How ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Saved Itself in Season 7

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Over the course of seven seasons, RuPaul’s Drag Race has helped drag reach new heights in the mainstream while consistently highlighting the best new drag talent. At times, the show’s view of the art form can be narrow and glamor-focused, not to mention transphobic in its jokes and language (and mostly unapologetic about that fact). Though this valid backlash put something of a dent in Season 6, RuPaul’s Drag Race has rebounded with its seventh season, thanks to bigger-name judges and more elaborate performance challenges. There’s a lot to love, even if RuPaul is a hesitant activist (“People have told me, ‘Oh, you’re a role model,'” he recently told Vogue. “I’m like, great, I love it. If you’re getting something out of it, right on. But I selfishly do all of this for my own enjoyment”). With the season now past the halfway point, let’s check in on what’s been working well, so far.

It’s campier and less obsessed with “fishiness” than in recent seasons.

It’s true that Drag Race prioritizes glamorous drag over any other style, but with the show’s two most recent winners — Bianca Del Rio (Season 6) and Jinkx Monsoon (Season 5) — being comedy queens, Ru has pushed this season’s cabal of model-esque fashion queens (Pearl, Violet Chachki, Max) to step up their performance and personality game. Some — like Pearl — have risen to the occasion (see: this week’s “reading” challenge), while others — like Max — have gone home for failing to show dimension (or, you know, a hair color besides grey). Simply being a realistic and beautiful queen is less important than it has ever been on Drag Race, and I think we’re about to see that as Season 7 heads into the Top 5 with Katya and Ginger Minj — comedy queens who commit — and Kennedy Davenport — who’s glamorous but also a performer — leading the pack.

Just two seasons ago, Drag Race‘s subtitle could have been “Serving Fish.” (“Fish,” for the uninitiated, has to do with passing as a woman to the highest degree, instead of embracing the historical camp of the drag tradition.) Back then, it was total crickets among the other contestants when Jinkx played camp icon Little Edie, from Grey Gardens, in the Snatch Game. Now the show’s challenges include musical reinterpretations of classic Divine scenes from John Waters films. Now Kennedy Davenport can win the Snatch Game doing drag as a man (Little Richard). Now they have runway challenges dedicated to looking whack (this week’s ugly dress challenge, granny drag mini-challenge) and freakish (conjoined twin challenge). Seven seasons in, pretty don’t cut it. A queen like Katya, who’s not afraid to get ugly, is looking better and better in the competition.

The challenges have become more elaborate and wide-ranging with regards to drag’s many facets.

In earlier seasons, the weekly runway shows seemed to have more of an effect on how the judges perceived and assessed the contestants. In many ways, that gave the fashion queens — the girls who can sew and style themselves to impeccable heights in a short amount of time — a huge advantage. But I also would argue it put the less successful and/or financially secure queens at a disadvantage (the fewer costumes you have, the fewer costumes you have to choose from each week). Sewing and styling are important skills for a drag queen to possess, but it should only take a contestant so far. Season 6 runner-up Adore Delano, for example, has the right attitude and performance instincts to be a killer drag queen, though Michelle Visage spent countless judgments chastising her for not having the proper undergarments. It was annoying to hear again and again, but ultimately had little bearing on her success within the competition.

Besides the very first challenges (fall and spring looks, nude-illusion resort wear), Drag Race Season 7 showdowns have been less about styling and more about acting, hosting, and performance skills. Though the comedy queens are starting to feel less and less like underdogs, it’s not even that comedic timing has become the most important skill on Drag Race — it’s that the show has been able to dream up its most elaborate challenges ever this season, almost entirely involving performance skills of various kinds. Moby helped the girls get blown senseless… in the face, for a photo shoot. Shakespeare served as inspiration for Valley Girl reinterpretations. As Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder smartly pointed out after Episode 2‘s Glamazonian Airways challenge, Drag Race finally introduced its viewers to the drag tradition of the “mix number,” “a modern subgenre of drag lip-synching that involves creating an audio collage of musical clips intercut with snippets of dialog from films and television, usually to explore a theme or advance a story arc over the course of the piece.” Next week, the girls face an intense choreography challenge.

The judges keep getting bigger, and mostly better.

Though new judges Ross Matthews and Carson Kressley could stand to turn the bitchy up to Michelle Visage levels, the guest judges have been staggeringly impressive: gay icons like John Waters, Kathy Griffin, and a Spice Girl (Mel B); pop stars like Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande; Drag Race superfans like Kat Dennings; even Tamar Braxton, who at this point has been parodied and channeled by contestants many times.

It’s become self-referential.

Part of Drag Race‘s fun has always been RuPaul’s shamelessness in integrating his own history (and product placement) into the show; it’s as much a celebration of all things Ru as it is a hotbed for new drag superstars. Admittedly, Ru and co. could be better at giving the mainstream a more complete portrait of drag’s rich history, outside of the show’s creator and his OG pals like Lady Bunny. But now Drag Race has just become downright meta, and it’s a nice respite from all Ru all the time. Not only did past contestants Sharon Needles and Alyssa Edwards pop up as characters in this season’s Snatch Game, but the song spoof and music video challenge from Episode 4 saw the queens imitating memorable ex-Drag Race hopefuls while performing RuPaul originals. In the Ru Hollywood Stories challenge, each team acted out a sketch involving Drag Race drama from the judges’ perspectives.

They create their own memes, and they commit to them.

On-screen hashtag crawls are generally pretty tame and therefore pretty forgettable. The original hashtags Drag Race promotes on air — like #TheLibraryIsOpen for this week’s “reading” challenge — are funny, topical, and oftentimes related to the gay lexicon (Drag Race leads in introducing straight audiences to phrases popular in the gay community). It’s the one show whose hashtags I will buy into on my personal social media accounts; maybe that’s also because Drag Race is still, in some ways, a hidden gem of a show as far as parts of the straight viewing population is concerned. Also: great .GIF game on the official Drag Race Twitter.

They ditched Untucked.

Though intermittently Real and tremendously catty, the half-hour, low-budget Untucked post-show sort of cheapened the competition aspect of Drag Race. The show has helped to bring a mainstream awareness to drag, but when the drama of individual performers stands to trump their actual performances, the emphasis becomes less about drag as an art form. We get enough of the cliques on the main show, so let’s keep Untucked online. The ultimate goal should be to get people out to IRL drag shows, not to overemphasize reality-show drama.