what can we learn from 'drag race all stars 3'?
Last night, Trixie Mattel snatched the 'All Stars 3' crown. But the season didn’t always snatch my proverbial wig.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is the most vibrant, funny, smart, radical, affirming show on television. Its worst episodes are better than the best episodes of anything else currently airing. As RuPaul once told Magnoooolia Crawford, “This is the motherfucking Olympics, girl.” But I found myself a bit disappointed with All Stars 3.
After season nine’s heart-stopping lip-sync showdown aired in June, waiting for the AS3 premiere in January felt like the longest seven months of my life. I realize now that I should have been prepared to wait much longer. There was a four-year gap between the original incarnation of All Stars and All Stars 2, which was to AS2’s great benefit. The casting was outstanding, the challenges were well-developed, and the runways were thrilling — some of the best in Drag Race herstory. The memory of such an epic All Stars season was still fresh in my mind, and it made AS3 seem structurally flawed.
Many AS3 queens didn’t place highly in their seasons, but have proven their star power off Drag Race. Trixie’s got a talk show on Viceland, Shangela has appeared on Glee and 2 Broke Girls, Milk starred in Marc Jacobs and Vivienne Westwood campaigns. There was great potential for super creative (Aja, Thorgy) and magnetically entertaining (Chi Chi, Kennedy) queens to demonstrate how much they’ve grown, and approach the competition with joy and confidence in what they know they’re capable of achieving.
I was excited to see all of these queens return to the workroom, but the something-to-prove arc created a strange tension that distracted from the competition, not enhanced it. Maybe a multiplicity of perspectives and experiences might have set a different tone. I’d love to watch Shangela lip-sync against Peppermint, Kennedy tackle choreography with Trinity Taylor, or Milk stomp a runway alongside Kim Chi or Naomi Smalls.
AS2 hit a nice balance between challenges, workroom time, runways, and critiques. This season’s emphasis was on drama and commentary. Sometimes, that focus was necessary (BenDeLa’s shocking self-elimination, for example). But it often made the runways feel abridged, and the challenges undercooked. Queens served two looks at the Pop Art Ball rather than the traditional three. One was Studio 54 eleganza, the other was a soup can. Disco is a drag queen’s bread-and-butter. And canned character voice-overs meant we lost judges and queens’ one-liners. (Like Trixie's "Tatianna ‘Same Parts’ Dennis The Menace fantasy.”).
The Kitty Girl group was an improvement, but, as Oliver Sava noted in one of his excellent AV Club reviews: “The group dynamics for the challenge could have been much more interesting if the returning queens were working with their eliminators, and it would have provided a more active way to present the confrontations that take up too much time at the top of the episode.” That group grievances session got too much screen-time, and made last night’s jury interactions feel less dynamic than they could have been.
The jury was an exciting twist, especially following such an ambitious maxi-challenge. But it kept Shangela out of the top two when she had earned a place there. I could not tolerate her Game of Thrones references, but she made a point about creating alliances out of mutual respect that stuck with me. So it was tough to watch her only get one lipstick. But that’s the way the game is played, and Kennedy’s creative evolution and from-the-heart realness clearly energized her sisters.
Drag Race does an outstanding job capturing the facets that make drag so rich and vital: artistry, technical execution, the capacity to entertain, intelligence, humor, cultural critique, community, personal struggle, growth, and triumph. The show is constantly developing vehicles that will best showcase these aspects. Always engaging with new ideas, and finding ways to reinvent them.
There’s a lot to learn from AS3. Some of its experiments were knockouts. The Bitchelor was one of the funniest acting challenges I’ve seen in awhile. Wigs-on-wigs-on-wigs was a great runway concept. My Best Squirrelfriend’s Dragsmaids Wedding Trip was on the right track, but it needed a more focused script. The producers should play with more character-trope franchises. There was also something democratic about the jury system that I find interesting. I would like to see it evolved and adapted in future seasons.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait very long for Season 10. It premieres next week. I’m prepared to wait another few years for All Stars 4.