Film Series Review: UNHhhh
“Hi, I’m the Girl Scout merit badge in basket weaving that eludes you to this day, Trixie Mattel.”
“And I’m the human vacuum cleaner with an insatiable hunger for pain, Katya.”
So begins the twentieth episode of UNHhhh, the YouTube comedy talk show hosted by drag queens Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova. The two performers rose to fame as contestants on the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the crucible in which their tender, zany friendship was forged. Although neither of the queens was crowned the winner of their season, the hilariously bizarre acid trip of a web series they began last year has brought them to the forefront of drag culture and gay entertainment.
With more than sixty episodes ranging from five to ten minutes long, UNHhhh just finished its second season earlier this November. Whether Mattel and Zamolodchikova decide to continue the series (which was nominated in 2017 for a Streamy award in the “Show of the Year” category) remains to be seen. The duo recently announced their new television program The Trixie and Katya Show, which is set to premiere on November 15 on Viceland. This show seems to be a longer, more structured, and (barely) cleaner revamp of the original UNHhhh format. But as the show’s loyal viewers know, UNHhhh’s intriguing blend of vulgarity, disorganization, and a surprising amount of wisdom is exactly what makes it so compelling.
One of the key tenets of the show is a ritual: each episode begins almost religiously with an off-the-wall introduction of the show’s hosts. Trixie Mattel, who has introduced herself to the show as “Ellen DeGeneres’ dance teacher” and “the Big Gulp you get behind the 7-eleven”, usually speaks first. Mattel’s audacious Barbie-doll-meets-Barnum-and-Bailey-circus-clown aesthetic is striking at first, but don’t worry: you’ll get used to it. Mattel is partial to hookup anecdotes and puns (“You know when you find a nice even in fashion–Balance-iaga?”) and is never afraid to laugh at herself—although her laugh is truly more of a prolonged, high-pitched shriek. Think Drew Barrymore as Casey Becker in Scream: you get the idea.
Katya Zamolodchikova (“the human sebaceous gland that just won’t quit”) is Mattel’s loyal sidekick—or so Mattel would have you believe. In reality, Zamolodchikova is Mattel’s equal on the show and is largely responsible for its signature off-the-rails weirdness. With a fashion sense that favors high necklines, chunky jewelry, and problem patterns, Zamolodchikova tends to be less polished but more conceptual than her pink nightgown-loving Dolly Parton-esque cohost. Nearly all of her statements are punctuated with loud thworps of her seemingly endless variety of fans. Her charming Soviet persona and her inexplicable love for cigarettes and the 1997 sci-fi film Contact make Zamolodchikova odd, seductive, and just plain endearing.
Each episode of UNHhhh focuses—or at least tries to focus—on a particular theme. It seems that no subject is too profound, crude, or outlandish to be off-limits. Previous topics include: music, plastic surgery, drugs, the 90s, high school, parenthood, religion, death, death (again), and Thanksgiving. Mattel and Zamolodchikova know (or seem to know) just enough about each week’s topic to sustain a witty, entertaining, and very brief discussion of it. This discussion inevitably gets derailed by Mattel and Zamolodchikova’s habitually nonlinear banter, but it quickly becomes apparent to any viewer that this is where the show is at its best. In an episode about the jobs the two performers had before becoming drag queens, Mattel and Zamolodchikova somehow managed to work in crack addiction, Halloween, identity theft, phone sex, Harry Potter, larceny, and Spandex. This is a testament both to the show’s terrifically oddball M.O. as well as the sheer craziness of the hosts’ colorful lives.
But what keeps the show coherent despite so much weird? For one, the relationship between its two costars. It doesn’t take binge-watching all sixty-seven episodes over a particularly dark and sequestered weekend (not that I would judge you for doing so) to realize that the chemistry Mattel and Zamolodchikova have is special. A single word from Mattel can send her cohost into a flailing fit of wheezing laughter, while just one goofy facial expression from Zamolodchikova can make Mattel scream high enough to shatter your webcam lens.
Another unifying factor is the show’s editing. Episodes are filmed in front of a simple green screen, but the raw footage (which, I would imagine, is extremely non-sequitur) is eventually trimmed down into short, slightly more cogent installments. There is a certain charisma in the show’s low-budget yet extremely creative special effects. Razor-sharp cuts and on-beat audio editing keep the show from descending into the realm of juvenile WordArt and poorly-timed Powerpoint slide transitions, allowing the viewers to focus on the real stars of the show: its hosts.
The editing in two episodes (“How’s Your Head?” and “How’s Your Head? Pt. 2”) is especially clever: Mattel and Zamolodchikova don chartreuse-hued body suits while leaving just their faces uncovered. These segments have no explicit theme beyond what ridiculous situations into which the show’s editors can superimpose the hosts’ makeup-caked visages, such as a pizza box with the faces of two Italian brothers on it, or a pair of sperm cells.
What is perhaps most impressive about the show is the extent to which it avoids overtly political discussions. The series premiered during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, and yet the election and its results are mentioned only a handful of times, a trend which feels very deliberate to the viewer. As gay men who bend the rules of gender for a living, Mattel and Zamolodchikova—like all LGBTQ individuals—live lives that are inherently political. With this show, Mattel and Zamolodchikova succeed in carving out a space in which two friends can discuss everything from shitty Grindr hookups to the meaning of life itself, all without having to politically justify their existence. Spaces like this are few and far in between, and thus terribly precious.
For fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the series is a no-brainer: Mattel and Zamolodchikova are two of the most popular queens to ever compete on the show. Mattel was recently announced as a contestant on the third All Stars season of Drag Race in which former competitors will return for a renewed shot at the crown. UNHhhh can help tide you over until the new season airs in 2018. Those who have never seen Drag Race may find themselves scratching their heads at references to Rolaskatox and tucking, but you’ll probably be laughing too hard to hear the references in the first place. As an introduction to drag culture, the show is reasonably approachable and undeniably riotous. With UNHhhh, Mattel and Zamolodchikova have crafted a relationship and a series that are stunningly comical and rare, and they are willing to share both with you.