Reality TV, filled with camera-hungry narcissists and rich housewives screaming at each other in posh restaurants, generally isn't regarded as educational. That's not to say it's not entertaining -- I've been known to watch a housewife or two -- but the genre, still globally popular 27 years after the The Real World premiered, is more likely to kill brain cells than stimulate them.
Once in a great while, though, a reality program comes along that has the power to not just entertain, but also to teach. About a different culture, an out-of-the-mainstream art form or people vastly unlike anyone you know. You can laugh, learn and empathize, three experiences often lacking in today's Trump- and Brexit-charged climate where divisiveness is a feature, not a bug.
RuPaul's Drag Race, now in its 12th year, is a reality show that hits those marks, even while being one of the most subversive things on TV. As a gay man in his early 30s (OK, mid-30s) when Drag Race premiered in 2009, I knew little about drag beyond the performances I saw on stage in clubs. But thanks to Ru I learned what tucking really is (I'll let you Google it) and realized the sheer creative drive that goes into inventing a drag persona.
Plus, it was heartening to see LGBT people on TV outside of fictional characters on sitcoms like Will & Grace and Modern Family. My attention wandered after season 6 when I moved to London (sorry, Ru), but with the premiere of RuPaul's Drag Race UK in October I'm obsessed again. (Ru hosts this series, as well, though we've traded the Pit Crew for a Brit Crew in tight skivvies decorated with the Union Jack.) Thanks to its new location, excellent cast, British comedians Graham Norton and Alan Carr as new regular judges (they join veteran Drag Race judge Michelle Visage), and a bawdier, edgier style of drag, it feels fresh and wonderfully different than the recent US seasons, and it makes me nostalgic for my three years living in the UK, a time when each day was wonderfully educational.
Slang and other lessons
The daily lessons ranged from having to find my way around the labyrinthine Bank Underground Station to realizing my local Sainsbury's didn't keep eggs in the refrigerator. While not necessarily easy, the lessons were always fascinating. Fortunately, my new British friends and CNET London colleagues were kind enough to indulge my endless curiosity about local holidays, food and pop culture references -- things like which one is Ant and which is Dec, the proper way to celebrate Bonfire Night (aka Guy Fawkes Day) and, you really do serve a pork pie at room temperature.
But what occupied most of my time was learning the slang I'd need to survive. I may not use the words myself ("mate" sounds ridiculous in an American accent), but I had to be able to understand them in conversation.
What's the difference between a lad and a bloke? And, wow, the expressions "bollocks" and "the dog's bollocks" don't mean the same thing at all. On Drag Race UK, the slang shimmers like glitter from a drag queen's gown. Hearing phrases on the show like "slagging off" (to criticize someone), "a gogshite" (a loudmouth) and "minger" (an unattractive person) is like relearning a language I only studied in high school -- if you don't practice, you'll forget it.
All the accents
Hand in hand with slang on the show is the UK's staggering array of regional accents, all amazingly crammed into a relatively small country.
Because the US is so big, many Americans have to travel to states far away to hear different accents or dialects. But in the UK, you only need to cross from east to west across London on the Central Line. To a newly arrived American in London, some regional accents were so impenetrable -- particularly those heard on The Real Housewives of Cheshire -- I needed subtitles. The voices in Drag Race, which come from all over the country (and one from Canada), thankfully are more decipherable, and they bring back the sense of wonderment that permeated my adventure abroad.
The vocal diversity is on full display in the first episode, when the 10 UK queens are challenged with creating a drag look based on their hometown. Queens from Yorkshire, Belfast, Birmingham and London's Camden Town created stunning looks. But one of my favorites from the challenge was Cheryl Hole, who comes from Essex. (Her drag name is a reference to Cheryl Cole, a member of the pop band Girls Aloud -- another lesson.)
A county east of greater London, Essex is derided for being the home of unsophisticated "Essex girls" who show up at clubs, loud and drunk with big hair and too much makeup. But Cheryl wears the stereotype like a badge of honor strutting down the runway in a blond wig, a tacky skirt stained with spray-on tan and toilet paper stuck to her shoe. And when she introduces herself with the line, "I'm here to represent the glitz, the glam … To show people we are polished classy girls and not falling out of clubs," I got the reference and I laughed out loud.
Taking the piss out of drag
After 11 seasons of Drag Race, I don't blame anyone for wondering whether every style of drag has already been shown. But Drag Race UK proves we haven't seen it all. As the fashion culture and bloggers Tom and Lorenzo note in their review of the first UK episode, British drag is less influenced by beauty pageant culture than US drag. It's less polished, self-conscious and politically correct, where campy humor and fun expression are encouraged over posing and presentation. We laugh at the rough edges, but so do the queens themselves. Because they're in on the joke. Drag Queen Crystal, for example, didn't shave her chest even when in drag. But it's a common thing about East London drag, which I learned at a Dalston bar.
It's a performance-based type of the drag I've always preferred, but it also reminds me of something I immediately loved about the UK: an inherent bent toward never taking it all (or yourself) too seriously.
On the Drag Race UK things can get rightfully shady but the queens don't base their entire personas around being cutting or mean. We've seen a lot of that on the US show. (The queens who called themselves "The Heathers" in Season 3 and PhiPhi O'Hara tearing into pretty much everyone else on Season 4 grew quickly tiresome.) But an American-style brash confidence that resembles overcompensating thankfully isn't present. Laughing at others is fine, but laughing at yourself isn't seen as a sign of weakness.
The mocking is in the grand tradition of "taking the piss" out of your friends, where teasing is all in good fun, rather than about tearing someone down to make them feel bad. I get that from the UK queens, who actually seem to support each other.
Yes, they're in a competition, but as drag queen Sum Ting Wong explained to Gay Times, even the critiquing is about encouraging the competition to be better. And as CNET's Katie Collins told me when we were discussing the show, it has "a really carry-on vibe." That's another thing I learned to respect in my British friends: Things may get hairy (especially after an election), but I'll put the kettle on and we'll sort it out.
Though we're not yet through the eight episodes of season 1, my husband can't wait for RuPaul to cross the pond again. Because Britain was weird, fascinating and wonderful, and so is Drag Race UK.
In the US you can watch all episodes of RuPaul's Drag Race UK on WOW Presents Plus, the streaming service for the producers of Drag Race. The series is also available for streaming on iTunes, Logo and Amazon Prime, though all episodes may not be available at the time of this writing. In the UK, you can watch all episodes of the show on BBC Three.