The shaggy underdog of the RuPaul’s Drag Race monster franchise might be a little ramshackle, but it’s still great TV, Sam Brooks argues.
People are mean about RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. The recaps of both previous seasons tore into the show, often unfairly (myself included). There are multiple YouTube videos ripping into those seasons as the “worst ever”. Shockingly, there seems to be almost no critical coverage of this season, excluding the obligatory – and actually fantastic – recap show from previous contestant Art Simone, delightfully titled “Kick Ons”.
Which is all a shame, because season three of DRDU (a cursed acronym I will not be using) is not just a delightful season of television, but shows this particular franchise is finally finding its footing, in sky-high stilettos, a foam wig and a corset worn on the outside.
But of course, it’s still a little bit rough.
While the series’ roughness has oft been criticised – remember when they basically had to make costumes out of Bunnings materials? – in my mind, that’s the highlight of Drag Race Down Under. If you take the latest season of the flagship franchise, which arguably crowned one of the most worthy winners of all time, you see a fair number of contestants who have grown up on Drag Race, rather than drag.
That might require some explanation. Drag Race and drag are basically distinct art forms at this point. Drag Race is a franchise that requires a contestant to be amazing at pretty much everything. It is competitive and inherently exclusive, what with being a competition and all. Drag is inclusive, all drag is valid, but not all drag is a great fit for Drag Race.
To elaborate: there is a difference between being a great drag performer and being good at Drag Race. Pretty much everybody who gets on Drag Race is a great drag performer – they do the thing that they do extremely well, whether that’s perform in nightclubs, post looks on Instagram, do a cabaret act, or whatever.
That doesn’t necessarily make them good at the wide range of skills that Drag Race asks of their contestants: they need to sew, dance, perform improv, be witty – god help us, sometimes they even need to do stand-up comedy. They also need to make good TV. Very few Drag Race queens can do it all, even on an All Stars season (although that is why All Stars exists). That includes the Down Under queens. But what a Drag Race queen needs to be, above all else? Good TV. And frankly, what Down Under contestants make, especially this season, is great TV.
There is no doubt, ever, that Spankie Jackzon is one of the most memorable queens in the entire franchise. If you’ve seen an episode of her season, you remember Spankie Jackzon. Hell, you probably stan Spankie Jackzon (I know I do). Is she the most polished? God no. Polish isn’t quality, though. Polish is for cleaning, or for nails. But she made great TV.
This season we have more than a few queens who are rough around the edges. The first few queens seemed out of their depth in a way that was more revealing of how hard it is to make it as a drag queen in a small country than reflective of their skill. Ashley Madison posted nips on main. Gabriella Labucci took seven episodes to find her sexy and gave us roller-skating madness.
And finally, fifth place Bumpa Love earned that rare achievement: Ru’s undying love. The queen did not seem to have a single runway that matched the brief, made a good run at the challenges, and for some reason decided to do stand-up for the very first time in front of a camera in a franchise where stand-up has killed a queen’s chances at the crown more often than not.
Without Bumpa Love, though, the world would not have RuPaul telling someone to pee like a dog onstage (admittedly, after a stand-up routine that revolved around what dogs each of the other queens would piss like) and then sternly, firmly saying: “Piss.”
The back half of Drag Race Down Under season three has been great, but last week’s penultimate episode isn’t just the best of the season, it’s one of the best episodes of the franchise in years. It’s also an episode that would only ever be done on Drag Race Down Under. It takes a staple challenge – the makeover – and amps it up to the nth degree. In the past, these challenges required the contestants to make over various groups of people, including veterans, a family of dudes, and once even their own mothers.
This season’s makeover? Dogs and their owners. It’s silly, it is maybe asking way too much of the queens, but my god, does it make for good TV. It was full of the kind of moments that many of the other franchises have moved beyond; ramshackle and base moments. RuPaul trying to interview a dog, Hollywould Star leaving dog treats onstage to lure a dog to do the right things, dogs in drag! I repeat: dogs in drag.
But, of course, what makes a great Drag Race episode is a great lip-sync. The battle to make it to the top three came down to Gabriella Labucci, the aforementioned queen who has bent over backwards trying to be “sexy”, and Hollywould Star, a relatively fresh but on-point performer. The song? “Not About You” by Haiku Hands, a tremendously difficult song to lip-sync.
In some way, it shows the struggle of this franchise against perception. Gabriella Labucci goes camp with this, but she knows every damn word of that song. Meanwhile, Hollywould Star goes fierce and throws out every dance move in her arsenal. Either could take it, but it goes to Labucci (who Ru has clearly also fallen in love with as a drag queen).
Personality triumphs over polish. That’s the story of Drag Race Down Under in a nutshell. If you’ve written off the series because the first two seasons have given you some sort of cringe, I’d recommend jumping in now. It might be rough, but there be diamonds in that rough.
RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under is available to watch on TVNZ+.