‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 4 recap: Live from the main stage, it’s ‘RDR Live’!

“With musical guest RuPaul,” you say?

For reality TV challenge producers, finding a new signature challenge is no easy feat. A Snatch Game or Restaurant Wars doesn’t come around every year, but it’s nonetheless important to keep trying new formats. Sometimes it can even take a few tries before the challenge works as it should. (See: Canada’s Drag Race finally figuring out what a LaLaPaRuZa should look like.)

So it’s not surprising to see RuPaul’s Drag Race return to the “RDR Live” challenge that debuted in All Stars 8, even though it proved to be controversial. It’s the kind of challenge that you can imagine the show effectively branding in the future, with spin-off opportunities galore. (“RDR Live,” coming to WOW Presents Plus soon!) However, I am admittedly confused as to why the challenge is such an exact replication of the previous version.

Like in All Stars 8’s challenge, there’s a host with a monologue, a sketch about two overly sexual women with a business they’re promoting, and a Weekend Update-style news skit. The only sketch that’s different, a musical parody starring a “Barbra-shop Quartet,” is the freshest of the lot, and perhaps unsurprisingly, produces the winner of the challenge. It feels unusually lazy on the show’s part to just re-do what was already done for most of the task—although perhaps the fact that, due to filming dates, the Season 16 cast had not seen the previous version made it a tempting proposition for production.

Regardless, the end result is an episode that’s actually quite entertaining … when it’s not actually showing the challenge. This is a cast that’s proving effective at making Drag Race feel like a blend of its scrappier classic entries without losing the polish of the modern show. If production can lean into the hands-off approach of, say, Drag Race UK Season 5, they may have a new classic in this season. If the challenges remain this underwhelming, though, we might be disappointed.

Sarah Michelle Gellar joins the judges’ panel this week in her first guest judge appearance Credit: Courtesy MTV

No mini-challenge this week means we’re launching right into “RDR Live”—a parody of Saturday Night Live in which the queens must perform in sketches with only one take. In terms of difficulty, this is one of the highest for a Drag Race task: it requires a readiness to nail material without stumbling that challenges even the stars who guest-host SNL themselves.

 

The queens must separate themselves into their roles, and as you can expect, there are some dramatics. Most notably, Mirage wants the role of host, but so does Sapphira Cristál … at first. Suddenly, after a bit of back-and-forth, Sapphira lets it go, making Mirage rethink whether she wants it at all. It’s an impressive bit of trickery from the Philadelphia queen, throwing Mirage off her game for the rest of the episode.

We also get a bit of a shuffle with the Weekend Update-style sketch, as Plasma really wants to live her Amy Poehler fantasy as News Anchor #2. Dawn, however, wants the role so she can work with her Premiere 1 buddy Amanda Tori Meating. (Also in the sketch is Q as the first brick thrown at Stonewall, which is so stupid it’s funny.) Dawn cliques up with her girls to basically force Plasma out of the role and into being part of the Barbra-shop Quartet. Whether it’s actually the right role for Plasma (it is) is a bit besides the point—it’s strange to watch Dawn effectively eschew all the conventional ways to decide who gets a role and basically will her way to it. Points to her for getting her way, but as we’ll see, it doesn’t pay off particularly well.

And finally, Plane Jane discourages her sister Morphine Love Dion from taking the other part in the We ❤️ Decks scene. Morphine, for her part, doesn’t seem to even want it—but is sure offended that Jane doesn’t want to work with her! Again, this is an instance where the result is ultimately right (Jane and eventual partner Megami are good together), but the approach is just needlessly chaotic. That’s kind of the theme of the whole first half of this episode, honestly. And I’m into it!

Plasma, Nymphia Wind and Sapphira Cristál form a “Barbra-shop” quartet in “RDR Live” Credit: Courtesy MTV

“RDR Live” itself is mostly disappointing, but there are some highlights. Xunami Muse holds her own in the otherwise messy QNN: End of the World Live sketch, parodying Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen’s New Year’s Eve CNN coverage. Mhi’ya Iman Le’Paige tries to get out of her shell, but winds up going too shrill, giving us the same note throughout her performance. Meanwhile, Geneva Karr’s lack of understanding of who Senator Lindsey Graham is leads to a completely off-base parody of him, landing her in the bottom two once again.

Mirage’s monologue as the host is a real miss for the Las Vegas queen, and it’s tough to watch her fail. You can tell she’s really trying, but she lacks the natural confidence to make this work. Her nervousness is palpable. When she starts stumbling over lines near the end, you can just hear the judges’ critiques already ringing in her ears. She does indeed wind up in the bottom alongside Geneva, with Mhi’ya barely avoiding having to lip sync for her life once again.

The We ❤️ Decks sketch is such a direct copy of the All Stars 8 version that it’s hard to judge, particularly when Jane is doing so much of what Jimbo did in the same role. She’s among the funnier queens in this episode, but that’s not saying too much. She scores a solid but safe third place, likely buoyed by her best-yet runway efforts in the Everything Every Cher All at Once runway category. Megami is also fun, but Jane is the standout here.

The news desk sequence is pretty middling, with neither Amanda nor Dawn nailing the comedy. In something that is so punchline-heavy, you need to be able to really hit every joke, and there are too many that the queens toss away. The sketch doesn’t ramp up until Q gets there, being so naturally funny that even lines that aren’t written to be particularly comedic (“Does it matter?”) are hits.

Finally, there’s the Barbra-shop Quartet scene, with the queens all performing as Barbra Streisand impersonators singing modified lyrics to “Jingle Bells.” It’s actually the most SNL-like sketch of the lot, and it offers the queens a lot of ways to show off: comedically, musically and in their impersonation skills. Nymphia Wind and Sapphira are both good in it, but Plasma is born for this. She nails all elements, seemingly even surprising Ru with how good she is.

Nymphia Wind stuns in an Egyptian Goddess Cher look for the Everything Every Cher All at Once runway Credit: Courtesy MTV

Considering both turn out great Cher looks on the runway (Q’s is particularly stunning), it’s a tight race between Q and Plasma for the win. But surely Q’s momentum in the competition will finally be rewarded with a victory? Not quite: instead, it’s Plasma who takes it! She’s as shocked as anyone, with a full gay gasp as Ru announces her victory. The other queens cheer loudly, but Q’s muted reaction indicates she’s starting to get sick of always being the bridesmaid.

Mirage and Geneva battle it out to Cher’s “Dark Lady,” and if knowing the lyrics wasn’t an objective of a lip sync, it would be a wrap on Geneva. Mirage is an incredible performer, moving with such flexibility and fluidity. She’s actually impossible to keep your eyes off of—which is unfortunate in this case, because you can catch just how few of the lyrics she knows. Ru and Michelle Visage seem particularly annoyed by this (“Not one word,” Michelle mutters after the lip sync is over), and as a result, Geneva stays. 

Mirage sashays away, and she’s just devastated by her exit. These kinds of departures can be difficult to watch—I’d compare this to Pangina Heals’ elimination on UK vs. The World—but as Ru tells Mirage, this is just the beginning. If anything, the explosive fan reaction to her elimination is a sign that she will stay booked and busy for a long, long time to come.

Overall, this is a solid episode, but I wish “RDR Live” itself were better. Increasingly, it feels like Drag Race struggles to match the star power of its casts with adequate challenge design, which is unfortunate. For Drag Race to really deliver an iconic season, it needs the performances in the tasks to live up to what’s happening outside of them—and that requires giving the queens the right opportunities. “RDR Live,” despite a couple of good moments across its two appearances, is not the new kind of signature challenge we need.

Untucking our final thoughts

This is not a group that is shy about their opinions! Geneva is outspoken about believing Mirage should’ve been in the bottom last week instead of her, while Q notes that she didn’t win despite receiving the “perfect critiques” Nymphia didn’t, and that she actually made her garment entirely with unconventional materials. I like all this from the queens: I want to know that they’re actually invested in winning this race, not that they’re just there for the platform it provides.

Last week’s Untucked dust-up comes up in the cold open, as Jane tries to apologize but Amanda isn’t particularly interested in hearing it. I’d argue Amanda’s reaction is actually a bit highly pitched for the situation (saying she wants to keep away from Jane so she doesn’t get in trouble for fighting “her bitch ass” is a lot!), but Jane ultimately has it right: “You can’t unring a bell.” Their relationship is tainted, and judging by their back-and-forth on Twitter, I imagine things will only worsen as the season continues.

The Hilarious Ross Mathews comes to the werk room to help with comedy coaching, but mostly he’s just there to be part of Ru’s usual walkthrough banter. I know I’ve written about this before, but it is a real shame to see how Ross’ participation in the show has degenerated over time. He used to be such an incisive judge and helpful coach, but these days it’s rare to get either out of him. Even his appearance in the We ❤️ Decks scene is not as funny as it could be.

We get a great mirror moment talk between Xunami and Geneva, who are both DREAMers—and, as Geneva notes in confessional, the first DACA queens in the show’s history. They talk about the limbo of DACA, and the fears that their ability to reside in the U.S. could be so easily taken away from them. It’s a really nice conversation, and informative for those not familiar with DACA.

Absolutely screaming that not only does Amanda ghostwrite DMs for OnlyFans creators, but that she does so for women. Imagining her DMing straight men who think they’re talking to young women is incredible. It’s professionally licensed catfishing! 

Sarah Michelle Gellar is our guest judge this week, and praise the Lord and pass the vampire-slaying stake, she actually offers substantive critique. I wish this weren’t so rare these days, but to see as big a name as SMG come in and take the judging job seriously is such a joy. Would welcome her back any day.

So yes, we actually do get a Ru performance as the “RDR Live” musical guest. For an in-show Ru lip sync, the western-themed performance of “Lady Cowboy” is pretty good! These performances will always feel random to me, but I like that Ru always seems to enjoy himself.

Plasma’s “Ru-Barb” joke is the one and only true LOL moment for me in this episode. Or should I say IJBOL?

Mhi’ya’s Kermit-meets-Cher impersonation … stunning. Can’t stop thinking about it. The best thing we’ve seen since Jujubee’s “Cher-cuterie.”

“I can’t wait to tell my mom!” Plasma’s win might’ve been a shock, but it’s worth it for her incredibly cute reaction alone.

The next episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race will air Friday, Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. EST on MTV in the U.S. and on Crave in Canada. Check back every Monday after new episodes for our recaps and power rankings, and subscribe to our drag newsletter Wig! for exclusive Drag Race content delivered straight to your inbox every Tuesday afternoon.

Read More About:
Culture, Drag Race, Analysis, Drag

Keep Reading

Two people shown in the "pods" from above; hearts are drawn over the image.

Why a lesbian ‘Love Is Blind’ just makes sense 

OPINION: Netflix, bring out the U-Hauls!

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 8 power ranking: Comic Ru-lief

An episode full of comedy challenges twists up the power rankings

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 16, Episode 8 recap: Inventing Snatch

With more and more original characters, what is Snatch Game even about these days?

Desire, love triangles and bad gays are at the centre of Hanna Johansson’s ‘Antiquity’

Xtra speaks with the Swedish author about her newly translated novel