The third team challenge in the last five weeks? Sounds like someone’s crystal goblet of designers’ tears has run dry, and that someone is Mortimer Bunim-Murray III, reclusive scion of the Bunim-Murray reality television empire. But heck, Mortimer, this is a little brazen, even for you.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the farcical drama as much as anyone. If the only thing I want is insane histrionics, though, I’ve got the complete series of Trading Spouses on DVD. (OK, I don’t, but I wish I did.) The emotions and silliness are only fun as long as Project Runway pays attention to its primary mission, which is to produce surprising creativity from a crucible of pressure and limitations. And as it turns out, that’s the nice thing about this episode. From its cynical premise, “Can’t We Just All Get Along?” seems to genuinely inspire many of the designers, or at least half of them. It serves as a reminder that yes, Project Runway remains a show about fashion. And insane histrionics.
Heidi’s “Hello!” to the designers is even more coquettish than usual tonight, because she’s carrying the button bag, which means this will be a team challenge. (The presence of the bag didn’t always mean that, but this season, pretty much anything out of the ordinary means it will be a team challenge.) Punishing her charges puts an extra spring in Frau Klum’s step. “You will be working in teams of five,” she says. Everyone sighs. Bert gazes at his tormentor with dead, unbelieving eyes, wondering how 57 years of life deposited him at this moment, where he will get picked last by a group of children in a TV game of Let’s Play Fashion Designer.
Heidi notes that there will be no team leaders, but as the winner of the previous challenge, Anthony Ryan gets to choose his first teammate. (He goes with Anya.) To determine the first-among-equals for the opposing team, Heidi draws Josh’s name from a bag presumably filled with nothing but Josh buttons. Josh asks, “Does that mean I get to be the leader, or do I have to work with… ?” Kimberly responds with such a fabulous eye roll that the rest of her features get pulled along by the undertow, and it turns into a full-fledged face roll.
“There are no leaders!” Heidi barks. Believing that no pure vision of Marx’s communist society has been attempted in all of human history—do not speak to her of the abortive half-revolution that was the Soviet Union—Heidi is determined to make Project Runway the first. However, the expurgation of class is not so complete that Bert can escape his social ghetto. As expected, he is indeed picked last and ends up on Josh’s team.
“That’s the bad news,” Bert grumbles as he hikes a quarter-mile to the senior citizens’ runway entrance. “Did you say ‘That sucks’?” Heidi asks. Bert replies that he didn’t say that, exactly. “Oh, I’m hearing things,” Heidi replies, and only a mom could say it with that gentle tone of “I may be wrong, but I also know I’m basically right” sarcasm.
In the workroom, Tim Gunn tells the designers that they each have a computer at their workspaces. “You have probably correctly deduced that this is the HP-Intel challenge,” he says. I presume that as these words are spoken, thousands of viewers turn to their couchmates at that moment and cry, “Yes! I TOLD you it was the HP-Intel challenge!” For my part, I had Week 10 (stupid!) in my office’s HP-Intel Challenge Pool, so I just lost $1,500. But congratulations to Sandy in Human Resources, I guess.
Designer Betsey Johnson arrives and everyone’s eyes fill with sparkles. Viktor likes her hair. That’s just swell. Tim asks Johnson about her design approach. “To me, it starts with the girl. Is she tough? Is she sexy?” Becky gets an idea: To create a garment for a woman who is neither of those things.
Each team must produce a runway show that incorporates a five-piece collection, at least three different prints that they design themselves, and a video that will be projected behind the models on the catwalk. “All of that in two days,” says Becky, “and it has to look like we got our shit together!” The fact that she considers getting shit together to be a separate, nigh-insurmountable task is probably an indication that it’s time for Becky to go home.
The teams develop their ideas. Anthony Ryan, Anya, Viktor, Olivier, and Bryce quickly latch on to Anthony Ryan’s uniting concept of a Rorschach inkblot test. They brand themselves Team Chaos, yet they work together in a harmony that borders on saccharine, like this is a Sesame Street skit about cooperation, making it happen, and so forth.
On the other team, just as Bert is suppressing his Oscar The Grouch tendencies, Josh is getting his Mr. Snuffleupagus on. (Mr. Snuffleupagus was an insufferable shrieking bitch, right? I think I remember that correctly.) Laura, Becky, and Kimberly round out the group. Josh pushes his vision of creating “five female versions of the Village People.” But nobody can remember which costumes the Village People wore. Laura really thinks there was a fireman. Josh cries, “Stop saying ‘fireman,’ or I’m going to keep thinking it, Laura!”
After further brainstorming, Becky runs down her team’s list of ideas. “We have ‘Village People,’ we have ‘sea amoeba,’ ‘high end,’ and we have ‘trains and clocks.’” According to theoretical physicists, there exist alternate universes where each of these different paths was chosen. Oh, how I wish I could travel to those alternate realities and watch this episode again. Each item on the list possesses its own glimmer of potential catastrophe; it’s a shame that they have to choose only one.
“Clocks? Really? What is that?” sneers Laura, the person who came up with “sea amoeba.” Yet clocks is what they settle on. They name themselves Team Nuts & Bolts, a moniker that suffuses their work with the style and excitement of the plumbing aisle at Lowe’s.
Everyone sets to work making clock- and time-themed prints. Bert creates a pattern of hand-drawn pocket watches. He can’t get it to print properly, though, and by the time it’s time for his fellow Nuts ’n’ Bolts to choose the prints they’re going to use, it’s too late for him to contribute. “So much for my friggin’ clocks,” Bert mumbles. “Fucking clocks, didn’t get printed.”
There’s a gray area here. It could be that Bert’s pissy because his team didn’t consider his designs. But he has plausible deniability, as he seems to be more frustrated with his computer (as much as anyone could be frustrated with those reliable, affordable HP computers) than he is angry with his teammates.
However, Josh is tired of waiting for the opportunity to throw a huge tantrum—the whole “fireman” thing didn’t really take—so he decides to nail Bert on a technicality. People who use profanity cannot be tolerated, says Josh, who opened the episode by telling roommates that his failure to win the previous challenge “is pissing the shit out of me.”
“Bert, is this the undertones that people are talking about on the runway?” Josh yells. “Because I WILL! I will not stand for it.” Bert attempts to explain himself, but that’s the last thing Josh wants. Josh knows that he’s overplayed his hand, and thus the only way to win is to goad Bert into acting like even more of a shitheel than himself.
Yet Bert remains admirably calm through all the fuming and interruptions, which only infuriates Josh further. It resembles a climactic scene from an old Batman comic book where the villain discovers, to his horror, that Batman has fortified himself with an antidote to the villain’s hypnosis ray. The veins swell in Josh’s head as his internal monologue cries, “Why… isn’t… it… WORKING?” He bombards Bert with wave after wave of high-decibel bluster. “I WILL not have it, Bert!” “I’m about to forfeit this whole thing!”
Bert remains unfazed, the assaults ricocheting off him as he regards his adversary with quiet pity. He reaches out to pat Josh’s arm, and Josh recoils in terror. He does not recognize the patient, easygoing man before him. Earlier in the season, Bert would have been drawn out by these hysterics. At some point, though, he remembered that he’s dealt with a lot worse than some overgrown greaser infant with a bad case of redass. “All this drama,” Bert sighs, “over very little, that I find sort of amateurish and totally beneath me.” The arrogance is familiar, but the awesomeness of it feels fresh. Perhaps it was there all along.
Kim, Becky, and Bert are sent to Mood to get fabric while Josh and Laura grab a bunch of pumps from the Piperlime wall and shoot a foot-fetish video on the streets of New York. Near the end of their taping, it occurs to them that their theme is “clocks,” not “those sensuous, beguiling feet,” so they photograph a bunch of wall clocks in an antique store. Art: accomplished!
As the day ends, Josh calls for his fellow designers’ attention. “I’d like to make a public service announcement to everyone in the room, especially Bert,” he says. The show cuts to commercial here, a sure sign that the next sentence is not going to be as salacious as the editors would like you to think. Josh continues, after the break: “I would like to apologize for my insanity this morning. There’s no excuses, and it was not the way to start off a team challenge.”
A sudden outbreak of maturity is the craziest twist of all. Bert suspects a ploy: “Josh could have come to me personally to apologize,” he muses. But “regardless of how he did it, he did it, and that’s the important thing.” A fragile peace is forged, with a hug.
With Bert having willed his foe into surrender, Team Nuts & Bolts needs someone new to ostracize, and Becky is the lucky winner. Snacking with Anya in the lounge, Laura talks trash about Becky until the woman herself walks in. “So, Becky!” chirps Laura. “Here’s what I’m just thinking about the skirt with the numbers. Such a plain skirt with that fabric might read ‘math teacher.’” Because, as we all know, math teachers tend to favor numeral-based apparel.
A few episodes ago, Becky had to endure Josh telling her not only that her style was “dowdy” but also that he meant this as a good thing. Now, confronted with this latest ham-handed slight, Becky just stares at Laura. You get the sense that Becky almost wouldn’t mind her teammates’ constant criticism if they’d at least attempt to disparage her with tact.
Tim visits. He starts with Team Chaos. “There’s a huge amount of cohesion,” Tim says, employing the word of the day. In this episode, everyone pays lip service to cohesion, but these five actually achieve it. The only advice Tim can offer is a reminder that their beautiful clothes will have to fit their models. He wishes he could spend all day basking in Team Chaos’ Up With People energy. Everything seems to make sense when he’s in their presence, for these calm, smiling beings operate in perfect coordination. They are geese in formation, dancers in a ballet, fingers on a pianist’s hand.
Then come the members of Team Nuts & Bolts, who are five clattering tin cans tied to the bumper of an ’87 Volvo. On this side of the workroom, Tim is “troubled”—by Laura’s jumpsuit, the cut of Bert’s dress, and the print on Becky’s skirt. Becky shows Tim what the skirt would look like with the other print choices. After she’s tried everything, he grunts, “Mmm. I don’t know.” Certain of nothing except his desire to stop looking at this lifeless skirt, he finally says, “What’s going on elsewhere?”
Tim’s restless gaze finds no comfort in the rest of Nuts & Bolts’ collection, however. After seeing Josh’s concept for the top of his outfit, Tim remarks that it “gives me the hives.” That’s how bad Nuts & Bolts’ designs are: They necessitate ointment.
Their problem is obvious. Lack of cohesion! “The reason there isn’t more of a sense of cohesion in the collection is that there isn’t more cohesion among the five of you,” Tim explains. Getting a little misty, he’s struck with a bold idea. “Can you all join hands for me?” he says. After establishing that Tim is indeed serious, the five designers form a circle. Then Tim very sweetly makes every Nut and every Bolt vow to communicate and to be honest with each other. They do, and Tim approves. Maybe next week they’ll move on to trust falls.
Josh mopes over Tim’s critique and free-associates into sadness over his mother, who died two years ago. He even phones his father—on a regular, non-video phone, which give you some idea of his despair. “You can’t get all emotional here,” says Josh’s dad, clearly not the first time he’s spoken those words.
Runway show. The guest judges are designer Rachel Roy and Rose Byrne. So, what, that Betsey Johnson cameo was just a tease?
Team Nuts & Bolts goes first. Against a backdrop of huge video feet, their parade of boredom slumps down the runway. Some pieces are merely flawed, like Bert’s gown, which is elegant and has an intelligent industrial touch with the chest zipper but, on account of the fabric used the make the print, hangs like a toga that shrunk in the wash.
Other outfits are entirely misconceived. Kimberly’s skirt uses a thick, clotted silver fabric, which Tim referred to as “faux poodle,” and casts it in the shape of a muffin that somebody sat on. Becky remarks that she’s especially proud of her jacket, but it’s hard to imagine why. The jacket’s limp lapels flop around in the saddest way, and the “articulated” elbows leave no impression. As Nina puts it, there is “no design whatsoever in Becky’s outfit.”
On Josh’s design, the eyes are drawn to the dumpy crotch of his pants, which are festooned with the phrases “ON TIME,” “CANCELED,” and “DELAYED” to evoke that pulsating Amtrak sexuality.
Team Chaos is almost entirely great. Anthony Ryan’s dress is adorable, with a sweet little puff shape to the skirt and a smart silver belt that perfectly sets apart the black-and-white print of the top. The inkblot concept is invoked with the most clarity and success in Viktor’s gown, which flows nicely and places a faux-Rorschach across his model’s chest. Somehow, this is not disturbing.
I question the printed pants with Olivier’s well-tailored jacket—from certain angles, they look like pajama pants—but the only clear misstep of the collection is the bright-red top of Bryce’s design. The exaggerated, low-slung back on this piece can’t distract from the front, which looks like a cheap T-shirt that you’d wear to the beach.
Team Chaos wins. Team Nuts & Bolts goes backstage to sulk. Kim wonders why Josh is “mute” all of a sudden. Becky offers, “I think he wants Bert and I to go home, so he can have his fun with the rest of you.” She’s poking Josh with a stick. Maybe if she can get him wound up, he’ll be a basket case out on the runway, and nobody will notice that she designed a skirt three times and still came out with a tube of fabric.
It’s not a bad strategy, but she’s not the one who can pull it off. Josh isn’t rattled by her nattering. He says, “Becky, this is not about having fun. This is about creating a product that people are going to want. I know what I want to deliver to someone, and I think that you don’t. So that is why I feel I should be here, and you should not be here.” Josh delivers this monologue in his usual preening, whiny tone, but it’s hard to escape the rationality of this extremely effective smackdown. Becky sits in silence, as there’s not much to say when you have just been dismantled before your own eyes.
The judges gush over Team Chaos. “Everyone did an impeccable look,” Heidi says. “It’s kind of hard to pick the best one.” Rose Byrne is “scared of prints,” yet she manages to pull through. And anyway, be quiet, Rose Byrne. Nobody wants to hear your non-Betsey Johnson observations, what with their relative lack of spunk and moxie.
When Team Nuts & Bolts emerges for their drubbing from the judges, Kors cuts to the quick: “The theme that you guys picked is so literal. It’s like, ‘Clocks! So she’ll wear a clock!’” They even make fun of Josh and Laura’s high-heel video montage. Kors says, “It was like a hooker convention coming home after a late night!” Nina responds that “No, it was like an advertisement for shoes or New York City taxicabs.” Fair enough, Nina, your simile actually makes sense. But Kors’ image had hookers. He wins.
The judges clear the runway and argue over who should go home. Of Josh, Kors says, “He is like a little dictator here”—maybe lingering on the first syllable of “dictator” for a split-second. Bert gets knocked for not being a team player, which is irritating, because it appears he genuinely tried in this challenge to be Mr. Kumbaya (or as close to Kumbaya as a grizzled, alcoholic fashion designer can come).
Anya wins. Becky is out. Not many tears are shed in the designers’ lounge afterward. Becky makes some awkward small talk, and Tim talks about what an emotional goodbye this is. It’s his polite way of obscuring the fact that it isn’t emotional at all.
- “I don’t really like this idea of things have to be going somewhere. It could be going anywhere. It’s a jacket!”
- The “prayer circle” did seem to refocus Team Nuts & Bolts, at least in terms of the way they treated each other in the workroom after that. I can’t remember a Tim Gunn intervention having such a vivid effect on an entire team’s attitude.
- It’s pretty cruel of Heidi and Kors to deride the members of Team Chaos for their lack of ego at the end of a challenge in which they were ordered to put ego aside.
- In fact, that whole “Who should win?” sequence was uncomfortable. I think if, like Bryce, you’re the last person in a line of people who voted for themselves, you go ahead and vote for yourself, too. It’s just too sad otherwise. (I wonder if Bryce really did go first, and it was just editing that made him last. Because c’mon, have some pride, man.)
- “Time’s a-tickin’ when you’re wearing that dress!”
- “Someone on your team is going home today. Who is the weakest link?” Wrong show, Heidi.
- “I think she can sew, but it’s not Project Seamstress.”