Over the course of 12 seasons, RuPaul’s Drag Race has gone from a brilliantly campy send-up of America’s Next Top Model which cleverly obfuscated one of the best talent competitions to ever exist on television, to a certified international cultural juggernaut. And with great revenues come great responsibility—the show must go on even during a pandemic. But guessing from the incomplete Season 13 opener, in which the judges halved the incoming talent pool from behind a sneezeguard based on hasty lip-syncs, it’s pretty hard to assess what kind of show viewers, and the competitors themselves, are in for.
Drag Race is famous for hilariously torturing its queens in the opener, from photoshoots in tornado-like wind tunnels to fighting in dumpsters for garment scraps from which to build their first runway look. But rather than feeling like a lighthearted inconvenience, this season’s premiere episode skipped right to the end by pairing (or in one case throupling) queens to lip-sync for their lives from the moment they stepped into the workroom, with the winners presumably staying and the losers getting something called the “Pork Chop”—not quite a “sashay away,” but also not quite a guaranteed spot in the competition. From the cliffhanger end to the general clumsiness of the lip-syncs, the entire one-hour premiere read as a bit more slapdash than the generally impeccable organization of seasons past, making it a little bit easier to see the stiletto-nailed hand that has always been pulling the strings.
In a regular season of Drag Race, the thrill of the final, fate-deciding lip-sync is the fact that the audience is already pulling for someone. Judges have pulled the best and the worst of the week from the line of queens, leaving the audience to guess at and argue over who did the best and who did the worst based on their informed evaluation of each queens’ performance of the maxi-challenge and the runway. This new iteration of the lip-sync for one’s life took away all the elements that draw the audience in, pairing queens seemingly based on their potential for drama (quirky queen vs. make-up artist queen or veteran performer vs. newcomer) then deciding the “winner,” in some cases, seemingly on which would create more Untucked-style drama, by shuffling the losing queens into a pork chop room dotted with photographs of all 12 of the first-chopped queens from seasons’ past, prompting some hopeful discussion of pork chops cum all-stars Shangela and Vanjie. The entire confusing set-up had the feel of a starch-heavy meal attempting to mask a lack of meat, a lot like the Bachelorette’s sad La Quinta dates couldn’t quite hide the fact that this production is taking place among covid-19 restrictions, outbreaks, and danger.
That’s not to say that there were no surprises, highlights, or tremendous talent to be had in the coming season. Kandy Muse brings all the good-natured shade and adorable performance that the Haus of Aja has come to predictably deliver in the series. And though it was a bit heartbreaking to watch up-and-coming queen Symone defeat 30-year drag veteran and recent cancer survivor Tamisha Hall, the victory was stunning, as Symone, friend of last season’s top-three finalist Gigi Goode, has already proven herself to likely be a drag wunderkind of the Goode variety, coupled with all the small southern town charm of my darling Heidi N. Closet. Other lip-syncs seemed impossible to win, as in the case of Tina Burner, who is royalty in the New York drag scene and proved why by easily outstripping her competitors.
But elsewhere, what Alyssa Edwards and my A.V. Club colleague Katie Kulzick call “rigga morris” (the tendency of the show to sometimes veer toward drama at the expense of fairly rewarding the best performer) seemed to be in service of future story arcs rather than stage performance. Though it’s impossible to tell who truly won a lip-sync from the 30 or so seconds of condensed song to which the audience was privy, Rosé, another well-known New York City queen, pretty handily seemed to defeat Olivia Lux, who has only been doing drag a short time and, unfortunately, resorted to runway air guitar during her performance, much to my—and Michelle’s, judging by her wince—chagrin. Nevertheless, Olivia was declared the winner, leaving even Olivia asking the judges if they were sure.
Because more important than who did better on the runway seemed to be building tension between the old guard New York queens, who are often seen as being condescending and smug, and the spate of up-and-coming talent Ru has brought on board this season (as well as giving Tina a chance to gloat over Rosé, who has hinted of a rivalry between the two). In short, the show seemed to want us to focus on the potential for drama rather than the somewhat clumsy organization of the episode, and it worked in that it was distracting and most of us have already finished watching everything else currently streaming. But ending the show by having the pork chopped queens stranded, No Exit-style, as we wait for part two of the already hour-long episode one, feels like an unwelcome instance of art imitating life. We are all already in fucking purgatory; is it too much to ask for a complete, comfortingly formulaic installment of the reality TV we are using as a distraction?