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.
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…]
Curse or Blessing? Predictability in Reality TV
November 6th, 2009
It’s been a while since I’ve stopped in with a Reality Roundup, which is symptomatic of the fact that my opinions about these three shows haven’t really changed. Survivor has been dominated by a single team to the point of proving downright uninteresting, Top Chef is still being dominated by the same four chefs, and Project Runway is something I didn’t even bother watching for a few weeks, choosing to read recaps instead. This hasn’t been a great season for any of the three shows on the level of really surprising me: in fact, they’ve all to different degrees become predictable (whether in which team will win, which chefs will dominate, and whether the show will be boring, respectively).
All three shows, however, feel ready to confront that sense of predictability in this week’s episodes, as Survivor rushes into a merge and Top Chef present a “volatile” Reunion special in an effort to shake things up a bit. And while Top Chef’s reunion show is predictably dramatic, Survivor’s merge episode is perhaps one of its best ever, unpredictable to the point of having no idea who is going home in the end.
And yet this leaves Project Runway, which has been predictably boring but almost entirely unpredictable in terms of the lack of consistent judging. As such, while the uncertainty of Survivor’s finale is downright exciting, the uncertainty surrounding who will be going to Bryant Park is actually problematic, and the end result dissatisfying if not necessarily wrong.
The Game vs. The Players
A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup
In our weekly glimpse into the world of Survivor: Samoa, Top Chef, and Project Runway, it’s important to distinguish between the game and the players of that game. Every episode of all three shows is essentially about the way the producers construct the game (the challenges, the conditions, the time limits, even the casting itself), and the players are forced to interpret and operate within that game as they see fit. So when you find yourself frustrated with a fairly boring season of Project Runway, or impatient with a season of Top Chef, or find Survivor’s villains too much to handle, you need to ask yourself if this it the result of the game or the people who are playing it.
In all three episodes of these three shows this week, we saw situations where the game took control of the players, and where their sewing, their cooking and their scheming felt so clearly defined by the game that I was simultaneously interested and bored. It’s the ultimate test of any group of reality contestants, though, to be forced into a situation the producers have designed: do they strike out on a unique course, indicating that they’re a real rebel, or whether they fall right in with the expectations put in front of them.
It’s a process which makes me doubt Runway, trust Top Chef, and change my mind about a few Survivor players.
Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word?
A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup
[Since I find blogging about shows like Top Chef, Project Runway and Survivor: Samoa individually somewhat inconvenient, but often nonetheless have things to say about them, I figure we’d lump the three mid-week reality shows together in what we shall now refer to as Cultural Learnings’ Reality Roundup. Enjoy!]
Trust is perhaps the central tenet of reality television.
I don’t mean so much within the game itself, although clearly in a game like Survivor (whose 19th season, Survivor: Samoa, started this week) there is an element of trust between individual players. Rather, I speak of the trust relationship between the show and the viewer. Viewers hope that they can trust the judges on Top Chef and Project Runway to make the right decisions, and they hope they can trust the losing Survivor tribe to vote out the person who is making the new season nigh on unwatchable.
It is a highly tenuous sense of trust, of course: half of the dramatic value of reality television is having that trust violated, and the growing frustration as villains or talentless individuals remain while others go home instead. And, of course, that trust is forever complicated by the existence of editors, learning that the trust you want to experience is being manipulated at every turn.
So, what I find fascinating about this week’s trio of reality shows is that in each instance we are reminded of this trust relationship, and that the “worst Survivor villain of all time” is in fact perhaps the most trustworthy reality character (from a viewer/series perspective) the show has ever seen.
“What a Woman Wants”
September 10th, 2009
Just as I checked in on Top Chef yesterday, I figured it’s about time to revisit the sixth season of Project Runway currently airing on Lifetime. After much hullaballoo about the move to a new network, this season has been the precise opposite of noteworthy: there’s no real standout personalities, and to be honest no one is really setting the fashion world on fire either. There just hasn’t been a real sense of innovation at play, and the design aesthetics in that work room are not standing out as they’re supposed to in a competition like this.
There’s a few reasons the show has been lacklustre this season, and in some ways I thought “What a Woman Wants” helped things at least to some degree. We got to see contestants handle a challenge that combines the client-designer relationship (always good for bringing out the best/worst in designers) and a chance for them to test their own aesthetic in terms of presenting something the judges are going to enjoy and also please their clients.
At the same time, it also highlighted why I think the season is ultimately struggling. While I think there were some issues with casting, I think the real problem is that the show seems to be finding more personality in its models than it does in its designers, and even in their guest judges more than their normal ones. I actually like what these changes have done to the show in some ways, but it seems as if they’ve diverted our (and the producers’ attention) away from the designers themselves and onto elements of the game. They came into this season with the challenge of distracting us from the lawsuits and production changes, and yet the problem is that they’re ignoring the designers themselves.
Which, you know, is deserved in some cases, but needs to be handled a bit more carefully.
“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.
“Claim to Fame”
February 3rd, 2009
Early in the season’s second episode, Jessica observes that something is beginning to change around these parts: after the first week where everyone was concerned about staying, they enter into one of two modes. They either, like Jessica and a few others, switch from survival mode to awesome mode, or they switch into a mode where all they have is personality-driven drivel. It’s a sad existence for those few, and it is not very surprising that they are amongst those who are almost out the door by episode’s end.
They might be designing a dress for Elisha Cuthbert, but considering that her requests are for a dress for a “night on the town” it’s not like this makes her very special. Instead, it’s a test of the designers’ ability to design a simple dress in a way that isn’t too ugly, and that isn’t too much for them to handle. It isn’t surprising, really, that it is the people who spend more time feuding and ranting during the conception phase are those who can’t put together a dress to save their lives in the end.
But in the end Jessica is right: we don’t get much of a sense of any major design emergences here, instead focusing more on personalities. And considering that they’re dressing a celebrity, I guess it makes sense to focus on some of the people only concerned about trying to become one through the world of reality television.
“Welcome to the Real World”
September 17th, 2008
There’s something very scary about the transition between university and the real world – and while I am perhaps not convinced that a total fashion makeover will really alter this difficult period, it’s a start for these young, independent women. Although, considering that their mothers are still dictating what they should look like, I’ll perhaps challenge the “independent” element of that classification.
What we end up with is designers who need to learn some serious lessons about a lot of things, primarily dealing with the question of where to take this challenge: are you making them over for their career? Giving them a high fashion version of their existing style? Or trying to convince them that they REALLY want what you are looking for?
The end result is the usual things which happen when parents and clients who have opinions get involved: some people please their clients and the judges, but most please the clients and leave the judges questioning what, precisely, they were thinking. Of course, the one person who manages to do neither is the one who finds themselves heading home.
“Life’s a Drag”
August 20th, 2008
You know, I’m starting to wonder if there’s some sort of psychological condition which takes the most obvious pieces of logic and totally twists them the second you enter the Parsons work room. I’m not saying that the intensive Project Runway schedule (where they’re constantly working, constantly not getting enough sleep, etc.) is not in some way going to be detrimental to their state of mind, but when they’re ignoring even the most obvious ways to succeed in the contest I do have to wonder what exactly is in the water.
When Project Runway gives you a drag competition, you do one of two things: you either go full-out into that fantasy drag outfit you’ve secretly always wanted to make or you adapt parts of your own aesthetic into a drag concept in order to show the best of both worlds. The former gets you into the Top 3, a fact shown as Korto, Terri and Joe all just throw caution to the wind in creating “fabulous” garments that their models seem to adore. And the middle of the pack all create dresses that seem like they are that mediation, of their own ideas with the ideas of drag, in a way that deems them inoffensive while competent enough to understand how this show works.
But the Bottom Three perplex me, and they’ve done it a lot this season: two of them, in particular, just don’t seem to understand that this isn’t just an opportunity to prove you have taste, or to prove you know how to cut out pieces of fabric and attach them to other pieces of fabric in a seemingly random pattern. Instead, this is an opportunity to prove that you’re capable of listening to a single word of the challenge put before you.
And when they can’t do that, why are they even still there?