Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya: A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya

November 20th, 2009

In the promos for the season finale of Season Six of Project Runway, Lifetime uses dramatic music and a deep-voiced announcer to try to build suspense for the big reveal. However, in their language, they have something wrong: they create anticipation for the reveal of who is “the next big name in fashion,” and my immediate response is “who cares?”

See, what works about Project Runway is that it transfers the aesthetics of the fashion industry into terms that are unrelated to the fashion industry. I know nothing about fashion, but I know a lot about what Nina Garcia likes to see in fashion, or what the series values in terms of creativity. It’s created an audience that, even if they have no knowledge of the fashion industry, have gained knowledge of what Project Runway considers fashion. As such, rather than caring about what these young designers do in the context of the fashion industry, we care about how they situate themselves within the show’s cast of characters from seasons past. For a viewer like me, Bryant Park is the setting of the finale of Project Runway, not a global fashion event, which is why Lifetime language is demonstrative of the season’s failures: I don’t care if they’re a big name in fashion, I want them to be a big name for Project Runway.

And I can confirm that Irina, Althea and Carol Hannah will not be names to remember, a fact which has more to do with the way the show treated them than it does with their individual personalities and talent. And while we’ll never know if this season would have been more interesting if it were in New York, and if the production company hadn’t changed, what we do know is that Season Six failed to provide both the next big name in fashion and a single memorable name for this franchise.

[A few more thoughts on Project Runway, and then some thoughts on both Top Chef and Survivor, with spoilers after the jump…]

I won’t spend any more time identifying what went wrong this season, as Linda Holmes at NPR has pretty much done that for me, but I want to say that Irina is about the perfect winner for the season. She had the most sense of character and the most interesting point of view, but was still ultimately uninteresting and lacking in identity, fitting the season perfectly. I didn’t think her collection was actually that interesting, but compared to Carol Hannah’s (which lacked cohesion) and Althea’s (which lacked clarity – there’s a difference) it was about as close to a winning collection the season could get.

And while some eliminations this season have been impossible to predict thanks to the confusing mismatch of judges, this one was really easy to see coming based on the judges’ deliberation. You could sense the judges were struggling to come up with something to say about each designer: these final critiques are always more positive than negative, and yet you could sense that the positives were all more dull than you could imagine. You could sense the judges trying to pretend as if there was ever a sense of consistency in the design aesthetics: my favourite was Heidi describing Carol Hannah, which I’ll now quote for you.

“You do see Carol Hannah, you see her point of view, and she loves dresses, and she’s impeccable in her tailoring…I mean that’s…what has…made her get this far, because she’s always been very good at that.”

So her point of view is dresses and impeccable tailoring, and the reason she got this far is because she was very good at it. Right there, with all the stammering pauses intact, you have the problem: she had no point of view except making acceptable clothes decently. Michael Kors had a similarly laughable moment when he described Althea as “very plugged into the street,” which made me guffaw. None of these designers could possibly be street-smart, and it was as if they were so desperate to distinguish these designers from one another that they needed to pigeonhole them into one idea. It made for a really hilarious sequence as you could sense things unraveling, and yet they could do nothing but plug on through and pretend that this really was the most dramatic finale of all time.

What’s interesting about Survivor (yep, this is a segueway) this season is that, for a show that often creates drama where there is none in an effort to make the final tribal council interesting, the producers have been able to sit back and watch people self-destruct over the past three weeks. Never before has a merge created quite this much chaos, and I’m sure Mark Burnett is giddy about the whole thing: I’m not sure I can remember the last time I’ve sat through the last quarter of this many episodes in a row. I fell into a pattern a while ago that I would effectively stop watching the show in its entirety after the immunity challenge, knowing that (because of how common pecking orders are, and because of how rarely the immunity idol was in play) the result was inevitable, and there were only a few occasions where something surprising happened during my fastforwarding that would result in me going back to see how it went down.

But after the merge, the self-destruction within the Galu tribe (who were dominant early on) has been a joy to watch – as Erik, sitting on the jury after being the victim of the first set of bizarre circumstances, said last night, “Man, this is some good shit.” After last week saw the Galu tribe fail to listen to Monica and plan some sort of contingency in case Russell managed to find the hidden immunity idol (which he did), resulting in Kelly leaving the game, this week was all about the Galu tribe running around like chickens with their heads cut off. When things finally get to tribal council, the sides are tied at 5, and when John eventually switches sides in order to avoid the drawing of rocks (which could send himself or anyone else home) it’s yet another moment where Galu realizes that they are not, in fact, a tribe anymore. What’s interesting about John is that he is really part of the problem here: I think that Galu would have simply picked off a Foa Foa member in that first week if he hadn’t first suggested taking off Monica, which was the information Erik got burned on as a messenger, so he’s sort of the one who set this all in motion. As such, it’s fitting he puts the final nail in the coffin in what was a really engaging final tribal council. The first merge episode had the frantic switchover that got rid of Eric, last week had Russell’s cagey Idol play, and this week saw John kill Galu for good – a very eventful, and very strong, period for Survivor.

Top Chef, meanwhile, sort of had an off week. This isn’t to suggest that I didn’t like the end result, which has the always likely Final Four come together after Jennifer manages to throw off her demons to win the Quickfire and place respectably in the Elimination Challenge in earning a spot in the Napa Valley finale, which sees Eli sent home. The episode was about the camaraderie of the chefs, as they seemed to all get along and there was a whole lot of emotion to be found in the final sequence was Eli basically admits that he’s okay going home at this stage considering the people who are going on instead (which was especially sad after Eli had turned himself into an Inigo Montoya figure for his mentor Richard Blais earlier in the episode). I didn’t particularly like Eli, but the rest of the chefs did and as a result I found his departure interesting.

However, I think that (to bring this all full circle) the actual challenge suffered because I really had no idea what this supposed “Culinary Olympics” was really about, and more problematically the show couldn’t actually judge based on that sort of criteria considering the amount of time given to the chefs. I understand that they wanted to try to capture the spirit of the event, but while Project Runway has turned Bryant Park into a life long goal that everyone aspires to this competition came out of nowhere and had too little meaning for me to be all that excited about. It also created a strange scenario where the judging was supposed to be based on who best captured the spirit of the event, and yet because nobody really went wild with zucchini baskets or anything similar it ended up coming down to whose food tasted the best, which is why Kevin was ultimately named the winner even when many judges felt Bryan had the most potential within the context of this type of competition. I don’t doubt Kevin deserved to win based on some criteria, but considering the nature of this competition he himself admitted he didn’t show enough technique, so the judges seemed to ignore that aspect of the challenge in favour of simply feeling Kevin best-executed “food” and thus wins the $30,000.

It just goes to show you that there’s only so much you can do in an hour of reality television: sometimes you try to make an exciting season sound interesting, sometimes you have everything go perfectly and barely need to touch a thing, and in another instance you have a big idea that just never translates well into the competition (unless my lack of knowledge of Thomas Keller in some way destroyed my ability to see the challenge as a really big deal).

Cultural Observations

  • My favourite thing about the Runway finale was that we had the prior knowledge of the fact that, since this was taped during the period of legal limbo for the show, nobody knew who the designers were and thus they couldn’t actually be seen by the crowd and the media. What this means is that any time you saw any of the contestants watching the show, or saw the families, or saw the designers on the runway, that was all staged either before or after the fact (note how no one but the other designers comment on any contestant by name). What I loved is how, even if I hadn’t known that, the awkwardness of the introductions would have tipped me off: they were clearly uncomfortable with the charade.
  • Does anyone have any verdict on Models of the Runway? I stopped watching after about two weeks, and I found that the models were total non-entities for me as a result – I can’t imagine watching another 30-minutes of this terrible season every week, but I did miss not caring about Irina’s model in any capacity when she won.
  • My one complaint with Survivor is that they “gamed” the game too much in terms of trying to turn the “Immunity Idol” scavenger hunt that Russell invented into an actual part of the gameplay setup. It was way too easy to find when they were given a visual clue, and while it resulted in the “chase through the woods sequence” and got a good moment out of Dave being oh-so-close to finding it, I thought that it was a bit cheap and sort of took the spontaneity out of Russell’s genius.
  • I’ve had no issues with Kevin’s beard on Top Chef this season, as I believed it to be awesome, but then this week we saw what happens when he doesn’t spike his hair at all. It totally makes the beard look about 5x mangier, and the longish greasy hair he had in the preview for next week made it look even more ridiculous. The different hair at Napa (Padma had bangs, Jennifer’s was curly) totally took me out of the show, which really does say something about me, doesn’t it?


Filed under Project Runway, Survivor, Top Chef

3 responses to “Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya: A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

  1. Pingback: Thomas Keller Inigo Montoya « bobbyswhateversite

  2. Pingback: Thomas Keller « bobbyswhateversite

  3. Pingback: Inanity, Intrigue and Inigo Montoya: a Cultural Learnings Reality … « bobbyswhateversite

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