‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Flips, Twists, And Kudos: Was Season 16 A Flop?

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With the change of the seasons comes the natural conclusion of one Drag Race series, just in time for another to bloom. And after spending the winter months igniting the YouTube discourse and pouring coal into Instagram’s meme engines, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s sixteenth season is coming to a close. Before we dive fully into spring (and therefore RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 9), and before RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 16 comes to a dramatic — and mysterious! — end, let’s take a look back at how this season shook out.

Below you will find breakdowns of what werked, what flopped, and what deserves kudos, mama.

THE GOOD or [Cher voice] “I’M GREAT”
The Queens — There’s never a season of Drag Race where I’m going to call out the queens as being bad. That’s impossible, and also unreasonable and unfair considering how much time and money these queens put into being on the show and how little control they ultimately have over their narrative.

But that’s not to say that the Season 16 queens get a pass just because. The truth is that I was gagged by the eliminations from the very first one. I wanted to see more from Hershii LiqCour-Jeté (although the writing was on the fake pink brick wall when we got her entire family story five seconds after she entered the Werk Room). Mirage scored the first viral sensation of the season with her talent show number — and then went home in a shocking turn of events (see below). Then, after becoming the heart of the season and a shoe-in for the Golden Boot Award, we lost Amanda Tori Meating. Audiences fell in love with a lot of these queens immediately, and because of that, heartbreak felt good in a season like this.

The Lip Syncs — I don’t even necessarily mean the quality of the performances so much as just the fact that the lip syncs seemed to really matter. In the case of Mirage, that meant sending home an immediate superstar shockingly early because she didn’t know the words to “Dark Lady.” And for the first time in a very long while, we had two legit lip sync assassins in the cast who managed to outperform not only their competitors, but the editors. No shade towards Mhi’yah Iman LePaige or Morphine Love Dion, but both of them started with a very early-to-mid out edit. But while they were starved in the challenges, they ate in the lip syncs and gave performances that could not be edited into anything other than triumphs. These two sent home plenty of queens that many Drag Race prognosticators pegged as likely finalists. Not only that, Mhi’yah and Morphine proved that there are still brand new tricks to be pulled on that main stage — like Mhi’yah’s penguin slide and Morphine’s hella delayed split. And then there was the “Body” lip sync which absolutely goes down as one of the most spectacular victories a queen has ever enjoyed on that stage.

The Virality — Season 16 will likely be remembered first and foremost as the season that gave us “Mama, kudos for saying that, for spilling,” Plane Jane’s droll, unbothered response to her castmate Q disclosing her HIV status. This led to a meme frenzy unlike any we’ve seen in a while and it proved that the best breakout moments from this show cannot be produced.

Law Roach — If a guest judge spot is an audition, then Law Roach earned his place on the cast. Not only does Law bring straight-up knowledge to the judges’ panel, he brings a unique blend of fierce grace and unflinching messiness that this show absolutely needs.

The Lip Sync LaLaPaRuZa Smackdown — We’ve seen a number of LaLaPaRuZa Smackdowns since the first one in All Stars 4 in 2018, but they’ve never really worked. They’ve always felt like the show slamming on the brakes mid-season — and then suspiciously used as a way to send home that season’s lip sync assassin (Jasmine Kennedie and Jax). It’s always been a shame, too, because the format itself is the best one that Drag Race has created, maybe since Snatch Game. But that’s always been the problem: the LaLaPaRuZa Smackdown has always felt like an episode of another show dropped in the middle of a Drag Race season.

Season 16 finally fixed the problem by putting the showdown at the end of the season in place of the reunion (which, honestly, is fine considering that all the real tea gets spilled in YouTube videos long before the usually reunion airs). Season 16 reimagined the LaLaPaRuZa not as a challenge designed to send someone home but rather a competition to crown a queen and give away a cash prize. We got to see the best performers advance, and that made for great TV and a super deserving winner in Morphine Love Dion. To quote Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “That’s it!”

The Challenges — Well, for the most part. I don’t know what thought process goes into picking challenges for a season, but I commend production for realizing that they had a lot of incredible seamstresses in the cast — Q, Nymphia Wind, Dawn, Plane Jane, Sapphira Cristál, Megami — and wisely guiding the season in that direction, away from the improv and acting challenges that could have really gone awry. I’d actually love it if World of Wonder looked at this as a quasi pilot season for future thematic seasons of Drag Race — or even a spinoff drag/sewing/fashion competition show. There is truly something awe-inspiring when you’re watching a queen stunt and stun in something you know they made essentially overnight. There is something here, WOW!

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THE BAD or “I’LL CALL YOU A DUDE”
The Challenges — Season 16 saw the integration of two All Stars challenges into a regular season — the SNL parody and the… event/experience all-encompassing branding improv commercial challenge? The fact that I can’t even describe the second one — it was the challenge where the queens designed bathrooms — should tell you everything you need to know.

Both of these challenges are expert-level hard and teeter on the brink of chaos in All Stars seasons when they’re in the hands of queens who have gone through Drag Race once already. Putting them on a regular season with queens who haven’t been on TV before and probably never thought about their brand, two things that a round of Drag Race gives you a crash course in? These felt more like traps than challenges.

Also… WTF was up with that corporate presentation challenge?

The Twists — Sigh.

I’ll start with Rate-a-Queen. This twist, wherein the queens secretly rated their sisters’ performance in the challenge from best to worst, à la The Circle, had the potential to be shady and gaggy in a way that would have made this season fascinating and unpredictable. The show made it even more interesting by having the queens rate before the judges revealed who was in the top and who was in the bottom! That means that even if all the queens rated the obvious winner of the week dead last, that queen would still go before the judges and likely be in the top or even still win. The strategy and alliances that would unfold would have been wild. And imagine if they made the ratings public! If Plane Jane had to own up to tanking Nymphia Wind’s week one slay (which ended up being the sole impact that this twist had on the entire season). This twist was untwisted after Episode 3 and we got a regular ol’ season.

Then, the Immunity Potion. Instead of giving immunity to every challenge winner, it only went to the winners of the split premiere: Sapphira Cristál and Plane Jane. Every other challenge winner was SOL. Sapphira ended up using it on a design challenge wherein she would have almost certainly been safe. Plane Jane gave her immunity to Nymphia Wind in a challenge where either one of them could have been in the bottom — except no one was in the bottom. No one went home! This twist was some romper room fuckery, made all the more maddening because modeling the twist after Death Becomes Her was such an iconic move. Every queen should have earned an Immunity potion for a challenge win. Or if they only wanted a max of two in circulation at a time, the expiration date should have been two episodes instead of eight. No one even realized that a potion could be used strategically until Dawn started whispering in Plane’s ear at the last minute. Imagine if Plane had given Q the potion for the goth design challenge, which would have robbed Q of the win. The drama! The drama that did not unfold!

The Control — What this boils down to is that the show is fundamentally unable to relinquish control to the queens themselves. Both of these twists gave queens the illusion of power, of being able to rank queens or save themselves or their sisters from elimination. Ultimately, though, Drag Race seems unwilling to let go of the wheel — and introducing twists from The Circle and Survivor, two shows where the players actually do seem to have some control, only highlighted that fact. And that’s fine! That’s how Drag Race works, and it’s winning Emmys and the other shows aren’t. But if you’re going to introduce twists, let’s see what they can actually do to the game. It’s like booking Mhi’yah for a brunch gig and telling her “no flips allowed.” Let the twists twist.

THE CONCLUSION or “KUDOS Y/N”
Regardless of who wins the crown, Season 16 will be notable for a lot more than just Plane Jane’s humorless reads of her sissturrrs. This was an actual season of change, one with the most structural changes since — probably since Season 9 introduced a new finale format. One change, the LaLaPaRuZa for $50K, should become a mainstay (or its own spinoff). The other twists, though, just highlighted how much more the show needs to do if they really want to shake things up. The intentions were good; Rate-a-Queen and the Immunity Potion are killer ideas that feel like natural fits for Drag Race. The twists just… need to, y’know, actually happen. If Season 16 was Drag Race dipping its toes into growth and change, the I can’t wait to see what happens if they really dive in in Season 17.

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