Monday, March 30, 2009

That Other Amazing Race (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lipsynch for My Life)

So here's where I talk about RuPaul's Drag Race like I've been promising to do all week. And I don't know where to begin. I'm not lying when I say that this show makes me feel like I did when I caught up to the first season of Project Runway, specifically that this show is going to blow up huge, far beyond the intense cult love it's receiving now. This is a show that has the potential to cross over and -- if you've never seen the show this is going to sound weird, but it sounded weird about PR in season 1 too -- really make an impact on the American culture.

You can watch the show on as many (or as few) levels as you'd like, of course. If you're merely looking for a really great parody of America's Next Top Model, you'll find it. If you're looking for crazy drag queens to cut up and be all catty with each other, you'll find it (though not as much as you'd think). But if you're also looking for a very sharp metatextual take on the reality genre, one with true self-awareness, unexpected sweetness, real insight, and pure joyful fun, you will most definitely find it, as I did a week and a half ago.

That last part is important. If I'm making the whole thing sound like a thesis on reality TV in the age of Obama, don't mistake me. This has all the fun of your favorite guilty pleasure show; I'm just here to tell you you really don't have to feel guilty about it. The idea of RuPaul doing her best Tyra impersonation, from behind a camera lens so gauzed out you might as well be at the gates of Drag Heaven, is brilliant enough. Incredibly, everybody is in on the joke, and yet they still take the competition seriously.

I honestly don't think you could strike this balance with anyone but drag queens. After all, drag queens by their nature are knowing artificialities, and completely serious about being nonserious. This is how you can have Ru issuing a challenge calling for the queens to parade in "executive realness" ensembles and have the ensuing walk-off be hilarious and totally impressive at the same time. It's that sense of humor that doesn't demean the contestants or their talents that is Drag Race's best asset.

Also, as with any great reality show, it was impeccably cast. Bebe Zahara Benet and Nina Flowers just became household names (in certain households) and gay icons, and for good reason. They were so completely fabulous and original that you could be forgiven for missing the fact that they were also two of that rarest of species: the completely likeable reality show contestant. As was the stealthily awesome Ongina, who started off impish and weird but who ended up becoming endearing and poignant. Then there were the "villains": bitchy, aloof Rebecca Glasscock was (to borrow a quote I read somewhere but can't remember) the Wendy Pepper of this season; Shannel with the stunning blue eyes, defiantly Vegas attitude (seriously, bitch breaks out the Vegas cred like she was in the shit in 'Nam) and complete lack of self-awareness; Akasha, the one truly stereotypically bitchy queen; and the walking hot mess that was miss Tammie Brown (above), who will see you in the magazines.

And that's not even getting to the catchphrases, my god, the catchphrases. There are no less than a half-dozen of them, each more than worthy of the t-shirts that Logo is apparently declining to produce; because who needs a license to print money anyway? Every single person who has watched this show would buy a shirt boasting the show's criteria of fabulousness: Creativity, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent. Or Ru's kiss-off line "Shantay, you stay [on the front]; Sashay away [on the back]." Every fag you or I know would be wearing that today if Logo got their act together. Logo is also maybe dropping the ball by not planning Season 2 to air until 2010. Strike while the iron is hot, Logo! This is your crossover shot!

Which brings me to my final point: that Drag Race is the next evolutionary step up for the gay-themed reality show. We sat up and begged for a treat with Queer Eye and showed we could work a trade with Project Runway and agreed we'd all only talk about Manhunt in private social circles. Now we get to stand up proud and with a sense of humor. It feels like straight America has turned a corner with gay acceptance; we may not have the rights yet, but for the first time in my life, it feels like a majority of Americans want to get there. Even if they're not voting that way yet, they're willing to walk down that road. And the mainstream embracing of Drag Race seems like the logical next step, me, where forward-thinking straight folks from between the coasts get past their last remaining gay-panic trigger and realize that drag queens aren't scary. Or they are, but only in the same way that Celine Dion is scary. (Weirdly enough, now I totally get what Roommate Mark was talking about re: Adam Lambert.)

Of course, on a more basic level, this show works because it's an absolute riot, an EXTRAVAGANZA of camp. Bebe's ridiculous wig alone (above) deserves its own retrospective. Shannel and her insane snake-clad hooters! Akasha lipsyching so fiercely as to make Michelle Williams start crying at her own song! Guest appearances by Charo, Lucy Lawless, and Maria Conchita Alonso! My darling Nina Flowers completely revamping my vocabulary (you are fabulous, Loca!).

I haven't even touched on everything there is to talk about. Like the complex psychology of Rebecca Glasscock, who played the tired old "not here to make friends" reality TV game and lost big time. Or the show's decidedly low-budget aesthetic, which was such a big part of its charm. Seriously, $20k and some MAC cosmetics as the grand prize? I'm pretty sure one of the weekly prizes was a wig (custom-fitted!). Glorious.

You guys, if this is still available via marathons on Logo (or VH1) or on Logo Online, you know what you need to do. If you already have, hit the comments already.

Annnnnd What?


JAM said...

Where to begin? Don't forget that part of the brilliance of the show is that the first half is modeled after Project Runway, with Ru as the (bespectacled, suited) Tim Gunn and THEN the second half of the show is modeled after ANTM, with Ru as the Tyra!

You've said it better than I, but I think it worked so well because most reality shows relentlessly pursue the appearance of authenticity through carefully crafted and edited storylines, drag is *already* all about the *appearance* of authenticity rather than authenticity itself, and I think that somehow frees this show up to respectfully and hilariously point out in re: the reality genre that, if the emperor has no clothes, the emperor better be a damn fabulous bitch.

For me, that's why Rebecca's old "I'm not here to make friends, they can kiss my ass" routine fell so flat. Been there, done that, honey -- the whole show was so far beyond playing a tired approach like that straight (uh, as it were) and she didn't seem to get that. That's all I've got to say. Except that I still want to be besties with Ongina.

adam k. said...

re: Battlestar, Tory's death, for me, was overshadowed by Starbuck's "she was never really there!" sudden disappearance (in terms of things that didn't sit well), but I see what you're saying. I never thought of it as an applause scene - I hated Tyrol for doing it - but other people I was watching it with were sorta clapping on the inside.

I almost don't get why Tyrol was THAT mad... I mean, Cally HAD just tried to kill him by socking him on the head with a wrench. And if she'd lived, they would've all been found out. And if the Earth stories are to be believed, Tory was in fact his first love, 2000 years ago. So wtf? Others on the show have done much worse.

I think the real issue is they needed a plot device to get them out of the download and out of there quickly. I just wish he hadn't killed her, but had instead made some reference to their time back on Earth, which it feels like the writers just forgot about or something.

JA said...

I appreciate your enthusiasm for the show, Joseph, but this:

"Every fag you or I know would be wearing that today if Logo got their act together."

Does this mean you disavow knowing me then? Because no no never in a million years no. ;-)

Joe Reid said...

JAM: Yes to all of that. The "Project Runway" overtones are totally apparent. And totally re: Rebecca. I wonder if she could have ever gotten out of her own head about being in a "competition" she would have been able to open up more.

JA: Sigh. Yes. As ever, your coolness exempts you from whatever I'm talking about.

Jon said...

I've already outed myself as a huge Drag Race fan. The only way it could have been a better commentary on reality competition would have been if the winner each week had been presented with a random cookbook.

I do think there are small ways the show could be improved for the future, but my real fear is that this will turn out to have been lightening in a bottle. Surely we'll not get a second-season cast full of people with the supreme wisdom of Bebe or Nina, or the shocking cluelessness of Shannel. I just don't want to see a bunch of queens all trying play reality show types.

Joe Reid said...

It's a valid concern, Jon. But I have to figure the season 1 contestants were already quite familiar with the reality TV tropes and types and we still got the great crew we did. Maybe the fact that Bebe and Nina finished 1-2 will be positive reinforcement? I'm feeling optimistic, Loca.