Last Friday's episode of RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars was probably the most entertaining 90 minutes the show has produced in many seasons. Not only did it feature a Snatch Game that included two of the most memorable celebrity impersonations the show has ever done, a prom-themed runway that both delighted and confounded (a true Drag Race tradition), and an instance of backstage intrigue and controversy that at once justified the new All-Stars vote-out procedure while introducing a mystery element into the season that will keep fans talking well through the moment a winner is crowned. It was reality TV excellence, and here's the real gag: it was almost entirely thanks to the All-Star queens from Seasons 2 and 3, who first entered the Drag Race werkroom a decade ago.
Season 2 queen Jujubee has launched herself to the top of the list of contenders to win the AS5 crown, thanks in no small part to her mesmerizing Snatch Game impersonation of Eartha Kitt, showing off not only a flawless visual gag but also a sharply intelligent sense of humor. This was followed by a runway presentation that nailed the prom-dress prompt better than anyone and did so with, again, biting humor.
Meanwhile, the second half of the episode was dominated by intrigue in a way Drag Race has never been before, as presumed weakest queen India Ferrah tried to get the heat off herself by accusing fellow queen Alexis Mateo of trying to marshall votes a few weeks ago to oust frontrunner Shea Coulée (Shea, as the winner of the week's challenge, had the power to eliminate a queen at episode's end, and India was trying to sway the decision). Part of the high drama was that India and Alexis had to this point been close allies, both of them hailing from Season 3. Along with eliminated queen Mariah Balenciaga, Season 3 was actually the most-represented season on All-Stars 5, giving the season a very Old School v. New School vibe. And despite early eliminations for Mariah and Season 1 legend Ongina, the old-schoolers have been the SHOW this season, bringing not only drag excellence but top-shelf backstage drama. This season would not be the success it's been so far without them.
I don’t think I’ll ever not howl at this pic.twitter.com/QkzC3ZdqLN— jack rem x (@jackremmington) July 4, 2020
RuPaul's Drag Race launched its All-Stars offshoot in 2012 with a poorly-received affair that took 11 of the best drag queens to ever compete on the show (plus Mimi Imfurst) and inexplicably paired them up and made them compete as teams. What resulted was a six-episode season with confusing rooting interests, largely underbaked competitions, and frustrating eliminations, with strong queens like Manila Luzon and Nina Flowers dragged down by underperforming teammates. Four years later, Drag Race revived the concept, tweaked the rules, dumped the team concept like a hot potato, and delivered one of the franchise's best seasons. Since then, All-Stars has been must-see Drag Race entertainment, and each season has been predominantly cast with queens from recently-aired seasons who hadn't won the crown.
Two seasons ago, the show decided to buck its own trend and brought back Season 1 winner Bebe Zahara Benet, to a tellingly mixed reaction from the fandom. The first season of Drag Race occupies a particular place within the lore of the franchise. It was, of course, the season that started it all, which defined the competition and hit the ground running with everything from the challenge/werkroom/runway structure to Lip Sync for Your Life eliminations to all those catch-phrases. It was also an incredibly low-budget effort, which the show wore on its sleeve and used for camp effect. The much-derided-by-younger-fans gauzy camera work and low-rent prizes were features, not bugs; they were a way for the show to satirize existing reality shows (particularly America's Next Top Model). But as Drag Race got bigger and evolved into exactly the kind of top-flight reality show that it started out satirizing, both the show and the fandom began to treat Season 1 like the family's deep, dark secret to be kept locked away in the attic. Due to a jump in the show's mainstream attention levels around Season 5, the show's fan base got younger, straighter, and less familiar with those first few seasons. So when Bebe Zahara Benet showed up in All-Stars 3, she was treated by some corners of the fandom as an out-of-touch grandma who couldn't keep up (though to be fair, a healthy fraction of the audience also went wild for her most outrageous moments, including her legendary "Jungle Kitty" moment).
After Bebe, Drag Race continued to bring older-season queens back to the show. In All-Stars 4, Latrice Royale and Manila Luzon were brought back from Seasons 4 and 3, respectively, after having been ill-fated teammates on All-Stars 1. Manila ended up dominating the first half of the season (before being mercilessly chopped from the competition by youthful pair of legs Naomi Smalls), and Latrice made it to the top 5. So it wasn't too much of a surprise when All-Stars 5 brought back two more All-Stars 1 queens in Jujubee and Alexis Mateo, part of a general wave of early-season queens.
Starting from the very first week of AS5, the old-school girls have made their impact felt. Mariah gave the traditional talent-show challenge its most unique moment, with a spoken-word/art presentation that was shockingly earnest while maintaining a quasi-camp aesthetic, earning special commendation from guest judge Ricky Martin. India Ferrah, meanwhile, won the first challenge with a high-energy dance extravaganza that left all the other queens gasping. But that was no match for the backstage fireworks, where India and Season 8 queen Derrick Barry had their off-show enmity spill out into the werkroom, in an epic squabble that saw Derrick bring up India referring to Derrick's boyfriend (a fellow drag queen) as a "pig in a wig," a term that will live on in Drag Race infamy forever. In the subsequent weeks, Alexis Mateo picked a feud with neurotic Season 10 queen Miz Cracker and in general re-introduced the audience to her penchant for feuds and drama, and the audience has been eating it up.
But the real revelation — to anyone who started watching Drag Race in Season 5 or later — has been Jujubee, who finished in third place in both Season 2 and All-Stars 1 and who longtime fans have always known was the real deal. Juju was the original "lip-sync assassin," winning three face-offs in her original season, another in All-Stars 1, plus a deeply memorable draw with her teammate and best pal Raven. She was the inaugural winner of the reading challenge, setting the template for artfully delivering devastating insults to her fellow queens with a smile and a flair for dramatics. On the ill-fated Drag U spinoff, Jujubee's personality and werkroom antics with the likes of Raven and Mariah were easily the best reason to watch.
If the children didn't know about Jujubee before this summer, they sure as hell do now, with Twitter alight with Jujubee memes and appreciations. It's not just her excellence in the challenges, but her unparalleled ability to bring personality and deeply eccentric humor into every corner of the show, down to delivering literal winking asides to the cameras in the werkroom. No better example of this is what Jujubee has done with the season's voting confessionals, where the queens have to go into a little room and deliberate on which queen they're voting to eliminate. Most of the queens have followed the standard reality TV prompt: explain your dilemma, look agonized, make your choice. Jujubee's voting confessionals, on the other hand, have been archly comedic events that have taken the form of Miss Marple style deductive reasoning (trying to suss out the she-said/she-said of the India/Alexis drama) and cat soliloquies.
Jujubee already delivering the most iconic moment in all of AS5 pic.twitter.com/zbVqDFNCxl— mark the no cops gay (@markimusbrutus) June 20, 2020
Truly, the human race doesn't deserve Jujubee, and here we get to enjoy her once a week for free.
Ultimately, an old-school queen may not end up winning All-Stars 5. Season 9's Shea Coulée is a deserved frontrunner with a strong claim to the crown and a top-notch narrative. But even if Jujubee comes up short (AGAIN), there should be no doubt that AS5 is the season that did the most to educate the children about how great those early seasons of Drag Race were, and how much respect queens like Jujubee, Mariah, and Alexis Mateo deserve today. It may usually be a young queen's game, but not this year. Meow meow, bitches.
RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars 5 airs Friday nights at 8:00 PM ET on VH1.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.