“Welcome to Los Angeles!”
August 20th, 2009
After being caught in legal hell for about six months, Project Runway is finally back. Amidst swirling speculation about how the show would change, and whether it would be able to retain its success jumping to a new (and older-skewing) network, the show debuted to the series’ highest premiere ratings ever, and has proved quite a lucrative pickup for Lifetime in their efforts to expand their unscripted programming.
But, realistically, I don’t care about any of that: yes, there is some fascinating analysis of demographics and legal wrangling to be done, but at the end of the day I’m a fan of this show more than an outside observer, and as a result I was curious to see how the show would change from a production standpoint. We knew that the show was jumping to Los Angeles, but with a new production team behind the scenes there was every change that the show could feel fundamentally different.
However, within seconds, it became clear that reality television is almost scarily interchangeable, as this is almost entirely the same show despite coming from a different production company. Sure, five seasons would give them plenty of research, but to be able to so easily recreate the same kind of atmosphere even with the same types of sets is almost uncanny. Reality shows rely so much on familiarity, so I understand the need to reproduce everything, and I think the show succeeds at weathering all elements of the transition and remaining the same show it’s always been.
Which means this review can be more about the designers and the game itself rather than the behind the scenes drama, something I’ve been looking forward to for about, you know, ten months.
What makes Project Runway works where other reality shows don’t is that there is always a diversity of talent: even moreso than Top Chef (which, as I noted yesterday, became a summer addiction) each designer has a very clear point of view, and their success or failure is highly visible for the viewer. You know, often from the stage of conception, which designers are doing to struggle with a particular challenge, which makes the entire series in some way about seeing how much they struggle, and whether someone else will fail further through bad luck or poor execution. While on Top Chef things could change at any second, as chicken overcooks or seafood remains raw, on Project Runway it’s about how people “make it work” either after realizing their conceptual error or after making a mistake in the process of completing their garment.
As such, this premiere was ideal for demonstrating these two different potential conflicts within the series’ structure. Ari’s dress was always going to be a “Halter Diaper” (as Tim so elegantly put it), but she was so set on her unique aesthetic (which includes, if I’m not mistaken, clothes which turn into tents and contain water filtration systems?) that you knew she wasn’t going to listen to Tim’s critique, and that she was going to be in the Bottom Three. And then, despite his high level of technique in the work he completed on his garment, Mitchell runs into some measurement errors that force him to entirely reconsider his garment, draping together a see-through outfit that wasn’t fit for public consumption. Combine with Qristal, who bizarrely wanted the judges to focus on the back of a red carpet dress, and you have a unique set of failures that demonstrate where the show draws its tension.
And there was some actual uncertainty at the end: Mitchell tried to emphasize that it was all his model’s fault (a contention that even the post-show Models of the Runway didn’t really address), while Ari didn’t quite explain her point of view enough to the judges. In both instances, they simply don’t know how to sell their garments: instead of excuses, Mitchell could have chalked it up to a communications error and focus on the elements of this thrown together garment that reflect his style (and which ultimately saved him, considering the judges’ choice to spare him). Ari, meanwhile, was eliminated because she failed to bridge the gap between the challenge and her aesthetic in her address: if she had more carefully outlined the kind of person wearing the dress and the kind of occasion she was considering, her “out there” aesthetic could have been grounded in something more offbeat than insane. Her failure to sell her wackiness to the judges, rather than the ugliness of her dress, is ultimately what did her in.
As far as the better designers go, it’s interesting to see most people play it safe with this one: Chris ultimately won the challenge less based on perfect execution (everyone seemed to think that the bottom of the dress could have been a bit more refined and perhaps a different colour) and more based on his askew aesthetic mixing edgy with sophisticated. The two dresses that were up against him were similarly flawed (Ra’Mon getting called out for not taking any risks, and Johnny finding criticism for taste levels in terms of colour and sequins), but neither really embraced a sense of “innovation” in how they approached a red carpet dress. I think all three are talented, but I think the lack of a real stand-out innovative piece raises questions about how much these designers are in it to win it, so to speak. There was a lot of middle ground here, and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.
In the end, though, there also wasn’t that much terrible about the various designs that went down the runway, which I guess is really the point. All reality shows have trouble doing things with mediocrity, but I think Runway can get away with it for a few challenges until something comes up that really lets them separate the pack. This is largely because elements like Tim Gunn, who is always fun to watch in the midst of his various critiques, are able to sustain the show. Gunn’s intervention with Johnny was an example of how valuable he is to filling out those moments and bringing out these designers as characters: sure, some part of me would have rather he slapped Johnny across the face and told him to pull it together after (in my opinion) using his addiction as an excuse for his inability to handle the pressure of the situation, but it made for good TV regardless.
The one other “change” that is far more apparent this year is Models of the Runway, the half-hour show which airs after Runway and shows the models’ side of the equation. It’s a bit of a strange transition, having a shortened version of America’s Next Top Model within the show, but I can see its impact increasing with time. Right now, it’s all a bit slight: I would have rather seen more of the models’ experience during the competition than them collecting free swag or visiting their modeling agent ahead of the elimination. However, as more episodes are aired, viewer attachment to the models will increase, allowing their fate to feel a bit less arbirtrary and more eventful. I think I was just bitter that they never actually asked Mitchell’s model flat-out about whether she lied about her measurements, or whether it was a clerical error or something else entirely – still, I think she was right to point out that he was a bit brazen to boot her like he did considering what she did for him, so the show at least has its bit of intrigue.
And that’s what Runway needs to keep up: it’s always less interesting in the beginning, especially with wide open challenges like this where playing it safe feels like the most logical choice, so the real test for the show’s successful debut is how well it can keep it up in the weeks to come.
- There really do seem to be a high number of “self-taught” designers this season, which is something I read about in some interviews ahead of the show’s return (including this one with Tim Gunn from Maureen Ryan). I like it, personally: I don’t think Chris will always be as successful as he was here as challenges get more difficult, but the whole point of shows like Runway and Top Chef is the ways that their unique circumstances require more than skill and take into account ingenuity and adaptability.
- Lindsay Lohan was ultimately as normal a judge as you can get: she found some of the judges’ comments hysterical, was not unwilling to offer criticism (although she could only really talk about how nice the backs were when it came to her positive comments), and didn’t do anything to embarrass herself – I’d say that’s a smart choice.
- I’ve been watching Project Runway Australia recently, and I think that I kind of prefer it to the original (much as I prefer parts of Project Runway Canada to the original), especially the way the designers are both catty and very quick to point out when another designer is making something really impressive. Most specifically from a premiere perspective, though, is that Australia only starts with 12 designers, making for a much less crowded premiere. The show also has a really interesting commercial bent (with a fashion buyer amongst the judges) that intrigues me, although there is something comforting about Kors/Garcia (who honestly didn’t get much to do this week).