So what the fuck?
At the start of the year, I made it a goal for myself to cover every single English language edition of Drag Race, episode by episode. A goal which seemed… impossible after personal problems put me so far behind, but I was determined to continue my schedule and give a nuanced look on a show I love and hate. With my personal issues now taken care of, I was prepared to sit down and bat out articles for the first five episodes of Drag Race Down Under in a week, leaving me caught up and ready to talk about both it and the upcoming All Stars 6. And then that Friday, Episode 5 aired, which broke the brains of basically the entire audience.
The reaction to Down Under has been dire from even the most dedicated fan. In just a month of airing, Down Under has insulted and alienated basically their entire audience. Whatever hype or optimism for the show has evaporated and replaced with cynicism and contempt. Now, I always view Drag Race with that lens, but to see this reaction applied universally to a show with this rabid a fanbase is terrifying. The season hasn’t even ended yet, and many are already decrying it the worst season of all time.
There’s a lot of discourse right now surrounding Down Under, but my main question is… how? How did this happen? How did the show shit the bed this badly? Because after Episode 5, my reaction was anger quickly morphing into confusion. And while I might now have the answer to the What or the Why, I think we can at least answer that How. Because Down Under is a fascinating case study: of the failure to read optics, of heavy-handed interference, of Drag Race as a franchise. It’s a bunch of bad decision done poorly, cobbled together into an unholy chimera. And to understand how, we have to start at the beginning.
Down Under’s maiden name.
A lot talk has been made about the show’s troubled production, and a lot of blame goes to Covid-19. Here’s the secret, tho: the date of that article? April 2019, a full year before the pandemic lockdown. So… what, why is it like this?
It’s hard to parse out the specific behind the scenes information for Down Under, as there was weirdly not a lot of press coverage for the show. From announcement until the cast was spoiled, the production of Down Under was very noncommittal. Just about the only two facts we know for sure was the show originally was meant to be hosted and judged by someone else, until RuPaul and Visage stepped in once again to do it, and the moving to a more generic “Down Under” cast because New Zealand was able to get out of quarantine fairly early. Everything else about the show is unknown.
And that’s weird, right? Compare this to the extensive coverage Drag Race UK had: from conception to Visage pushing for it on Celebrity Big Brother to the falling through of Jodie Harsh as host. Canada wasn’t nearly as extensive, but that had a much quicker turnover time; Brooke Lynn Hytes went from runner-up to host in 4 months. We know way too little information for a season that took this long to produce. We don’t know exactly who else was going to host, including if it was always going to be RuPaul, nor who else might have been a judge. Hell, we haven’t even been told there was a “troubled production,” we just infer it because of how long this season was to produce.
Well, the long production, and the finished product. Because Down Under looks… rough.
The Queens chat around the One (1) Table.
If one were to be generous, Down Under starts out on a very similar foot as the first season of Drag Race UK, for better or worse. Like that season, there’s a weird imbalance of talent and stage persona, and the show clearly having no clue which direction it wants to go. There’s a somewhat obvious final 3, with the show seemingly putting a lot of stock in Kita, Anita, and Karen. There’s a fun underdog story, although I don’t derive the same joy from Elektra getting harassed by everyone as I did Cheryl Hole being hilarious cast as the vapid sole source of good. And last, there’s a very generic, easy to understand dynamic amongst the cast, and how they interact with each other and the judges. I’m not a fan of this per se, as seen with my overall apathy to the first season of UK, but I get why it starts like this. Down Under is trying to find itself, and it’s dipping its toe in slowly before putting all its eggs in one basket. Even as someone who loves Drag Race Canada, which picked a lane early and excelled to become a truly stellar season, the stakes feel bigger with Down Under, and playing it safe might be the best judgement.
Thing is, however, that is not the only problem. Even ignoring the basic story telling and heavily telegraphed front runners, Down Under is a clearly slapped-dashed show. The sets are puny, both the werk room and the main stage are miniscule. There’s only three judges, with no guest judges at all to speak of. The song choices have been pretty bad, with two of them being random 40-year-old disco tracks and one a fucking RuPaul song. The props and design have been of poor quality, and the challenges are all under baked versions of established Drag Race challenges. Everything feels very rushed, but we know this show has been in production for over a year, so something is not adding up. Even Untucked, the center piece of the show, is heavily abridged. The closest thing this show seems to have to any big expense are the pointless, clearly pre-filmed segments with Taika Waititi and both Minogues, which… guys, come on. There’s a complete mismanagement of funds, trying to do everything and failing. It’s Doug Walker-levels of wasting time and money. The few times the show tries to flex some money have been tacky, awful, probably cost a lot more than it looks, and amounts to very little gain to the overall presentation.
Like Maxi’s breast plate.
Despite these misgivings, I wasn’t going to go that hard into Down Under. I can swallow a lot from this show, and I don’t think a clear lack of cash is enough to kill my interest so long as the show presents a good story.
The trash heard ’round the world.
Two important, massive things happened in the fourth episode of Drag Race Down Under, and they require their own separate discussions: bringing back Art, and the elimination of Anita. Drag Race fans, being historically terrible, have conflated the two as the same thing and have attacked Art for the elimination of a much more popular contestant, and more damningly pushing Coco to being ninth place, thus making both Queens of Color the bottom two finishers. Before I begin, I wanna stress right now that y’all need to fucking stop attacking Art. She’s a hapless individual, inexplicably thrust into a front runner position by production. She is but a tool being used by the machine, and has even started that she felt production patronized her. She’s clearly not having a good time, and it’s understandable.
I wanted to get that out of the way so that I can go into the real meat of the problem: Art Simone is boring as hell. I think Art is yet another dreary, by-the-numbers “fashion Queen” whose presentation is too inauthentic. Lots of good looks have graced this franchise, but the true fashion icons that stood the test of time have had buckets of personality behind them: whether as unfiltered brats like Violet Chachki or the possible insanity of Divina de Campo. Art is neither, and her fashion isn’t strong to stand for itself. She’s not that entertaining, and a lot of her confessionals are dry and unnecessary.
And so Drag Race saw her and thought, “Yes, more of that!”
I watch Drag Race to see fun, dynamic, interesting characters. Some people watch Drag Race for the competition. And no matter what side you’re on, Art’s clumsy reintroduction is cynical and of bad taste. It’s the worst of both worlds. The fact that the show has decided that Art is worthy of being pushed towards a win is a bizarre choice, but doing so even more flagrantly than they did Kandy Muse just shows contempt for the audience. I’ll touch on this later, but make a note that I don’t think the initial elimination checks out.
As far as the Anita elimination, I’m not as furious as most of the fans. Anita was fine overall, one of the best of this relatively weak cast, but she didn’t do a lot for me, personally (although her seat belt line is the greatest joke in Snatch Game history). That being said, I get why she was popular with fans, and honestly it’s the show’s fault. The show projects a lot of importance and influence on to Anita, giving her both a win and a substantial portion of development. I’m not mad she’s gone because I’m a big fan of Anita, I’m mad she’s gone because the show gave so much time to her and her input. If this was supposed to be a “tragic loss, day before retirement” style story, then they bungled it by making her exit a consequence of the show’s inconsistency. It’s a sign of the show having no clue what to do with its cast, a consistent problem during Season 13, and it shows a lazy, uncaring production.
But that’s the worst of it, right? Everything else is fine? Oh I wish…
So, I’m not going to bother burying the lede for Episode 5, let’s talk about Scarlet Adams doing Blackface.
The thing is, I think the act itself is not the worst part about this scene. I mean, obvious it’s fucking terrible, how the fuck do you not know that Blackface is awful in 2015? But I don’t really care about that in the grand scheme of things because I don’t give a shit about Scarlet. She’s ignorant and unlikable, things we already knew because she’s been ignorant and unlikable in the episodes already. And while this is her most heinous act, her personally doing it is not my problem. My problem is… everything else.
First of all, it’s very fucking suspect to have a scene about Blackface when you’ve not only eliminated your only two PoC contestants, but went out of your way to make them your bottom two placers. It makes the scene hollow because it’s about a bunch of White people talking about how okay or not okay it is to do it, with no one there able to challenge it. Secondly, it’s impossible not to compare this to how Fracker reacted to Joe Black during UK 2. Because I guess Blackface is excusable, but wearing H&M clothing isn’t. It’s tasteless and tacky.
But third, and most importantly, the reason this scene exists is fucking awful. Scarlet being yelled at for doing Blackface is not a denouncement of Blackface, it’s a character moment for Scarlet. It’s a chance to be weepy-eyed and apologize for past mistakes, to show growth in her life, that what she did was her past, and god Scarlet go to hell. Scarlet is still the season’s front runner, and it’s very easy to view this scene as intentional and calculated. I 100% believe Scarlet and production planned this as a stealth way to show character development in the laziest way possible, and… fuck, do I need to explain how awful that is?! It’s trying to profit off a fucking microaggression, like… mother fucker.
The entire scene does not work, and what’s frustrating is that we actually do get someone to talk about how inexcusable Blackface is.
I have not at all been positive about this season, because well… it’s awful, but I will give credit where credit is due and praise Etcetera Etcetera as a top tier Queen. I first wrote them off as another chill NB smart ass like Bimini and Ginny, and at the start they are and I was down for it, but there’re also the most fun to see in fights. Unlike Scarlet, Etcetera is witty and quick, with their insults all being scathing and fun. Also unlike Scarlet, there’s a rhyme and reason for their attacks, because Etcetera doesn’t take half-hearted bullshit. When the rest of the cast try to rationalize Scarlet for her past discretions, Etcetera is the sole voice to point out the larger implications. Scarlet doing Blackface and being forgiven for it downplays systemic racism, because it treats racism as a state of being, not a cultural problem that people like Scarlet are complacent in. Despite being the youngest of the cast, Etcetera is clearly the wisest, and they even more this episode after already being the best part of the season.
And how does the show reward them? Eliminating them. Because this is Drag Race, where problems can be solved with an olive branch and a hug, not a recognition of systemic issues and the taking down of those systems. That sounds way too hard.
So, what the fuck does this mean?
God, she looks so enthused…
There’s a rumor that Fracker isn’t even on the set for Down Under, and everything has been green screened later, and while I don’t believe it, it says a lot does it not?
Down Under is a rushed job, no doubt about it. There’s been so little care put into this expansion of the franchise. And it doesn’t make any sense. Why put so little faith and effort into an expansion that opens up a lot of opportunities. Because the thing is… the poor cast, the shoddy presentation, the lack of heart, the odd way the show has handled Art Simone, all of these things, in my eyes, point to one thing: sabotage.
This is all speculation, so don’t come for my ass, but I personally theorize that Down Under has been set up to fail. The fact that the show took so long to get off the ground tells me Fracker and Visage had zero interest in ever doing the show, and were forced to step in. Why not find a local host and more Australian talent to fill out the panel? Probably because the show has pissed off queer people so much that the franchise is seen as a toxic dump that would pollute their career. The only reason Canada could find their judges so easily was because Brooke Lynn Hytes is the ultimate team player and Stacey McKenzie was already associated with the Top Model brand. So, dejected and having to fulfill a contact that didn’t realize they’d have to put so much effort in, RuPaul decided to just torch the franchise and run. Looking at it as a hack job to make sure the show gets cancelled, everything makes more sense: the lazy production, the lack of money, the heavy-handed favoritism, even excusing Scarlet. Everything seems to have been done to make sure there is no second season, and to piss everyone off.
And well, if that’s the case, they succeeded.
We’re halfway through Drag Race Down Under, and the future of the show is bleak. If Down Under miraculously gets that second season, it will be off of pure franchise hype, and not from the success of this season. It’s a season of less than average highs and pitiful lows, a season so offensive and of bad faith that it’s caused the entire fanbase to turn on it. No one is happy with this direction, and as much crap as I give the franchise for pulling similar tricks, it’s never been so blatant and of bad faith. Australia and New Zealand deserved better.