‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4’ Premiere Recap: Herstory Never Repeats

RuPaul’s Drag Race has owned 2018. After airing for almost the entire first half of the year, between All Stars 3 (not the best!) and season 10 (incredibly strong first half!), RuPaul decided he could not let his foot off our neck. First, we got the entertaining-if-misguided Holi-slay Spectacular. Now, it’s All Stars season again. Ten veteran girls, one spot in the Drag Race Hall of Fame up for grabs.

I’ll admit, I walked into this week’s premiere with some reticence. All Stars 3 was a pretty stressful experience, what with RuPaul saying transitioning queens shouldn’t compete in an interview, pockets of racist fans repeatedly attacking Bebe Zahara Benet (a personal favorite queen), and a finale that absolutely no one was happy with, even the winner. Suffice it to say I want the jury twist blasted into the next dimension.

All in all, though, this was a good reintroduction to the world of All Stars. This cast is excellent, far more impressive on the whole than All Stars 3’s crop. There are a couple of more dubious inclusions, considering their runs on the show, but the show goes out of its way to explain why they’re there.

For example: Season 9’s Farrah Moan is one of the most beautiful alumni. And season 7’s Jasmine Masters is a meme queen! But even those justifications ultimately don’t mean much, as those are the two queens who wind up in the bottom this week. Excellence outside the show only sometimes translates into improving your performance on the show, after all.

But we’ll get back to them later. We’ve got some other queens to re-meet first.

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The first challenges are, once again, Reading Is Fundamental and the All-Star Variety Show. Which: I get tradition, but can we vary this up a little next season? At this point the All Stars format is getting stale, including the return of Lip Sync for Your Legacy. (I guess that suspension from the supertrailer is coming later in the season, then.) All Stars 2 was so thrilling because it changed up the format; doing the same challenges over and over again is not the way to replicate that season’s success.

Season 4 and All Stars 1 veteran Latrice Royale wins the mini-challenge, marking her second reading challenge win (tying Alaska, who won in season 5 and All Stars 2). She and Manila Luzon, season 3 runner-up, both return from All Stars 1, where a terrible team twist doomed them to a joint 7th/8th-place finish. I adore Latrice, so I’m super excited to see how she’ll do in modern Drag Race. I am of more mixed emotions about Manila, a stunning queen whose challenge wins in season 3 nonetheless feel a bit … shall we say, suspect in retrospect. Let’s just say her QNN correspondent performance would probably not win the challenge today, nor the internet’s favor.

Both Latrice and Manila do just fine in the All-Star Variety Show, though surprising myself, I might have put Manila in my personal top three. She does an odd painting routine with a hell of a twist — she painted a picture upside down! — and adds a costume reveal to boot. It probably didn’t play as well onstage as it did on camera, but I like when these queens don’t just lip-sync for their talent. This is Drag Race. Everyone should have that particular talent.

While Latrice does include color guard moves in her routine, they’re mostly an excuse for her to do a high-energy lip-sync number. Infamous season 9 fan favorite Valentina also lip syncs, but considering she likely just wants to prove she can do it, it’s understandable. Season 8 alumna Naomi Smalls mostly poses through her lip sync, although a good bald head reveal at the end grants her a top three placement from the judges.

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Season 10 sisters Monique Heart and Monét X Change both opt for live vocals in their performances, singing songs tied to their catchphrases from their season. Despite Monét championing herself as a singer in season 10, however, Monique is the winner of this particular battle. “Brown Cow Stunning” is a good Drag Race alumni track, and her outfit — actual brown cow, no giraffe this time! — is just corny enough to work. More to the point, Monique sounds good, and keeps her vocals up while she dances. She’s the clear winner in the main challenge, finally taking home a win after being passed up repeatedly during season 10.

Monét, on the other hand, really whiffs on this one. Her voice is a disaster at the start of the performance, and “Soak It Up” feels like a rehash of all the sponge jokes Monét told during season 10. The key difference between Mo’ and Mo’ is that while Monique did say “Brown cow! Stunning!” in season 10, she said it once. Monét made the sponges a season-long gag. We get it. We need something more. Combined with her technical imperfection, it’s enough to land Monét in the bottom, sitting on the opposite side of the stage as Monique. That said, Monique should probably retire the brown cow jokes for a while after this win.

This being All Stars, Monique cannot win alone, and so she is joined by season 9’s Trinity Taylor — now preferring to go by Trinity the Tuck. Similar to Monét, Trinity relies on a gag from her season, her tucking skills, but puts together a whole new comedy routine to go with it. It’s a lip sync, but to a tucking tutorial, complete with a country-fried teacher character. It’s a smart idea, particularly because the judges have always preferred Trinity’s comedy to her more pageant-friendly skills. (Two of her three wins in season 9 were for comedic performances.)

Trinity’s performance is fun, but more importantly, it’s different. Tatianna won the All Stars 2 talent show because she did spoken word, and she killed it. You’d think more girls would look to her as an example — which is what season 6’s Gia Gunn does, actually. Her kabuki routine isn’t the flashiest, but it’s unique. I finished watching the episode thinking of the talents that took me by surprise, like hers, Trinity’s, and Manila’s, much more than the more expected routines.

Now, that’s Gia in the challenge. Gia out of the challenge is a whole other story. While I appreciate the journey she’s been on in her transition, and am pleasantly surprised to see her here, Gia in both the workroom and confessionals this week is absolutely unbearable. She’s constantly negative, putting down Trinity and Farrah ad nauseam. She even trash-talks the beloved Valentina after the latter’s routine bores her! Gia’s not even trying to avoid being the villain this season! Milk and Phi Phi O’Hara’s villain edits took far more work to put together than this.

Purposeful antagonism isn’t enjoyable to watch, frankly. The best reality TV villains don’t come in to start shit, they think they’re right. Moreover, they don’t let their snark get in the way of their success. As Trinity says in one confessional, maybe she’s got a strategy in mind, but with this attitude, she’s not going to survive long in the Lip Sync for Your Legacy format.

Speaking of, Trinity is the queen whose growth most impresses me in this episode — not as a queen, because she’s always been skilled, but as a person. Trinity was known for being a stone-cold, cutthroat competitor in season 9. She wins the lip sync against Monique, a barnburner set to Mariah Carey’s “Emotions,” and has to send either Farrah or Jasmine home this week. Trinity gets really emotional and reflective about the decision, and even tears up on stage. She’s showing her heart early, which will nicely compliment her challenge and lip sync superiority. Even in the reading mini-challenge, though she didn’t win it, she artfully lobbed failed reads from other queens back at them.

If I had to bet on one queen to be the BenDeLaCreme or Alaska of this season — excelling in nearly every part of the show — Trinity would be my bet.

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And so we return to Farrah and Jasmine, who both make pretty strong cases for sending them home this week. Farrah’s burlesque routine is a literal flop, thus ending the trend of the one burlesque performer each season (Roxxxy Andrews and Ben before this) winning the variety show. It’s interesting that the judges don’t mention Farrah’s fall in their critiques, though I know the show shoots every variety show act twice. That’s why we didn’t see Chi Chi DeVayne drop her baton during All Stars 3. Maybe they weren’t sure if the show would use the take where Farrah falls, and wanted to avoid mentioning it as a result. Still, even if Farrah didn’t fall in both takes, she’s visibly nervous throughout her routine. Winning Drag Race takes Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent, and I could really only make an argument for Farrah’s Charisma at this point.

Jasmine is the opposite of nervous. She’s all Nerve, with very little to back it up. Jasmine’s stand-up routine is completely devoid of good jokes, but even during deliberations, she refuses to admit she wasn’t funny. (Which: She really wasn’t.) That said, between the two choices, I’m much more interested in seeing what Jasmine would bring to All Stars. She’s a different kind of queen, one who could surprise in this more performance-heavy format with more preparation. Farrah, bless her heart, is never going to make a big impression in All Stars.

Trinity ultimately chooses to cut Jasmine, which is defensible, if disappointing. Farrah is likely next out the door unless she can surprise. But there’s not much chaff left after that. That’s when the true battle between the best of the best can begin.

Some final thoughts:

• The bitch is back! I’m happy to be joining you all again as the primary recapper for All Stars 4. Mathew Rodriguez, who so wonderfully covered season 10, will be writing about the season in a broader capacity. All Stars 3 nearly broke me, but some time off plus a dynamite first half of season 10 helped rekindle my love of Drag Race. I’m excited to see what these girls can do this season.

• I personally believe in declaring biases, so for the record: I’m heavily rooting for Monét X Change to win this season. I think she’s entertaining as hell, with the intelligence to back it up. That said, this was the worst possible note to start on — literally. Her singing made Phi Phi in All Stars 2 sound on-key. Also? Save the sponges, her look for the variety show was basically Bob the Drag Queen’s final Book Ball look in season 8. Considering she always gets compared to Bob anyway, this misstep is particularly egregious. Get it together, Monét, and fast!

• We’re supposed to believe that Valentina and Farrah are good now, after their iconic reunion fight in season 9. I maybe don’t buy it? Their tone when talking about making up is tense. We’ll see how the rest of this season goes, but I don’t think this is going to be an Alyssa Edwards/Coco Montrese “we have buried the hatch” moment.

• Speaking of Val, I know I didn’t mention her much, but she was surprisingly backgrounded this episode for such a controversial character. Saving the best for later, maybe? Regardless, I appreciate that Valentina is embracing being a more complex character. I gave a cheer when she said she can be both nice and a telenovela villainess. Tea!

• The best read in the mini-challenge is Latrice’s “Valentina! Take that thing off your face. Oh, it is your face. Your other one.” It’s a layered read: first reference, then read, then the full wig-snatch. Runner-up: Naomi’s “Farrah Moan is so dumb, she thought Valentina was her best friend.”

• Naomi says the word “fashion” multiple times in her track, which gave me PTSD flashbacks to Milk’s “Touch the Fashion” last season. (Also, a light conspiracy theory: I think Naomi only got her top three placement because the judges wanted to give her the note that her comedy played better than just posing. It’s a critique that could really benefit her moving forward.)

• There’s a superhero/comic aesthetic to the intro this season, replacing the Handmaid’s Tale theme from last season. Hope this one doesn’t become an overly long gag that never satisfyingly pays off.

• Monique loses her wig during the lip sync, which is irritating, but it becomes a full gag when the wig gets stuck in the stage rafters. Trinity was going to win this lip sync anyway — seriously, she really kills it — but Monique should count herself lucky something fun came from her mistake.

• Jenifer Lewis is a great guest judge, energetic during the performances and giving good notes during critiques. I especially appreciated her rebuke to Farrah’s tears — that crying is boring. Because it is, frankly! I appreciate Farrah’s feelings, but this is All Stars. In the words of Aja, level your pussy up.

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars returns next Friday, December 21, at 8pm Eastern on VH1.


 

Kevin O'KeeffeKevin O'Keeffe

Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer and 'RuPaul's Drag Race' herstorian. He covers film and TV for INTO, and writes the movie review column "But How Gay Is It?" every Friday.

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