RuPaul's Drag Race and the Little Season That Could

Weathering controversy and coronavirus, Season 12 proved to be remarkably resilient.
  • And then there were three: RuPaul's Drag Race Season 12 finalists Jaida Essence Hall, Crystal Methyd and Gigi Goode (Photos: VH1)
    And then there were three: RuPaul's Drag Race Season 12 finalists Jaida Essence Hall, Crystal Methyd and Gigi Goode (Photos: VH1)

    RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian Kevin O'Keefe is one of the web's foremost experts on the world's favorite drag Olympics, having written hundreds of articles analyzing and criticizing the series. Ahead of tonight's Season 12 finale, we asked him to share his thoughts on this season as a whole.

    The 12th season of RuPaul's Drag Race, VH1's drag reality competition phenomenon, has survived. It survived COVID-19, keeping its queens from being able to promote themselves in typical fashion at in-person gigs, with most instead pivoting to online shows and live chats with fans. It survived an incredibly difficult incident in the disqualification of Sherry Pie thanks to the queen's history of predatory behavior. The show took action when the allegations came to light, largely removing Sherry from the season in a quick re-edit. Sherry was also removed from the top 4 after initially qualifying for the finale.

    In many ways, the show has even thrived: Ratings are up, and many a fan has been eager to declare this one of the best seasons ever. This has been amplified by Ru himself, who stated his enthusiasm for the cast multiple times during the season. That this season could be loved by so many while enduring ugly controversy and unprecedented circumstance is a credit to the show.

    Personally, however, I think the season has been a bit more of a mixed bag. While I agree with the consensus that this is one of the best casts ever, and they've often performed quite well, the challenge design and execution has been inconsistent enough that the queens haven't been able to perform to their potential every week. Additionally, while it was absolutely necessary to prevent giving her greater exposure, the removal of Sherry made certain parts of the show's edit incoherent, and likely caused the first half of the season to laser-focus on a fight between Aiden Zhane and Brita.

    Look no further than the puppet mini-challenge to see how removing Sherry damaged the season. Jackie Cox won the challenge on her Sherry impersonation, telling jokes about Sherry's catchphrase and not knowing who other queens from New York City are. The only problem was that the audience had seen none of this, because Sherry had been all but removed from the season's edit. It's the equivalent of hearing an inside joke between two of your friends: You don't understand it, and you just want to know what the joke is. Problems like that ran rampant this season, especially in episodes where Sherry won the challenge. Having no insight into what made her performance great left the audience confused as to why she was winning.

    But the biggest crime, in my opinion, is how the first half of the season's edit became all about Aiden and Brita. Now, this absolutely would have been a storyline in the first half of the season regardless. It was a major centerpiece fight in one episode of Untucked, and it had roots in the episodes themselves. Brita eventually even sent Aiden home in a lip sync. However, it wouldn't have been the only storyline in those episodes. Many fans have speculated that at this point there was supposed to be some kind of rivalry edit between Sherry and Gigi Goode, as the two racked up all the wins in the first several weeks of the competition. Without that, Season 12 became the Aiden and Brita show, and we spent a ton of time on a storyline with two queens who didn't even make the top 8.

    Beyond Sherry Pie, Season 12 had several other glaring issues — although at least one of them still somewhat involves her. The show's habit of protecting front-runners from lip-syncing came back in full force, as both Gigi and Sherry were protected from the bottom two on at least one occasion each, if not more. Meanwhile, queens like Heidi N. Closet and Jackie Cox were repeatedly thrown into the bottom two. Not only was this frustrating from a fan perspective, it was also limiting from a dramatic one: Of the 10 Lip Syncs for Your Life this season (ignoring the Lip Syncs for Your Legacy in all but name from the split premiere), only one didn't feature either Nicky Doll, Brita, Heidi, or Jackie. (That was Jan vs. Widow Von'Du in the top 8 week.) Seeing the same queens lip sync repeatedly made some of their performances feel repetitive or stale.

    Speaking of repetitive: While some of the challenge design this season really worked — hello, Madonna Rusical and Gay's Anatomy — it was inconsistent on the whole. The debate challenge, returning from Season 4, was too chaotic to keep up with. We didn't really need a second Rusical, but we got one at top 5 with a modified version of RuPaul's Drag Race Live from Las Vegas. Coming off of the musical performances in the two premieres, we heard a lot of these queens' vocals this season. Meanwhile, the only design challenge was the annual Ball.

    I don't want to come down too hard on this season, because it really was a strong one — easily the best of the seasons produced for VH1 so far (which is to say any since Season 10 with the exception of RuPaul's Drag Race UK). The cast has done some remarkable heavy lifting, especially considering there are just 12 of them, and our top 3 is perhaps the show's best-ever. Crystal Methyd, Gigi Goode, and Jaida Essence Hall all stand a great chance of winning the season, which makes the finale a real nail-biter. The innovative format of a socially distant reunion is keeping everyone on their toes, too — who will thrive in such odd circumstances?

    It also must be said that, regardless of any foibles, having this show during quarantine has been a salve. There's a reason ratings are up, and it's not just that this season is very good — people need something fun to look forward to on Friday nights. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of viewers started with this season, only to go back and binge older ones while in quarantine. That factor will probably lead to some inflation among the fanbase, too; we'll see if the upcoming All Stars 5 enjoys similar treatment.

    Regardless of what happens in the finale, this will go down as a very good season of RuPaul's Drag Race, and alongside last year's UK season, will likely be seen as a turning point after a dark era for the show. As a fan, I'm deeply grateful for it, even if not ready to declare it an elite season. Season 12 was what we needed at a time when we needed it most. For now, that seems like the highest compliment it could be given. And yes, time and herstory will determine just how it will compare to other seasons. But that's a discussion for another day.

    The season 12 finale of RuPaul's Drag Race airs tonight at 8:00 PM ET on VH1.

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    Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.

    TOPICS: RuPaul’s Drag Race, VH1, Crystal Methyd, Gigi Goode, Jaida Essence Hall, RuPaul Charles, Sherry Pie, Reality TV