RuPaul’s Drag Race
The rewards of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the America’s Next Top Model–style competition among a dozen funny, savage contestants to add a tiara to their already well-ornamented wardrobes, are mostly right there on the surface. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to understand that the spectacle of a dozen fierce queens bitch-slapping their way to the finish line might make for excellent guilty-pleasure TV—and indeed it does. Like good drag, it is garish, appalling, does a lot with a little, and has very good taste in bad taste.
But the real surprise of the series, which has in its second season become the breakout hit of the tiny, gay-themed Logo cable network, is that it has managed to interweave a pointed and funny critique of the entire reality-competition genre into its own format. Anything that has ever struck you as slightly false on other shows becomes overtly, gloriously fraudulent on this one—an appropriate transformation for a show celebrating those who can pull off dishonesty with style. “It doesn’t matter if what’s on reality TV is ‘real’ or not,” says co–executive producer Fenton Bailey, who shopped the show with partner Randy Barbato for thirteen years before selling it. “The point is that reality TV has changed what real life is for the people who are on it—book deals and product endorsements are what they want their lives to be.”
And speaking of endorsements: The dirty subtext of every other reality show—from American Idol’s eternally cringe-inducing “Ford Focus on the Contestants” to Project Runway’s much-belabored Bluefly.com “accessories wall”—is the centerpiece of this one. On other shows, endorsements are an undiscussed evil; on RuPaul’s Drag Race, they’re the whole point. Part of that derives from necessity; the series is made on such a tight budget that even the stripper pole used in one challenge required a sponsor. But it’s also a philosophy—one that reached its apex in this season’s defining triple-threat challenge, in which the ladyboys had to (a) create a book jacket for fictional autobiographies (as befits a show about drag, the wrapping is more important than what’s inside) and (b) promote it and themselves in a brief satellite interview while (c) drinking on air and working in numerous positive references to RDR’s main sponsor, Absolut vodka. The hilarious results were, sequin for sequin, the most honest moments on reality TV this year.