Saturday, January 7, 2023

REVIEW: 'RuPaul's Drag Race' - Sixteen New Queens Enter the Competition for a Chaotic Premiere in 'One Night Only'

MTV's RuPaul's Drag Race - Episode 15.01 "One Night Only"

A new cast of queens, competing to be crowned America's Next Drag Superstar, must show off their performance skills in a talent show. Superstar singer Ariana Grande guest judges.

RuPaul's Drag Race
 deserves better than being an entertainment conglomerate's trusted utility player. The show had such humble beginnings on Logo. However, the audience and cultural reach grew with each passing season. The move to VH1 was seen as a promotion to provide this phenomenal content to the widest audience possible. But then, executives at Viacom always wanted to tinker with it. First, it was suggested All Stars 5 would air on Showtime instead. That didn't happen. However, the move to Paramount+ did occur for the All Stars seasons after that. And now, the mothership has transitioned to MTV because it's the latest brand in the corporate portfolio that needs a revamp. Drag Race has its own distinct identity. It defines a network no matter where it is airing. It's not exactly posed to provide that meaning for the overall network strategy. It's simply one significant piece of the brand. That is everything in this business. Drag Race is insulated in that way. It still deserves more respect. Of course, this is a turbulent time in the industry where many companies are tightening the financial constants after years of expansion. That hasn't hit the Drag Race franchise at large though. It still has numerous spinoffs in development and coming out later this year. Plus, it's still winning major Emmy Awards every cycle. This show knows what it's doing. It should be trusted to provide that formula for an audience that constantly tunes in. The executives should respect that. The producers of the show itself should trust that as well. That's not always a given based on how episodes are produced though.

The last few seasons have opened with split premieres. Half of the cast makes their debuts in one episode. The following week introduces the next half. It's only in the third episode that all of the queens come together. The first elimination doesn't even happen until they are all together. It's all been in service of introducing these queens with the largest platform they have ever had. They deserve to showcase a variety of the looks they have brought. It's no longer been the cutthroat nature of the early seasons where the premiere ends with already ending someone's dreams of becoming America's Next Drag Superstar. "One Night Only" plays with these conventions. The producers understand that the audience knows how the game is played. They never want it to be predictable. The basic premise of the show is to twist the reality competition format. Because this show has now become the standard bearer in the genre, it has an even higher burden to reinvent the wheel. That isn't necessary. The drama and artistry of the queens should be enough. Instead, this premiere teases a split format only to merge them all together in a chaotic mess. It's unfair mostly because of the burden it places on the audience to somehow meet and distinguish sixteen contestants. This is the largest cast in the history of the show. This isn't a good time to break from the formula. That's unfortunately what happened. That means half the cast don't get the luxury of meeting Ariana Grande until they're walking the runway. The tradeoff is not having to waste half the day choreographing a pointless number to open the talent show. That was a huge waste of time for the initial group.

Two paragraphs in and this review has yet to mention any of the specific queens. Premieres have so much to judge. The queens enter the workroom. They compete in a mini challenge. They interact with each other. They perform in the talent show. They walk the first runway category. They are critiqued by the judges. Not everyone can receive the time they deserve to talk about their performances in each of those moments. Sure, it's notable the season wants to pay homage to the beginning of the series. That too is mostly a way to subvert expectations. Once upon a time, queens had to walk into the workroom prepared for RuPaul to throw them into some ridiculous photoshoot. Then, that went away in favor of a runway with two distinct looks. Similarly, the talent show used to be a staple on All Stars. Now, it has made its way to the main competition. It's still a solid challenge to show what these queens say they do best. It still holds a lot of familiarity because so many of the queens come out dancing to their original songs. Some beats are better than others. They still have to provide a unique point-of-view. The main stage is a different atmosphere than the typical club where drag is performed. Moreover, the queens have a meaningful conversation about the value that comes from honing their craft in clubs versus on social media. Some contestants have been doing drag for over a decade. They were inspired by this art before it was popular. Meanwhile, others are relatively new and felt empowered by what has already been done through seeing it on the main stage. It's significant for a show to reference itself and be aware of the legacy it has created. It also means the conversations happening after fifteen seasons are strikingly different than what the early seasons produced.

After all of that, only six queens are signaled out for being in the top and bottom for the week. That's expected. That's how the competition works. But it still leaves over ten at the back of the stage without any comments whatsoever. Sure, we can talk about who had the best entrance look and line. We can talk about how everyone is in awe of having Sasha Colby in the competition. However, the show is moving at its own pace. That has to be where the focus is. Plus, the strongest and most distinct moments in the talent show were ultimately rewarded by the judges. That makes it easy to summarize to a certain extent. The bottoms were correct as well. The judging can sometimes be questionable. This season at least has that correct for the moment. Plus, there may no longer be episodes where no one goes home. It's still early to make that declaration. It's hopefully a possibility. In the talent show, Anetra, Jax and Marcia Marcia Marcia did the best because they incorporated their skills that make themselves unique on the stage. This is a community where so many bonds are forged. It's always delightful to see that represented. That doesn't always translate to standing out in this particular competition. Anetra had an original song that was unique and funny while also having an infectious hook. And then, she created moments by breaking those wood blocks in half. That was incredibly impressive. Similarly, Jax had the singular best moment when she revealed her hair as a jump rope. She built on that moment afterwards by doing several consecutive backflips. And finally, Marcia crafted a comedic narrative that was fitting for her drag persona while also playing to the judges' appeal. Not everyone can pull that off. Irene Dubois, Loosey LaDuca and Amethyst also took risks in the name of standing out. They just didn't work. Part of that is not being aware of how their performances play on this stage. That awkwardness was deeply felt and was deserving of their bottom placements.

Moreover, the runway was catered to continue letting the audience know who these queens are. Sasha blew everyone else away. Sure, one could critique her walking this category in the same dress she worn when she won Miss Continental all those years ago. However, it's absolutely stunning. It's still just as impressive now as it was back then. That's incredible. It shows how she is ageless and timeless in her drag. Her talent number also showed that she is a performer. Elsewhere, Sugar and Spice have made history as the first twins competing together. Their drag is very comparable to one another. They still have to stand out as individuals. It's nice to see them next to each other as Disney princesses. It's simply curious why someone would do a Belle look after Kornbread's phenomenal design from the Season 14 finale. Meanwhile, Irene's look served as confirmation of Bosco being her drag sister. From the neck up, it was completely her own style. Below the neck though, it was too familiar to what Bosco was infamous for doing. Elsewhere, the judges called out Amethyst's lack of padding and Marcia's lack of makeup. Those tips can be very helpful. The audience can see it as well. The other queens noticed this habit from Marcia. Meanwhile, the viewer may also be questioning the proportions of other queens. They should all understand their bodies and how to perfect them to deliver their art. That comes with experience in the industry. This competition judges all of that. Ultimately, someone has to go home first. Irene is certainly memorable in her brief time on the show. It's clear she behaved in front of cameras exactly how she does elsewhere in life. She was reading her sisters every single moment. It was her sign of respect for them even as some misinterpreted that. Of course, that can only be a brief moment in an extended premiere with so many personalities and skills that have to be introduced. Amethyst was the obvious winner over Irene in the lip sync to Ariana Grande's "7 Rings." The eliminations have started. That's refreshing. However, the choices made getting to that point did the show no favors in trying to present the show as still operating at its peak. That's disappointing while also being chaotic in a way that's still fun.