'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars 2' review: Is true redemption possible on reality TV?
In her second attempt at an All Stars season, the eponymous host of RuPaul's Drag Race is emphasizing a theme of legacy. Ten queens enter RuPaul's Thunderdome of drag, but only one will walk out as champion.
The journey there, then, must offer incentive. So Ru offers the most compelling reward possible for former losing queens aiming to make a splash: She's offering a chance for redemption.
(Editor's note: This review will discuss a few details of the new RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars season's format, but there will be no spoilers for how or what queens perform in the premiere.)
"From this moment on, everything you do is about building your legacy," Ru says at the top of the premiere. It's a good scene-setter for every rule change that follows. Instead of ending the episode on a lip-sync for your life, RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' climax will be one of triumph. The two queens who perform best in each challenge will lip-sync for their legacy, and the winning queen will earn $10,000.
However, the winning queen also must carry out a grave task: That queen will also be responsible for choosing which of the bottom three performers from that challenge will go home. In effect, Ru is taking a backseat on her own show — this is her proteges' time to shine.
Such a substantial rule change should and would make many a fan nervous. The first season of All Stars, which was unequivocally a failure, paired the queens off and made them compete as teams. That twist sent fan-favorite queens like Pandora Boxx (season two) and Latrice Royale (season four) home early, while lesser queens were carried by their partners to the finale.
But fear not: This new rule change galvanizes RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars. This premiere feels fresh in a way the past several season openers for the flagship series haven't. That's saying a lot, too; even at its worst, RuPaul's Drag Race remains one of the most entertaining shows on TV. At no point does All Stars feel like a rehash of past seasons; it's new and improved.
A lot of the credit for that freshness must go to the queens themselves, who are a remarkable bunch. Sure, there are quibbles to be made. Half the cast hails from season five, which makes sense — season five was the best — but also results in some uneven distribution: The plethora drawn from one season means we only get one queen each from the talent-rich seasons two and six.
Additionally, the heavy emphasis on former villains (Roxxxy Andrews and Coco Montrese from season five, Phi Phi O'Hara from season four; Tatianna from season two) makes for a lot of redemption arcs — only some of which, due to the nature of the show, will actually get resolved. But that works well thematically: This season is less a battle for the crown for many of these girls and more a chance to reintroduce themselves to the Drag Race audience.
The cast is incredibly well-matched. Nearly every queen feels like a threat to take the crown. There are favorites — Alaska from season five and Katya from season seven are beloved by fans and production company World of Wonder alike. But unlike last season, which felt like an extended coronation for eventual winner Bob the Drag Queen, this Drag Race feels like a real race.
Newbies beware, however: This season of All Stars is not kind to new viewers. The first All Stars season held viewers' hands a bit more, but Drag Race's first couple of seasons are notoriously hard to find. Thus, All Stars was the first time many viewers were meeting queens like Nina Flowers, Tammie Brown and Raven. Time had to be taken to properly introduce them.
The new crop of All Stars queens get short intros, but these clip packages serve mostly as recaps of the queens' time on the show. Much has happened to these competitors since they were on Drag Race; many tour together on Drag Race's Battle of the Seasons tour, work together in New York and Los Angeles and appear together at DragCon. They've formed relationships beyond their time on the show; none of them are strangers, really.
All Stars does expect that you know at least a bit about these queens, both on the show and off it. The most brutally funny joke of the hour only makes sense if you've watched one specific episode of season five. One contestant's breakdown after judging makes more sense if you know about her relationship with one of the judges off the show.
This is not to ward casual viewers off of this season of Drag Race — though some time spent on the show's infamous subreddit would probably help you prepare. Instead, this should encourage hardcore fans; this season is for you. It's a celebration of these queens and the empire Drag Race has become.
In short: Drag Race knows exactly how big a show it is now, but it's not shying away from it. Instead, All Stars is a bold declaration to fans: Keep up, or be left at the starting gate.