Walking in Designers’ Shoes: A Shift in Perspective for Project Runway Season 8

Walking in Designers’ Shoes: Project Runway Season 8

July 31st, 2010

It’s fitting that Project Runway’s eighth season began with the contestants “auditioning” for a position on the series proper, as I considered this premiere to be the series’ audition for my time.

After an incredibly rough sixth season in L.A., and a completely unmemorable return to New York in its seventh year, Project Runway is on its way out of my television schedule, and this season was designed to test my attachment to the series: stretching each episode out to 90 minutes makes it an even larger commitment (at least for those of us who ignore Models of the Runway, as we all should), and the series’ fundamental lack of cultural cache – I hadn’t even realized it was premiering – means that giving up on it is unlikely to really impact me in the future.

However, since things are slower now than they will be in three weeks, I figured I would tune into the premiere to see how the show is using its 90 minutes, and to see how they’re trying to shake things up to engage new viewers. And while there’s not enough here to convince me that there aren’t better uses of my Thursday nights once fall programming and life kicks in, there is enough here worth discussing in terms of how the show is looking to shift their point of interest from the competition to the contestants – it may not be enough to keep me watching, but it’s enough to show that they’re starting to understand some of the series’ problems.

There’s this really weird opening to the show’s eighth season, where Heidi and Tim each share a brief statement about each of the designers. In most cases, they’re what I’d consider to be highly reductive: McKell, for example, was defined as “the one with the baby.” What’s interesting is that it seems like a redundant exercise considering that the series then spends more time on introducing each competitor, having them meet up with one another at various transportation hubs and start discussing their line. We see bits and pieces of the local auditions, we see some of their previous work, and we also get to see how they would interact with their peers. These scenes don’t tell us a great deal about each person, but we learn a heck of a lot more than Tim and Heidi’s awkward testimonials which serve to reduce each designed to a key buzzword to convince people that this season has the kind of characters that they want to see.

It’s an interesting switch, in that last season was promoted based on those parts of the series unrelated to the designers: it was about the return to New York, and the consistent premise of Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, and the idea that the “series” was getting back on track. This time around, the focus is on the contestants, which is likely why they positioned the episode as an “audition,” which seems like it focuses on the competition but in reality highlights the contestants quite successfully. It’s meaningful that Heidi is always in “Host” mode here: there’s no champagne on the roof of the Atlas apartments, little of the fawning over her looks which usually takes place – she gets down to business immediately, and it leads to a premiere that despite its 90-minute runtime feels extremely focused, focusing on showing the designers working, being critiqued, and then celebrating their victory.

I think the episode is well designed towards its conclusion: I think McKell deserved to stay over Casanova (who is being kept because he desires to be called Casanova), but that’s irrelevant compared to how she was eliminated. By getting rid of her first, the episode distinctly looks towards the future (Ivy and Casanova’s second chances) rather than dwelling on what was lot. We end with everyone moving into the apartments, and expressing their anxiety about the next challenge, which successfully pushes the viewer to consider what is happening the following week. The series even eschewed the “This Season on Project Runway” package – which may have been absent since the Lifetime years – in favour of just what’s coming up in next week’s episode, avoiding selling us on the whole show and instead selling us on the designers’ experience and placing us in their shoes. It really feels like the show is following the contestants more than the judges this time around, and that’s the sort of switch which will definitely work in the show’s favour as the season continues.

And yet, I don’t think it will be enough to keep me watching. It’s possible that, during downtime, I’ll revisit the season to see how these changes evolve in the months ahead, but the fact remains that the series feels dispensable to me. While the switch towards the contestants’ point of view is smart, it doesn’t create enough change to shake off the sense that we’ve seen this all before, and I think this will grow more clear when the series goes from a non-traditional episode like this one to the series’ normal structure. The one major change, the ability for the judges to eliminate more than one contestant each week, seems revolutionary until you realize that they can’t use it more than once or twice a season because they have a specific number of episodes to provide for the network and thus have to maintain a certain number of contestants.

There is no question that the show is focusing on some changes this year, and that they’re certainly more successful than the changes in previous years. The L.A season was unrecognizable, and the response was to return to the status quo rather than understanding that the status quo was feeling similarly burned out before the switch over to Lifetime. Now, the show seems like it’s taking some good steps in the right direction – and while I might not be continuing with the series beyond the first few episodes, I am pleased that those who keep watching might get a better show for their troubles.

Cultural Observations

  • When Tim’s confessionals returned late in the episode, it struck me as strange: Tim sits in the liminal position between the judges and the contestants, and so it’s a bit awkward for us to see his perspective beyond what the contestants see. However, I did like how he offered his opinion on how his earlier comments about loving McKell’s dress remains but that he understands her departure considering that it didn’t fit her model and was styled poorly.
  • Doing a five hour challenge with so much hanging in the balance seems harsh, but it shows how much people are willing to look outside the box: April’s idea, for example, was horribly executed but represented an idea, which may play to her advantage if she can improve the execution in the future.
  • I didn’t like Ivy’s design, and I certainly found Ivy’s early cockiness to be a bit nauseating, but I loved her self-aware “The Ivy Show is canceled” comment after landing in the Bottom Six. Sure, it’s still a form of posturing during her reconstruction of the narrative for the cameras, but it was a sharp one, and one which shows that her personality has more than one speed, so that’s a good sign.
  • Fun new camera angles for the runway show are fun, and all, but don’t really add much of substance.
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