The critical difference between ‘Lip Sync Battle’ and ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

“Lip Sync Battle,” the Spike TV series based on the celebrity lip-sync duels from Jimmy Fallon's “Tonight Show,” is officially renewed for a second season. Lip-syncing is always good for a silly viral moment, but let's not forget that there's a semi-serious art to doing it well. And while we're at it, let's point out that “RuPaul's Drag Race” is the real HQ for lip-sync sorcery on cable.

The premise of “Lip Sync Battle” is that a bunch of celebrities acting like drunken karaoke acts is a riot. Sometimes the juxtaposition of a movie star and a pop song is very funny: Take, for instance, Paul Rudd's seriously impressive work with Tina Turner's “Better Be Good to Me” on “The Tonight Show.” Not only did he memorize Turner's every spastic vocal moment, he also lived up to her grit with an impassioned performance. It was comedy, but it was comedy because he committed. 

That's the best possible scenario. Here's what you usually end up with: On “Lip Sync Battle,” John Krasinski took on another Turner classic, “Proud Mary,” and shook things up with a costume change and some backup dancers.

Is he dreadful? No. His spot-on lip-sync during the opening monologue was worthy of serious applause. But what makes this less than joyful is how self-congratulatory the act becomes. “Can you believe I'm doing this song?” Krasinski seems to be asking. “Can you believe I'm wearing a dress? Can you believe I'm dancing like this? Being this silly?” And it's like: Well, yes? I can? This is a lip-sync battle, after all. But this points out the often-fatal flaw of the show: There's too much winking and not enough competing. In Anna Kendrick's followup performance, she mimes a One Direction song well enough but mostly toasts her crush on Krasinski's wife Emily Blunt. It's more cute and schmoozy than funny or moving, and soon the song element of the lip-sync feels monotonous. 

Meanwhile “RuPaul's Drag Race,” which culminates every episode with a sudden-death lip-sync between the week's two lowest-scoring drag queens, makes lip-syncing more artful than clownish. Take for instance this battle from season five: Rivals Alyssa Edwards and Coco Montrese duke it out as they mime Paula Abdul's “Cold Hearted.” 

First of all, the fact that both queens have to lip-sync the same song adds verve to both performances. They're trying to best each other, and that forces both Alyssa and Coco to up their game and bust out bawdy gestures in order to be the star. Note Alyssa's insane splits. Note Coco's nervy pointing. (Try lip-syncing the “rap” in “Cold Hearted”; you can listen to that song 50 times and still not have the crazy double-talk down.) Neither of these queens is winking. They are working. 

Here's another triumph: Dida Ritz, a season-four queen, lip-syncing to “This Will Be” right in front of Natalie Cole.

Now that is invigorating. There's no pandering to crowds or self-congratulatory romping here. It's just two people embracing the absurdity of a lip-sync battle and using it to project individuality. There's risk and reward in going for broke, and contestants have no detached irony to act as their safety net. On “Lip Sync Battle,” we watch celebrities play-act silliness. On “RuPaul's Drag Race,” we watch people give theatrical, delirious, real performances as themselves.

While I can appreciate the barroom fun of the Spike TV show, I can only love the fight and fabulous self-expression of RuPaul's queens.