Even though “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has been airing since 2010, the series has only broken into the public consciousness recently. Features in major publications like The New York Times Magazine, Entertainment Magazine, Paper Magazine and Time Magazine have ushered in a newfound fame for host RuPaul Charles (“Broad City”). After taking cues from other entertainment reality programs, like “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model,” RuPaul created “Drag Race” for Logo TV — bringing the show to the more accessible channel VH1 in only seven years. All in all, the story of “Drag Race” is a story of finding a popular audience. There may be little surprise, then, when I tell you that the third season premiere of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” is as good as the attention it’s getting.
After 11 seasons in total, the series has gotten comfortable in its own shoes, and the premiere reflects it perfectly. For those that are unfamiliar, “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” is a reality competition program where a handful of drag queens are brought in to perform for a panel of judges. Challenges vary from the direct (a stand-up comedy show, “Revenge of the Queens,” All Stars Two) to the very convoluted (write, produce and act in a scripted television pilot, “Your Pilot’s on Fire,” season nine), but all fall under the umbrella of drag. For “All Stars,” the producers bring back queens from older seasons for one more shot at the crown.
The 12th time around, the show knows what it’s doing. There is little need for introduction to the format or any of the competing queens; each of them enters the workroom in their first look, in what is their official reintroduction to the public eye. The cast draws mostly from later seasons (Bendelacreme and Milk from season six, Trixie Mattel and Kennedy Davenport from season seven) but feature a few from earlier seasons, and even one past winner — Bebe Zahara Benet from season one. Her appearance may be a sort of second shot, since the progression of the series has led to massive upticks in budget and quality.
The main challenge for the season opener is a variety show — the same challenge in the first episode of “All Stars 2.” From the looks of it, “All Stars 3” is ramping up to mimic the challenge arc from its predecessor, providing a predictability that the show can rely on. With the variety of talent — from the passionate and explosive dancers to the more mellow and restrained musical performers — a set format provides stability in a show that can come off the rails at times. While it is true that some of the best moments on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” are when the queens take total control of a brand new challenge (“Totally Leotarded” from season three, “Wrestling’s Trashiest Fighters” from season four), others fall completely flat (“RuPaul’s Gaff-In” from “All Stars 1,” “She Done Already Done Brought It On” from season nine).
While I won’t reveal the winner or eliminee of the first episode, I will tell you that the season premiere shows a breadth of talent that many other reality shows are lacking. You’ve got comedy, dance, music and of course a killer lip-sync performance at the end of the episode — but you know that already! “RuPauls Drag Race All Stars” continues to be on the cutting-edge of reality programming, launching the careers of over a hundred entertainers and providing a real, honest platform for the gay community. While its integration into the mainstream may have led to some erasure of the grittier, true-to-life elements of drag performance, the show elevates drag to a higher art form, giving an occasionally unsuspecting audience the experience of the finest queer performers. There is little on television as vital as “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”