Tonight marks the Season 4 finale of RuPaul's Drag Race, and in honor of the occasion I feel it's time to make a declaration: RuPaul's Drag Race is the best reality show on television right now. The best. No qualifications, no caveats, no shade. Over the course of the last four seasons, Drag Race has consistently been the most wildly hilarious, melodramatic, and outright entertaining piece of reality TV anywhere on cable, network, or whatever else. And that more people don't watch it is a terrible shame.
Not that anyone at Logo is probably complaining too much these days. Drag Race's Season 4 premiere drew the highest audience ever for a series on Logo, and even its 10pm behind-the-scenes recap/bitchfest sideshow is maintaining strong ratings week-to-week. Drag Race is the closest thing the network has ever had to a crossover hit. While the thought of men dressed as brazen caricatures of femininity parading themselves in front of celebrity judges of varying degrees of relevance in a competition that crosses America's Next Top Model with To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Numar might not sound like overly appealing fare for those who aren't particularly drag-savvy, I assure you that Drag Race is top-to-bottom amazing. And this is coming from someone who had to be dragged into the show kicking and screaming.
I missed most of Season 1 entirely, largely because four years ago, I barely even knew Logo was a network. My girlfriend indoctrinated me into Drag Race largely against my will. I didn't know anything about drag culture going in, and didn't necessarily care to. Two episodes in, even divorced from the context of the earlier episodes I'd missed, I was hooked.
I kept watching season after season, yet an explanation of why Drag Race was so damn beguiling eluded me. I certainly enjoyed the many drag personalities who crossed the show's hallowed sewing tables, as well as the various competition challenges RuPaul and her writers cooked up week after week. But all reality shows have some variation of those things. If you don't have memorable personalities and interesting episodic challenges, why would anyone watch in the first place? Something else, something less immediately tangible, was bringing me back week after week, while other reality shows sitting on my DVR largely went unwatched.
Early on in this season, I finally figured it out. In Episode 2, the drag queens teamed up with one another in a faux-female tag-team wrestling league, and something snapped in my mind. Suddenly, everything made sense: I love Drag Race for exactly the same reason I grew up loving professional wrestling. It took the intersection of these two favored entertainments of mine to realize that in some weird, twisted way, professional wrestling and drag are essentially differently gender-focused versions of the same idea.
Think about it this way: In pro wrestling, the men who participate in the "sport" are creating characters designed to be outsized caricatures of masculinity. You can't just be "a dude" and become a popular pro wrestler. You have to exaggerate every aspect of your personality, physicality, and mode of dress. Stone Cold Steve Austin isn't one of the most memorable wrestlers of all time just because he was a drunk redneck. It's because he was such an overtly ridiculous portrayal of drunk redneck-dom. He essentially became a human cartoon, chugging fistfuls of beer and knocking out any man or woman who happened to wander into his drunken field of view while spouting off gleefully base catchphrases that the audience enthusiastically echoed at every opportunity.
Drag is essentially the reverse. It's the same basic idea, except the men involved are attempting to highlight extreme femininity instead of extreme masculinity. Every drag queen has a character, a persona she puts on in order to perform. You don't just see a guy put on a wig and tell some jokes. The makeup, the costuming, the hair, all of it is so elaborate and over-the-top that these men become human cartoons, but this time portraying women. There are even similarities in the way the two professions perform. True, drag queens rarely pretend to beat each other senseless with chairs (though I'm sure it's happened on occasion), but the best ones have signature styles, signature phrases, and no shortage of bitchy attitude when called for. As someone who grew up enjoying the generally unsubtle portrayals of the male competitive spirit on WWF television, Drag Race speaks to that same strange zone in my brain that derived so much pleasure from characters like Macho Man Randy Savage and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Except now Jesse wears a boob plate and six-inch heels every week.
I realize that comparing Drag Race to pro wrestling isn't necessarily the most compelling way to get more people to watch it, but there's more to its appeal than that single comparison. Another particularly entertaining aspect of the show is its reveal of the behind-the-scenes machinations of how these queens tailor their personae and costumes to whatever bonkers challenge Ru and the crew toss at them. Before any of these queen bitches hit the runway, they have to craft their own outfits based on whatever theme Ru has in mind that week—this season has featured everything from "canine-inspired couture" to "inaugural ball chic"—not to mention compete in two different challenges aimed at helping the girls demonstrate just how versatile they are as queens.
It's essentially the same format as America's Next Top Model, except the challenges are infinitely more interesting than just watching attractive women pose week after week—it's all of the bitchiness with none of the boring. In this past season alone, the queens have been required to create pro-wrestling personae, debate one another as faux-politicians, turn straight older males into the closest thing to a drag superstar they could muster, participate in a celebrity-impersonating rendition of Match Game (called Snatch Game, naturally), and even sing, live (not lip-sync) with alongside their least-liked fellow contestant. While many reality competition shows (that aren't Survivor) feature relatively fluffy competitions that don't require more than a bit of physical proficiency or perhaps a little bit of backstabbing deviousness, Drag Race is like having every major reality competition thrown into a blender and poured out into 13 individual episodes. The writers of this show don't just embrace the various tropes of reality TV; they absorb them into the goofy, half-joking vibe of the show and make them their own.
And of course, there are the queens themselves. Previous seasons have been perhaps a shade dodgier when it came to overall contestant quality. For every Jujubee, Pandora Boxx, and Tyra Sanchez, there were at least two other queens who barely registered on the radar. Season four somehow managed to circumvent that particular problem. Part of the issue before was the abundance not of particularly bad queens, but basically mediocre ones. With the exception of season two, which only had a few real duds, the past seasons of Drag Race have had nearly half their rosters consist of little more than elimination fodder. People there to fill spots that were neither particularly captivating nor so awful as to make the audience want to actively root against them. Too many of the queens were just sort of there.
Season 4, however, has largely rectified this problem. With the exception of two relatively dull queens (both of whom were gone by the third episode), this year's roster was concentrated purely on the extreme ends of the spectrum. Queens like Chad Michaels, Sharon Needles, Latrice Royale, and Dida Ritz are all generally extremely good at what they do (or, in Dida's case, mostly just genuinely likable). On the other side, queens like Phi Phi O'Hara, Jiggly Caliente, Willam, and Milan are all either so tragically inept at what they do or so aggressively, meanly competitive that an active, burning hatred remained for them for as long as they stayed in the competition. Even the middle-of-the-roaders like Madame LaQueer (who was such an endearingly hot mess) and Kenya Michaels (who was incredibly good at creating outfits but had the personality of one of those birthday candles that won't go out no matter how hard you blow on it) were entertaining to watch during their tenures.
This year, RuPaul and her producers finally landed a combination of wonderfully talented, wonderfully bitchy, and wonderfully crazy girls who made the season utterly entertaining from start to finish. Sadly, one of the best contestants, Latrice, went out in last week's elimination. It was a tragic blow to see her leave, but the baddest big bitch the show has ever seen had tragically reached her peak. No matter how much we all might've loved her and her infectious, air raid siren-like laugh, she just couldn't keep up with the other three ladies when it came to style and creativity. Now only the older, already successful Cher impersonator Chad Michaels, the young and unquestionably fierce Phi Phi O'Hara, and the punk rock queen of the netherworld Sharon Needles remain. It's anyone's guess as to who will take the crown, and that's what's so great about Drag Race. All three finalists have their fans and their detractors in nearly equal measure. Phi Phi would probably be the long shot, given that she's mostly been portrayed as the villain since ultimate bad girl Willam was unceremoniously ejected for breaking some unmentioned rule of the show. But even Phi Phi has shown the judges more than anyone necessarily expected of her over the course of the season, making her placement alongside the fan-favorite Sharon and the almost unbearably talented Chad seem totally reasonable.
Whatever ends up happening, Drag Race will be left in a good place until the fall, when the series goes the "All-Stars" route by gathering a number of fan-favorite queens from previous seasons in order to name the queen of queens. The four-season mark might seem a tad early to bring back "classic" contestants, but it's a testament to how ridiculously good this show has generally been that as an avid watcher, I couldn't be more excited for it.
For those who've fallen behind on Season 4, Logo is airing all of the previous episodes in marathon fashion today, and all of them are posted on Logo's website. For those already on board, here's one last taste of the Latrice shout laugh, just for old time's sake.
The RuPaul's Drag Race Season 4 finale airs tonight at 9pm on Logo.