The cult reality show has gained mainstream popularity and a larger production budget over its run, but with each passing season, frustrated viewers are seeing more of the same.
Now past the halfway point through its 12th season, the reality competition series RuPaul’s Drag Race appears to have fallen into a rut in terms of original ideas and is relying on references and call-backs to previous seasons and contestants to pad its runtime and retain viewers.
The series sees 13 drag queens from across America compete in weekly challenges and present themed runway looks in front of a panel of judges, hosted by executive producer RuPaul Charles. Each week, the two weakest queens have to lip-sync against one another, in a ‘lip-sync for your life,’ with the loser ‘sashaying away’ and the remaining queens one step closer to the crown and $100,000 cash prize.
This interesting premise was enough for Logo TV to pick up the series for the first eight seasons, with the series hitting its stride from season 4 to season 9 in terms of viewer numbers. It was during this period that the show had a lot of its “first times”, with the first double-elimination, first disqualification and first live finale.
The show offers a look into LGBTQ+ culture, with design challenges that pay homage to the underground Ball scene in Harlem, New York, and the staple ‘Snatch Game’ – a celebrity impersonation comedy improv challenge.
In its prime, the show offered a platform for queens to open up about personal struggles, such as living with HIV, identifying as transgender or experiencing racism within the community, and facilitated a wider discussion among audiences online.
Since season 9, when the show was bought by VH1, guest appearances from former contestants have been on the rise. There had been isolated incidences of this in earlier seasons, such as the season 8 photoshoot with past winners to mark the 100th episode, but season 12 is indicative of the problem where opportunities for original writing are sacrificed for references as a safer option for the editors and producers.
Take for example the premiere episodes of this season, where the queens were divided into two groups, one appearing on the first episode and the second appearing on the next episode. This was a carbon copy of the season 6 premiere, making the excuse that they could shine brighter in the challenge with fewer queens onstage.
The main challenge was a ‘Spring/Fall Fashion Week’ runway, the exact same opening challenge in season 7, complete with guest queens impersonating celebrities in the audience. Even the elimination at the end was a clear reference to both the season 9 premiere, where no one was sent home, and the spin-off All Stars structure, where the best two queens lip-synced against each other.
Paying homage to those who have come before us can be a nice nod to long-time fans of the show, but when each episode contains these nods and winks, it makes it more difficult for younger fans to become invested as they can feel at a loss when it comes to important information from a bygone season. It also makes it difficult for the current contestants to establish their characters and get fans to root for them.
In season 11, Mercedes Imam Diamond presented the compelling story of someone struggling to balance their faith as a Muslim and their identity as a gay person. This is a story that isn’t often represented in media and fans were aware that when this arc was wrapped up in two episodes near the start of the season, Mercedes had not long left on the show. She was eliminated in episode 4.
Mercedes was overshadowed by the return of Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, whose elimination in the previous season broke the internet with references and parodies, warranting her return as a contestant and more screen time.
A quick search of fan reactions on Twitter reveals that fans are aware of producers sacrificing under-represented stories for the safety of fan-service and shock value that has become the expectation, rather than the surprise. This is a huge shame for a show that was the underrepresented reality series in 2009. In short, season 12 appears to be Rupaul’s Cash Grab Race.