Caution: Drag Race season 14 spoilers ahead. (…but not really.)
When Willow Pill was crowned the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14, the response online from fans was generally happy, and even fans who wanted other contestants to win were nonetheless supportive. But nobody was really surprised. Willow performed well throughout the season, and her win was undeniably fair.
From the first episode of this (very long) season, RuPaul heaped praise upon Willow Pill’s irreverent, smart performance, saying Willow and herself were both from the same “school of drag,” where queens were first instruments of counterculture, not just gorgeous glamazons in wigs and makeup and heels. Week after week throughout season 14, Ru’s eyes twinkled every time Willow bobbled and clomped around the stage. The praise for Willow was always well-deserved, and watching Willow succeed was fun.
Then Ru’s praise of Willow became predictable. And predictability is the enemy of a reality-competition show, which is supposed to have twists and turns and shocking moments. Even when Willow ended up in the bottom 2, she remained in the competition thanks to Ru telling both contestants Shantay, you stay. Of course Ru saved her.
When RuPaul’s Drag Race launched on LogoTV in 2009, reality-competition was all the rage on TV. Ru has acknowledged that Drag Race was created as a drag spoof of the megahit America’s Next Top Model, although there was one major difference: on America’s Next Top Model, there are multiple judges with equal votes. That led to several occasions when Top Model host/producer Tyra Banks complained on-camera that she had been outvoted by her own panel, and the contestant that she wanted to leave had been saved. And then she would glare at the saved contestant, who would be trembling in her high heels. Of course, Tyra would fire panelists whenever she felt like it, so if they wanted to keep their jobs they needed to not rock the boat. But those squabbles made for exciting television in the moment.
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Drag Race was, and still is, the only reality-competition show to have just one judge: the host and executive producer, RuPaul herself. Drag Race has other “judges” who sit on a panel and contribute their thoughts, but they are there just for commentary. And there are producers off-camera who are whispering in Ru’s ear, but when Ru claps her hands and exclaims “I’ve made my decision,” she’s not kidding.
This formula has been fun for years, as Ru unapologetically made the show all about herself and her own interest. Ru picked and chose which contestants she liked, she told viewers to download her songs on iTunes, she made the contestants perform in her videos. Ru ruled her empire with absolute domination. Any self-respecting drag queen would do the same.
But this formula has been cranked out so many times, viewers have learned how to pick out the top queens from Episode 1. There is no tension anymore. Unless a finalist shows up at the final episode with rose petals under her wig and steals a win from the frontrunner, viewers even know who is probably going to win the show. And this is because Ru does not keep her preferences a secret. If Ru likes a queen, she says so.
The competition is no longer a question of who is going to win. It is only a question of how long the losers will survive. Did anyone watching Season 14 think Daya Betty had a chance to win? No offense to Daya, but seriously, Daya Betty making it to the finals was more shocking than Willow Pill actually winning.
This is easily fixed. Let the other judges have a vote. Let viewers watch the judges argue about who should stay, and even witness Ru (gasp) not getting her way once in a while. Michelle Visage certainly has proven her expertise through her countless tours and stage productions that she has produced. Ross Matthews and Carson Kressley are not experts in drag, other than the fact that they have watched a lot of drag queens perform, but they are nice and know how to talk on camera, so sure, let them stay. And why not bring some drag legends in for guest judging? Imagine watching Sherry Vine and Jackie Beat argue with Ru about which queen gave the best performance.
America loves RuPaul, and Drag Race has changed the conversation about gender and gayness. The show will continue to thrive for as long as Ru wants to keep the Drag Race machine running. But why not shake things up a little bit?