, fashion design, celebrity impersonation and comedy, both improv and stand-up. It also helps to know how to sing, choreograph group dances and be familiar with RuPaul's ancient pop-culture references.

The queens have to do all this while projecting a likable reality TV persona and outdoing not only each other but, implicitly, the competitors of previous seasons. No disrespect to Ginger Rogers, but did she ever dance backwards and in heels while wearing a corset, two wigs, three pairs of eyelashes and advancing the cause of LGBTQ+ rights?

Contestants can identify as a look queen, a pageant queen or a comedy queen. But if you're a ferocious pageant queen who has trouble remembering lines during a sketch shoot or a hilarious comedy queen whose dresses don't wow the judges, they'll quickly ding you for only being very good at the thing you've probably spent years getting very good at.

It's hard to think of another reality competition that requires so many disparate talents. CBS' Survivor comes to mind, where contestants have to build makeshift housing, find their own food, compete in physically demanding games and, of course, forge and maintain always shifting alliances. But those contestants also aren't evaluated on every one of those competencies. And when Survivor is over, it's over. On Drag Race, there's a $100,000 cash prize on the line every season, but loyal viewers know that what's really on offer for queens is a chance at a lucrative, years-long career post-Drag Race.

The series' decathlon nature has lent the current season some extra pathos. Brita, who won the 2018 NYC Entertainer of the Year Award at the Glam Awards and sashayed into the workroom with an assumption that she'd simply glide into frontrunner status, was endlessly flummoxed by her bottom-two placement week after week until her elimination last Friday. And it's almost painful to see an obvious and experienced multihyphenate like Jan — who, like Brita, has the benefit of professional training — frustrated that, no matter how adeptly she sings and dances, the judges don't see an "it factor" in her the way they do in actual frontrunner Gigi Goode.

The cast of season 12 is so stacked, in fact, that the hasty editing to minimize disqualified competitor Sherry Pie's screen time, a rumored finalist, has hardly detracted from the season's highlights. (The production disqualified Sherry Pie after the contestant admitted to catfishing several young men by posing as a casting director to acquire revealing photos.)

There are seasons when the non-stop demands of Drag Race backfire. Season 11, for example, went down as one of the weakest outings in the show's history because of the relative shortcomings of the cast. Since Drag Race's challenges have relatively little to do with the nightclub entertaining that makes up the bulk of the queens' work, they can feel arbitrary and contrived when they aren't maximized to showcase the contestants' gifts. (Also see: "America's Next Top Model, the problems of.")

But on a season like the current one, where there's no shortage of talent in any direction (especially now that an inexplicable favorite of the judges is finally gone), the seeming impossibility of the challenges — and the competitors' embrace of each one — has made the show exhilarating again. Long live the queens.