Tim Gunn graduates from mentor to judge
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Tim Gunn graduates from mentor to judge

Project Runway’s greatest contribution to American culture may well have been its elevation of Tim Gunn to his current position as the ideal cultured gentleman of our pop-culture era—a reality-TV Mr. French. It’s a measure of how gratefully people respond to Gunn that, last year, he and Heidi Klum shared an Emmy for Outstanding Host For A Reality Or Reality-Competition Program, even though Gunn technically isn’t the show’s host.

In that show, as the on-air mentor to a room full of dueling fashion designers, he’s the middleman between Klum and her fellow judges and the contestants—who, after all, might have a meltdown after being ejected from the show at the end of an especially scalding review of their latest creation, especially if there’s not a sensitive father figure on hand to soothe their ruffled feathers and tell them how badly they’ll be missed. Gunn has to walk a higher tightrope than the judges on Project Runway—they can be as catty and sarcastic as they like, without worrying about that elusive rare bird called “constructive criticism.” Gunn is perfect on the show, and remains a dependably enjoyable presence, because his sense of humor is campy without being cruel. (I can barely remember any of the outfits on the hundreds of episodes of Project Runway I’ve seen, but I may never forget Gunn gently telling a contestant that one of his designs put him in mind of “a pterodactyl from a gay Jurassic Park.”)

When Gunn got his first spin-off series, Tim Gunn’s Guide To Style, back in 2007, when Runway was still a Bravo property, the network just seemed to be spreading its riches around. But now that the mother ship has lost much of its cachet in the wake of a series of avoidable, audience-alienating blunders, the new Under The Gunn—a Project Runway imitation with Gunn in the head judge’s chair—merely has the feel of lifeboats being lowered.

Under The Gunn’s big twist in the standard Project Runway formula is that the series is a competition not just for the aspiring designers, but also for the three “mentors” who have signed on to guide them through the process. The mentors are all former Runway fan favorites. There’s Mondo Guerra, whose loss to the much-unloved Gretchen Jones in the show’s eighth season marked, for many fans, the beginning of the end. (Mondo has since triumphed on Project Runway All Stars and made several guest appearances on Project Runway vanilla; Gretchen will be invited back on that show when pigs fly.)

Then there’s ninth-season winner Anya Ayoung-Chee, who, during her time as a contestant, specialized in a) effortlessly blowing away her competition, and b) insisting that she didn’t know how to sew, making her something of a Project Runway savant. Last but not least, there’s the old-timer, Nick Verreos, who may be best remembered for his instant-replay commentary on all the other designers in season two. True to form, the introductions have barely been made among the mentors before there’s a cut to Nick: “Miss Anya, she hardly finished a garment her whole season!”

In the first episode, several designers are given a challenge to use random bits of material they’ve been given to produce an outfit that will be paraded down the runway for the mentors; then, as on The Voice, the mentors will make their best pitches to whichever designers they like, urging them to join their team. The workroom scenes are good for a few revealing pronouncements and frazzled wisecracks. One fellow, Blake, who has been given red flannel and “really nasty gold lamé,” says, “I don’t design for lumberjacks, so I can’t use this [bleep]!” A woman named Michelle stares happily into the nether distance while explaining that “My point of view is based on the future,” conceding in the next breath that this might be “too intense” for some earthbound souls. Meanwhile, the mentors sit in another room examining the contestants’ portfolios, so that when they see something on the runway that reminds them of someone’s past work, they can express concerns that the designer is “repetitive” and “one-note.”

Eventually, Gunn will be joined on the show by fellow judges Rachel Roy, Jen Rade, and Zanna Roberts Rassi. None of them so much as sticks a toe in the door during the premiere, because the first two episodes are devoted to introducing the contestants and selecting the teams, a job that’s only half done by the end of the first episode. (Fifteen people are vying for 12 spots.) Maybe, by the time Under The Gunn really gets down to business, it’ll start to cook. But it seems a bad sign that, fresh out of the gate, it’s embracing some of the problems that have dragged Project Runway down in recent seasons—in particular, the use of gimmicky challenges that seem less interested in giving the designers a chance to show what they can do and more interested in backing them into a corner to see who’ll have a fit. One thing that has kept Project Runway watchable is the charm and generosity of spirit that Gunn gets to demonstrate as mentor. So it may be the ultimate bad sign that this show takes the role of mentor itself and turns it into one more area of competition.

Produced by: Bunim/Murray Productions and The Weinstein Company
Debuts: Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime
Format: Reality competition series
One episode watched for review

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