By Kevin O’Keeffe
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a cliché for a reason: It’s true. Too often, TV creators are eager to tinker with success and lose the plot in the process. In season two of “Scandal,” Shonda Rhimes’ love of “Alias” and her audience’s frenzied reaction to the Defiance arc led her to add the overly complicated B613 story. Ryan Murphy never met a monkey wrench he didn’t love to throw into Glee’s storylines. Sometimes, it works; often, it screws up what was working before.
So there’s something to be said for “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars”’ season three premiere sticking to the status quo. “All Stars” season two was an enormous success for Logo and VH1, so it makes sense that the latter network, which now airs “All Stars” exclusively, would want to keep things the same. And yet it’s somewhat disarming to watch the 10 queens of “All Stars” season three follow the path set for them by their predecessors so exactly. They enter the workroom, participate in the Reading Is Fundamental challenge (which season six standout BenDeLaCreme wins, somewhat suspiciously), compete in a talent show main challenge, and then the top two lip sync for their legacy. It’s almost like a reenactment of “All Stars” season two, it’s so exact in its sameness.
Again, “All Stars” wasn’t broke, so it didn’t need fixing. But a spruce would be nice.
This feeling that we’ve been here before is my only quibble with “All Stars”’ killer premiere, which reintroduces us to nine of the finest, scrappiest queens to compete from seasons two through nine. Morgan McMichaels and Shangela represent the show’s early seasons, while Milk joins Ben from season six. Throw in Trixie Mattel and Kennedy Davenport from season seven, Chi Chi DeVayne and Thorgy Thor from season eight, and Aja from season nine, and you’ve got a crew of cutthroat, hilarious queens.
But of course, I said 10 queens, and therein lies our spruce: The 10th queen is former winner Bebe Zahara Benet. Because she won the first season, which was of a very different quality level (Ru pokes fun at the Vaseline filter and the “measly” $20,000 grand prize), she’s getting another chance at the crown. To her credit, she does not seem to be resting on her laurels; she acknowledges the other queens can teach her a lot, and she’s ready to compete.
Bebe is the big twist of the premiere, and she’s an effective one. The season one champion is mostly unknown to “Drag Race”’s audience because her season remains frustratingly unavailable to find online. (Even on iTunes and Amazon, where you can purchase every other season, it’s unavailable.) Logo occasionally re-airs it in full as “The Lost Season,” but those marathons are few and far between.
So here we have, in the middle of an “All Stars” season, a queen who has something all the others do not — the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar — and yet is easily the most unknown of the 10. She’s a wild card. As a huge Bebe fan, I’m stoked to see how she performs this season, but am mostly fascinated to see how the fanbase reacts to her.
Bebe doesn’t win the reading challenge, but she easily wins the unofficial battle of who has the best entrance look. Her gown-and-cape combo gives her an elegance that far outclasses her competitors, who are mostly pageant and comedy queens. Special mention among the others goes to Kennedy for her crystallized glamazon look, Chi Chi for her ’20s-inspired trash bag creation, and Milk for an updated take on her Pinocchio entrance look from season six.
All of them mostly fade into the background this episode, though, as BenDeLaCreme owns the proceedings. She completes a clean sweep this episode, winning the mini-challenge, main challenge, and the Lip Sync for Your Legacy. Condragulations to her! That said: These decisions are ultimately all kinda sketchy.
Her reads are fine, but Trixie or Morgan probably deserve the crown (Trixie’s “Aja: You’re beautiful, you’re gorgeous, you look like Seal” killed me). During the main variety show challenge, Ben does a burlesque number that feels almost like a parody of Roxxxy Andrews’ winning routine last “All Stars” season. I’d rank her a solid third or fourth, but definitely not above Kennedy’s gag-worthy dance routine (which bizarrely only gets called safe). In the lip sync against Aja, she performs a comedy version of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” that is a comedy delight, but the editing seems to heavily favor her. We barely see Aja.
I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of Ben; I think a lot of what she does is too broad and hearkens back to a more classic kind of drag that feels outdated when compared to more contemporary queens. But Ru is clearly as entranced by Ben as she was back in season six. I’d be stunned if she doesn’t go far.
I’m also expecting fellow top scorer Shangela to go the distance. She comes off as the most poised and confident this episode — maybe a little too ready with a catchphrase (“Haleloo” is deployed repeatedly), but hyper-aware of how she needs to sell herself to make the most of her All Stars run. Shangela may not win this week, but she charms the most; her reply to head judge Michelle Visage’s critique of her outfit, to “consider it burnt,” gets big laughs.
Aja wins alongside Ben, and here we have some more repetition: The young, underrated queen and the queen who performed a burlesque number win the first challenge. Tatianna and Roxxxy would be justified in feeling some dejá vu. But I really like Aja’s arc in this premiere. She’s made really smart, small refinements to her drag that quickly launch her ahead of where she was in season nine. Her dance routine involves vogueing, reveals, and a death drop off of a box. She dazzles, and I would’ve placed her in my top two as well (alongside Kennedy).
Thorgy joins them in the top, and she’s indeed very skilled with her violin. But I’m perplexed. Something seems off about Thorgy, like she’s not really there to win. In a group of girls this hungry for the crown, I worry she’ll get lost.
In fact, that hunger is the greatest advantage All Stars season three has over season two. This cast is ready to use the more Survivor-esque elimination format to their advantage: The winner of the lip sync once again gets to send one of the bottom scorers home (now just the bottom two instead of the bottom three). Morgan admits readily she’ll send the strongest girls home if she has the chance. In making her own decision, Ben wonders if it’s best to send Morgan home for that very reason, despite that Morgan’s performance in the variety show was ultimately better than fellow bottom-dweller Chi Chi’s. I think we’re going to get a lot more strategic eliminations this season, making for a much more dynamic show.
Speaking of our bottom queens: Morgan seems incredibly out of her element lip-syncing to her own track in the variety show, something she’s never done before. I’ve seen Morgan plenty at Showgirls, the Monday drag show at Micky’s in West Hollywood, and she can perform with the best of them. Unfortunately, her main talent is lip-syncing to other people’s songs, which requires rights clearance that Drag Race likely wasn’t willing to get. (There were rumors this is why Coco Montrese did an odd Old Hollywood dance in All Stars season two instead of her signature Janet Jackson routine.)
Morgan’s routine is nowhere near as misguided as Chi Chi’s is, though. I adore Chi Chi, and I know she can turn a show like no other queen in this crop. Which is why her choice to perform an odd baton routine in a flat jazz shoe and bad hair is so baffling. What was she thinking? I was rooting for her, we were all rooting for her! Before the premiere, I wanted her to make it to the end; during the winners’ deliberations, I found myself admitting she needed to go home first.
But Ben actually sends Morgan home, likely to cut off a vocal, dangerous threat before she gets too far. There’s still likely a return twist in store for this season, and maybe Morgan will fight her way back into the competition. It’d likely be for the best of the season if she did. A show like this is better when unpredictable elements are present, and Morgan is maybe the most unpredictable of all.
- While the replication of the format confused me, I did enjoy the casualness with which Ru introduced the rules. “‘All Star’ rules are in full effect” is just blasé enough to fit the tone of the spinoff, which usually expects the audience to get references versus explaining them (see: Kennedy’s entrance look referencing her “Untucked” monologue). “All Stars” is expert-level Drag Race.
- I honestly don’t know how Shangela death-drops so fast. I hope she has a great chiropractor.
- Quick rundown of the other queens’ talent show performances: Trixie’s song is lovely but too slow to win. Bebe’s lip sync is ferocious, if a little light compared to some of the more acrobatic routines. Milk’s paper dress routine is honestly just not much of anything (I deeply identify with Kennedy and Chi Chi’s eye-rolls), but she sticks around.
- Kind of odd that Ben specifically said she thought Valentina would be there, right? No other queen gets name-checked so specifically. The telenovela queen’s shadow looms large.
- If I had to pick a favorite part of Ben’s performance this week, it’d be her lip sync. It’s hilarious! I just wish we’d gotten a more fair and even edit between her and Aja.
- Bebe reacting to Trixie’s sense of humor with “Bitch, you got jokes” is a subtle but perfect way to remind them all that she’s elevated above them. She’s not just laughing at Trixie’s joke, she’s bestowing her praise upon her.
- Bless her, but the less said about Vanessa Hudgens’ guest judging, the better. Thrilled Ross Matthews is back full-time, though.
- That Handmaid’s Tale opening sequence was weird as hell, right?
The next episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” will air Thursday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m. Eastern on VH1.