Not to peddle RuPaul’s own brand of unfounded pop psychology, but Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race seems to have succumbed to its own inner saboteur. This year, when the show was good, it soared. Gifted with the best overall crop of queens since Season 6, Season 10 showcased also-rans that offered oodles of talent. But, among the fandom, it’s no secret that this season has been unable to land the plane after an almost turbulence-free journey in the skies.
Just by virtue of its subject and content, Drag Race is a television innovator. It’s shoved queerness into the mainstream and allowed queer people, and society at large, to deal with its homophobia and femmephobia like no other single piece of media before. And in Season 10, it has still broken down some barriers. This season’s black queens, especially The Vixen, challenged the set course for black queer people on television. But while individual contestants may push, and break, boundaries, the show for the first time seems nervous about its own footing and more concerned with pleasing the fandom than innovation.
There’s really no reason for Season 10 to have a top four again, other than trying to chase last year’s success. Compared to Season 9’s top four — embodiments of Charisma (Peppermint), Uniqueness (Sasha Velour), Nerve (Shea Coulee) and Talent (Trinity Taylor) — this season’s top four seems completely safe — and a bit boring. During Thursday’s episode, the judges seemed shocked that Kameron toughed it out this far. And, whereas a final four was innovative after a late-in-the-game mad dash from Season 9’s Peppermint, a final four in Season 10 feels shoehorned.
It makes sense why they’d want to repeat the format. Though Season 9 may not have had the best overall storyline and focused way too much on very special conversations in front of the makeup mirror, it did showcase Drag Race’s ability to pivot format and reflect a cultural moment. In response to a year when too many lip syncs were botched, bombed or otherwise came across on TV as lackluster, Ru switched up the rules and delivered a one-two punch. When Sasha Velour lifted up her wig and rose petals rained down, the show got a truly viral lip-sync moment. And when it later crowned Sasha Velour, the show chose as its reigning figurehead a paragon of everything anti-Trump: art, queerness, and intellectualism. Drag Race was at once both innovative and relevant.
Few would have predicted that RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10 would enter its home stretch with the final four as it stands. We didn’t know that, of the Season’s 5 black queens, three would be eliminated, one after the other, in a heartbreaking streak. Who could’ve predicted that Kameron Michaels, once almost completely shut out of early face-to-camera segments, would fight tooth and front split to the top? And we surely couldn’t have guessed that Aquaria would go into the finale with a clean 3-0 win to lip sync ratio.
But here we are. Asia O’Hara, Eureka, Aquaria and Kameron Michaels outwitted, outplayed and outlasted their ten other competitors and have made it all the way to the upcoming lip sync for the crown. But how?
After Monét X Change’s famous death drop fake out in the “Pound the Alarm” lip sync, the season truly revved its engine. What followed was a slew of challenges and lip syncs that tested queens’ mettle in a way no other outing had. “Bossy Rossy” asked the queens to improv, a skill asked of any performer who hosts at a gay bar. The Drag Con panel tested how queens can work a crowd while explaining their craft. Even the lip sync musical choices were above-the-board: how had we never heard “I’m Coming Out” or “Groove Is in the Heart”? And, in a double whammy, Carly Rae Jepsen made her debut in one of the season’s more controversial lip syncs.
But as it neared the home stretch, the show eliminated its three narrators — Monique, The Vixen, and Monet X Change — after each changed the competition for the better during their tenures. More than narrators, they were also far and above the show’s best characters. What remains are a crop of talented queens who are, at the end of the day, less interesting TV. Eureka straddles the watchable/unwatchable line. Aquaria is here to win, but rarely entertains in her talking heads and lacks a compelling storyline beyond her youth. Kameron’s silence makes her a non-factor in terms of TV value. Asia O’Hara is probably the most watchable queen remaining, but her personality is still a little less made-for-primetime than other queens who exited too early.
While this season is ending as a little shaky on the dismount, it still has two weeks to redeem itself. Last year’s reunion came off as a surprise due to the Valentina drama, and I trust the queens to deliver drama. But, when it comes to the season-long storylines and queen’s individual edits, Season 11 sure has a guidebook on what not to do.