4 out of 5
Created by: The Boulet Brothers
covers season 4
Alert: I hate reality shows, nigh universally. Of all shapes and sizes. I can appreciate them, and understand their appeal, but I still hate them. Maybe there will be one day where this won’t be the case, but it is not a structure that appeals to me, with even the most tame variants needing to (from my perspective) escalate drama in a way that my brain accepts when it’s fiction, but wearies of when it’s, y’know, reality. So I’m essentially grading this on a curve: on a curve that assumes that a lot of what I don’t like about this show is both expected of the genre, and then perhaps also part of the Dragula formula, which I’m experiencing for the first time on its fourth season in. …So… why watch, and why review? I watch for equally dumb one-size-fits-all reasons as my opinion above, which is that Shudder nabbed the show’s fourth season, and I watch anything on Shudder. And thus I must review. Because I must review anything I watch.
Here we are, then, me without interest in drag, and without any love for reality shows, talking about The Boulet Brothers’ Dragula – a horror-themed, drag competition reality TV show. The structure of the episodes is the template for most such one-vs.-many style series, with weekly challenges resulting in the initial starting cast – 11, in this case – getting whittled down one or so-ish at a time until a winner emerges. The criteria here is determined by The Boulet Brothers and judged by them and a couple of rotating guest judges, sometimes specific to an event but also, to a degree, bias by the Brothers’ preference for a certain passion to be evident in the performance / drag – although they do remind at each outing that they’re not judging the drag specifically, as that’s subjective, but rather as it relates to the show, which befitting the horror theme demands some blood n’ guts or camp. The winner gets a title, the resultant fame and attention of that, and some cash monies.
Some flavor unique to the series, beyond its horror affectation, are the Boulet’s skits that open each episode – essentially short horror movies which introduces that week’s theme – and the threat of Fear Factor-style tests for those who are in the bottom tier of judging that time around, sort of like a last ditch attempt to stay in the running if you can survive having bugs thrown at you.
Inbetween this is some of the usual reality show stuff: chatter at the beginning in “the cauldron” – the work / lounge area for contestants – reaction shots as the Boulet’s lay out the new challenge (told over Saw-style choppily edited video, keeping with the horror look and feel); some high level snippets of the contestants’ take on what they’re going to do for the challenge; and then often lots of drama as bonds are made and lost and people waver between joking and bickering. Competition and elimination in the middle, and then another round of cauldron reactions and chatter before that Fear Factor bit.
That’s all of the stuff – the inbetween stuff – I’m mostly setting aside. I cannot resolve the time difference between reaction interviews and when the actual moments happen (i.e. two people have a conversation, and then we get a one-on-one interview commentary by a participant, speaking the present tense as if the conversation is happening right now), and I have – I hope / I think – a tendency toward wanting to find common ground when talking to people, which is not the generally encouraged m.o. for reality shows, which love drama, at least until we’re past a breaking point (halfway through the season) where we all come together as friends. I can’t deal with it. But that’s why my personality type generally doesn’t appear on such shows (and also, likely, why I don’t do drag or any performance arts, which I’d think require – at least while on stage – a persona with a lot more gusto than my own.). This season has its share of loud, shit-stirring participants, and then participants who are easily triggered into pettiness by that shit-stirring, and… yeah. Not for me in the least, but accepted as part of the reality show shtick.
And I’m also setting aside my feeling on the eliminations (as a concept), which, again, just feel like drama fodder to me, some spice added to proceedings to make the show different and, like, horrorful. I’d rather the focus be on the competitions; this extra layer seems superfluous. But – sure, maybe that’s one of the things you love about Dragula, so I can’t fault a show I’m coming into late in the game for sticking to it.
With the bulk of this now complaining about things I’m ignoring, as to what’s left: man, was it good. While I think some of the Boulet’s opening skits dragged on a bit, the production value on these and the way they stick to a particular style (sometimes campy, sometimes scary, etc.) was admirable, and I really loved how the duo would very clearly introduce that episode’s theme through these – Western horror; sea monsters; etc. A very fun way to kick things off. They also put plenty of visible effort into their own outfits as judges – setting a standard – and while it seems there are some unspoken Dragula “rules” that a new viewer like m’self couldn’t guess at in terms of judging, the feedback from the Boulets and others always felt maturely related – it’s not American Idol nit-picking.
And by and large, the cast is talented as Hell. Even once I was used to each’s general style, I was continually impressed by what they put together between makeup, costuming, and performance, and I did really end up looking forward to seeing what was produced week by week, even if I couldn’t always understand / see exactly what the Boulets did or didn’t like (that is, to me, something looked really put together, but they felt otherwise, or vice versa). To the editors’ credit, based on the very slim behind-the-scenes stuff we see regarding this floor show (setting up props, waiting for performers to go on), they really gave all their best foot forward for the TV show, splicing and dicing routines into amazing art sequences, set to music. Everyone, for the TV viewer, feels like they’re getting a fair shot in these moments – this section of this show really is presented incredibly respectably, never singling out a performer in an overly positive or negative light; everyone looks like a superstar. And the horror stuff isn’t just for show! While some of the performers lean into glam, there didn’t seem to be any barriers on, like, a PG-13 rating, so feel free to add a dead baby prop and come out spewing blood or with tassels on your hoo-has, grinding your strap-on into the air to the music’s beat. (Not that dead babies, tassels, and strap-ons equal horror, more underlining that this earned its spot on Shudder.)
Mixed in with what I’m saying above is that what we don’t see – some of that behind-the-scenes stuff – might’ve helped frame the performances better for us viewers. Now, I get how this conflicts with the presentation – if we see the 15 minutes or whatever it takes for someone to set up, it’s hard to make them look as good with a splashily edited video. So I can’t say how to achieve that balance, but it felt like there was a lot of interesting stuff left on the table that could’ve made it even clearer how much effort this all takes. The same applies to the cauldron chit-chat sections, during which we get to see snippets of the creators creating. Later in the season they open this up a bit more and show us pre-production sketches, but it’s so compressed that it feels like we jump from 0 to 100 in terms of the process, and, again, it only seems like it would’ve enhanced my / our appreciation for this stuff by seeing some more nitty gritty.
Lastly, the challenges felt… unfair. Like, unevenly unfair. Some people got buried alive; some people had to stand in cold water. I know you can’t just drop cockroaches on people every week, but the way some of these seemed much harder than others leant itself to the superfluous sense of these bits, especially when I felt like we could guess who was going based on the feedback they received… it never really felt like anyone truly escaped elimination via these tests.
My opinion on reality shows has not changed, and I’m not running out to seek prior season of Dragula. But once I’d set my expectations for all of the reality-show excess I’d need to ignore, I did sincerely enjoy the heck out of the remainder, and almost every week, several of the contestants delivered drag that seemed impossible to my unskilled self, and matched it with a really fun (and / or well-edited) performance.