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Drag Race UK Season 5 Has the Cure for Drag Race Burnout

Devoid of any big twists or tired workroom dynamics, this season returned to what this franchise does best.
  • RuPaul's Drag Race UK contestants Tomara Thomas, Alexis Saint-Pete, Cara Melle, and Ginger Johnson (Photo: World of Wonder)
    RuPaul's Drag Race UK contestants Tomara Thomas, Alexis Saint-Pete, Cara Melle, and Ginger Johnson (Photo: World of Wonder)

    Even the most fervent follower of RuPaul's Drag Race can admit that it's an exhausting time to be a fan. What began as a low-budget quasi-parody of America's Next Top Model has blossomed into a multimedia drag empire, winning multiple Emmys, and changing the face(-face-face) of drag in the mainstream. But with the flagship series, All Stars spin-offs, international versions (now at 15, including five that premiered in 2023), Global All Stars, Versus-the-World seasons — and that's just the competition shows — it has become a full-time gig to keep up with even a fraction of these shows.

    The sun never sets on the Drag Race empire, which is good for the queens (and RuPaul), but this has also led to a kind of arms race on the shows to top each other (so to speak) and deliver twists and turns that haven't been seen before. Those twists can often distract from the simple pleasures of watching these drag queens compete. And when a twist misses the mark, like the Fame Games in All Stars 8, it can be a real letdown. All of this makes it even more pleasing to watch Drag Race UK return to a less anxiously busy era of Drag Race with its fifth season, which wraps up November 30. From the number of contestants (only 10, albeit after one queen was controversially scrubbed from the first episode after being pulled from the cast), to the classic archetypes of the queens, to the unforced backstage banter and judging decisions, UK 5 has been like a warm bath, comforting and enjoyable, while still delivering a top tier product and some of my favorite contestants of the last several years.

    There was only one elimination in the first three episodes, which really allowed this group to gel. Some classic Drag Race archetypes emerged, from the comedy queens (the tremendous Ginger Johnson and Kate Butch) to the body queens (Tomara Thomas) to the fish out of water (Polish queen Alexis Saint-Pete). Seasoned older queens like Michael Marouli and Vicki Vivacious brought the valuable perspective of those who have been pounding the pavement across the UK for years.

    American and Canadian Drag Race have been leaning heavily on younger queens in recent seasons, which has brought TV-ready controversy to the workroom as the club queens have clashed with the younger girls who have mostly done drag via social media platforms and videos. When these younger queens have expanded the franchise’s understanding of gender performance and introduced new and alternative styles of drag — seriously, check out this new season of Canada's Drag Race, we’ve seen the best version of this dynamic play out.

    This element wasn't completely abandoned in UK 5, with non-binary queen Banksie and trans queen Cara Melle bringing their stories to the workroom, but nothing about their dynamic with the older queens has felt forced this season. The only "what's to be done with this younger queen" storyline has involved 20-year-old DeDeLicious, and even DeDe managed to turn it out in multiple winning lip-sync performances, which is more than can be said for recent American youngins like Sugar and Spice.

    The relationships between the queens have felt organic and old-school. Kate Butch needed to fight for respect from the other queens for her comedy skills, which outpaced her looks. Real-life roommates Cara Melle and Tomara Thomas carried out a (mostly) good-natured sibling rivalry. UK-specific geographic storylines emerged, with many of the season's best queens hailing from the northeast of England. I may not know much more about Newcastle and Yorkshire than I did when the season started, but the Geordie alliance of Michael Marouli, Tomara Thomas, and Ginger Johnson making it to the top three has been so fun to watch play out.

    The invisible hand of production has actually been invisible this season. Obviously, we were always going to get a Tomara/Cara flatmate face-off in a Lip Sync for Your Life, but since it happened on a week when the two winners lip-synced, it never felt ginned up for drama. The Snatch Game played out like a normal Snatch Game. The makeover played out like a normal makeover. The roast was a normal roast. The most exciting moments were when the show indulged its British-ness in challenges like "Panto Dames," where the queens performed a pantomime-themed Rusical. American audiences may not have fully grasped the panto of it all, but clearly this artform had resonance for the queens.

    When a season of Drag Race is determined by the merits of the queens' performances rather than machinations or twists, it is so much more fun to watch. Take the emergence of Ginger Johnson, a comedy queen with impeccable design skills who performed so well in every challenge that it was impossible to deny her success. Ru and the other judges (Michelle Visage and the rotating third chair occupied by Alan Carr and Graham Norton) didn't seem to have their eye on Ginger as a major contender early on, but they allowed themselves to be surprised by her, week after week, and now I'd say she's the favorite to win.

    Recent Drag Race seasons have felt overdetermined to usher certain queens to the end by any means necessary. And while no season is going to feel entirely without its controversial calls (justice for Kate Butch, eliminated too soon!), UK 5 never had us wanting to yell "rigga morris."

    Yes, the Drag Race universe can feel like a rat race. When the social media timeline starts making references to "Canada vs. The World" results or sharing clips from Drag Race Thailand and you haven't been able to keep up, it's stressful. A season like Drag Race UK Season 5 is a balm in hectic times. It's a throwback to the days when the queens carried the show with their personalities and creative innovation and twists didn't rule the day. Now just give Ginger Johnson that crown and end on a high note.

    The RuPaul's Drag Race UK Season 5 finale drops November 30 on WOW Presents Plus. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer 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.

    TOPICS: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, RuPaul Charles