What Was The Best Season Of Drag Race? (UPDATED)

This post has been updated. It was originally published on June 26, 2017.

Now that the door is closed on the relative mess that is season nine ten, it’s time to take a good look at ourselves, to understand where these seasons fits into the legacy of the show.

But first: context. Drag Race was designed to lampoon reality television culture by way of America’s Next Top Model. It was always designed to be a joke. But like Top Model — a show about the over-intellectualizing of the silly industry for television instead of an entire queer subculture — there is a point where the ceiling lowers and one must either enjoy the same charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent or break through to give that fruit to the ugly masses. Funny enough, for Top Model it happened around this point too: from cycle 7 to cycle 9, the show became a mess of buzzwords and fake fashion insight that built into the hashtag happy disaster that it is now. It was less about the industry and more about becoming an industry in and of itself when paired with The Tyra Banks Show happening concurrently and all the myriad products she spewed.

Drag Race is at that moment. It needs to make a decision about what it means to itself, to gay culture, and more. In the hopes of pushing the show back to basics, let’s figure out what those “basics” are by ranking the seasons from worst to best in the hopes of narrowing in on where it should head to. This is my ranking of Drag Race seasons.

Note: This ranking has been rearranged since previous publication.

13. Season 9

Ahhhh: this mess. A young baby of a season that we’re hoping will be adopted soon. Here’s the thing: this season was intense growing pains. It showed that the show needs to rethink its choices. If it truly wants to absorb everything like a giant fucking Katamari monster via VH1, so be it. But don’t force your mainstreaming onto gay culture: leave us and our drag alone. Make drag a non-queer thing, bringing on on female drag impersonators and drag kings. Go all the way with your selling out. Season nine was a stumbling toward becoming a higher power or returning to the roots that had stars (Valentina) and major upsets (Shea Coulée) only for everything to end up as dead roses (Sasha Velour). It was boring, derivative, and the most blue balls of a season.

12. All Stars, Season 1

This was a tipping point! This was when the show was like, “You know what? We have something here: let’s make money.” Yes, it was a bit of a sell out move but it also illustrated something that the show didn’t know it had: a roster of queens who they could fuck around with without having to do the business of getting the audience “familiar” with their story. This opened the flood gate for the now iconic All Stars season two. It hasn’t aged well though, illustrating that the initial format of teams was a bad idea based on budgetary restrictions.

11. Season 1

The “lost” season, I remember watching this live and telling my friends and family and anyone that could hear me that this show was the best thing. It did not age well mostly due to how low budget it was but it represents an excellent point of departure in terms of originating charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent. While we never really hear about Bebe anymore, this was a glorified pilot that would be perfected and perfected before undoing all the hard work.

10. Season 10

Yet another stumbling block toward the future. This season was growing pains, epitomized. From the unacknowledged racial issues to a botched finale to a reunion that felt more like Intervention than anything else, this season was proof that the show needs to look at itself in the mirror and realize what it is. This was a talented roster of queens, it seemed, until the show actually got going. This was one of the finest produced pieces of the show but it sadly didn’t know what to do with great challenges – and cut too many good personalities early while abandoning storylines that they over emphasized.

9.All Stars, Season 3

This season wasn’t bad, really, but it suffered the same problem that Season Nine (and Season Ten) had: losing iconic queens early and letting a talented but mediocre queen take the crown in a finale upset. Also disappointing? This season didn’t have a reunion and we so desperately needed a reunion to serve justice to Shangela and to give people like Thorgy a little more screen time. They did make nice use of making a villain out of Milk and showing Aja off as someone so deserving of another chance. Still: we got more of who we didn’t want to see (Bebe) and less of anything of substance.

8. Season 7

The mess before the messes. This was the season where the Drag Race shift happened, where it started taking itself too seriously. Look at the season teaser above: it was created in a faux-artsy style and even included a contestant saying, “I’m not here to make friends.”: these people were already within the looking glass before stepping into it. Moreover, this saw the introduction of the first fan-turned-queen in the cast via the doomed Sasha Belle. This was when Ru started taking herself more seriously and things got less fun, devoting itself to aesthetics (Fame, Pearl, Violet) instead of actual, meaningful television or cultural contribution. The good news? This season – and its queens – has aged well, with some fantastic runway moments and one of the best Snatch Games ever.

7. Season 2

Oh, yes: the show quickly figured its shit out. You had real fucking characters — Raven, Tyra, Tatianna, Jujubee, Raven, etc. — who were ready to play. They knew the game but they also knew they had a bigger budget. This was when the challenges were still weirdo great (Curtains!!!) and you were treated to delicious drama—and a divisive winner. Oh, the good old days, when fans didn’t get a say in fucking everything.

6. Season 5

The tipping point of “We can make the show crazier!” continues. The Pit Crew was still here and queer and so many breakouts — Alyssa, Alaska, Detox, Jinkx — were included in the cast. This was a fitting sequel to season four, where you had “Go back to Party City!!” — and this season answered with “Look how orange you fucking look.” This was back when the drama was real and brands were nothing but things you bought in stores. Sigh.

5. Season 3

Just look at the promo above: this was when the show went from being a folksy fluke to going there. It intended to skewer reality television and model culture with a cast that was fucking extraordinary. You had wild moments (Mimi throws India off the stage! Stacy loves chicken! Imelda Marcos!!) that were undercut by true talent that we still live with today via Delta and Raja and Manilla and Carmen. This was when the series realized who it was—and actually had fun doing it with a talented crew.

4. Season 8

I know this will be divisive: a season where Bob wins over the season where Raja wins? Hear me out. This season came out of left field, returning to the form of fun and fierceness in a way that didn’t seem possible given how bad the season before it went. Just compare the promos: this season had a point of view, it had an urgency, and it felt relevant. It was a slow burn but, thanks to outstanding queens like Chi Chi and Kim Chi and Thorgy, it kept feeding you with that good shit. Again: this season being so good is why season nine and ten’s problems have been so pronounced.

3. Season 6

Again: look at the promo above. This is when the show was discovered it could be here and queer and fun and fabulous, knowing its audience of hungry gays and catering to their desires. We had really, really fucking kooky characters — Ben! Laganja! Adore! Courtney! Bianca! — who all had talent and went home when they should have (Ahem, Milk.) instead of wearing out their welcome. There was also a glamour here that future seasons exploited: this was the beginning of fishy queens turning direct paired Adore originating the superstar fandom queen (by way of American Idol). This set the pace for the “branding” that we see now. This was when the queens knew going on this show would change lives. Also: this was Shawn Morales‘ last season on the show, in the Pit Crew. When he left, something changed. No wonder seven onward have been dicey.

2. All Stars, Season 2

Why was this season so good? Because it just got to the fun and had a fuck ton of it. The hangover from Season Seven was still looming large and it had too many breakout moments to really keep up with. No one saw this season coming, literally and figuratively. We all knew what was going to happen (Alaska, FTW.) but did not see the path from A to B unfolding as it did. This was an appropriate, understandable toying with the format that was simultaneously low and hi-fi. To say this season was surprising and vicious is a fucking understatement, man. Justice for Tati!!!!!

1. Season 4

This is undeniable. This season was sickening, bitchy, fun, and weird. There are two words for why this is the case: Sharon Needles. No one saw her coming. She changed the game in so many ways and, paired with people like Latrice and Chad and Phi Phi and Willam, you had a show that was fun with people who were talented. There were gags (Why did Willam get sent home??) and challenges that people are still talking about (“Get those nuts away from my face!“) and a Snatch Game that defined Snatch Game (CHER!!!). This season was less about trying to reach anyone but itself: there was no selling anything but oddity before oddity was a buzzword (Ahem, Sasha.). There was something so genuine to Sharon Needles saying “When in doubt, freak ’em out.” and ending the season by saying “Happy Halloween!” She changed the game, sucking you in by being the most unlikely drag queen and most unlikely reality television personality. They don’t make characters like Sharon Needles anymore. Everyone wants something more than themselves and, despite saying you’re here for the kids (SASHA.), there is an agenda beyond art for art’s sake: the people in this season were the dying breath of queer, drag oddity before the eventual commodification. There is no authenticity in televised drag anymore which is why season four was so good: everyone was real. There was nothing fake, save for Phi Phi—and she was such a wonderful antithesis to the realness. So what happens when the entire cast is fake bitches making nice for more Insta followers? It all comes crumbling down. Season four taught us what the show can and should be—and bless it for trying to recapture the magic that it made. Hopefully Drag Race can capture the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent that season four embodied.

Honorable Mention: Drag U, which offered a taste of All Stars before that show really became a thing by letting the queens do the makeover challenge again and again and again. It was ahead of its time, yes, and should be brought back.

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