Fashion Star 

Fashion Star debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Jessica Simpson’s business manager described the original idea for her fashion brand to New York Magazine last year as, “A girl could go to the shopping mall with her mother, and she’d have a great new outfit and still have some money left for lunch at McDonald’s.”

That could almost double as the mission of Fashion Star, NBC’s affably bizarre reality show premiering tonight.

A loud, mutant hybrid of Project RunwayThe Voice, and, er, The Price Is RightFashion Star has an intriguing gimmick: Buyers from three major commercial retailers (Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and H&M) bid on the clothes as seen on the show, during the show, to appear in stores the day after each episode airs. If a designer receives a bid, he is protected from elimination that week. That concept alone would strip out a lot of the Art of Our Craft sometimes found in creative competitive realty television—phrases like “limited customer scope” get tossed around often—but outside of the models, Fashion Star’s ethos leans commercial and attainable in almost every way.

It’s all probably born of NBC’s poor production values here, but it is kind of different when the hair and makeup are done by Maybelline and Suave, and the designers include more recognizable people than not (a mother of two from Marietta, Ga., a middle-aged cancer survivor, a twenty-something bartender whose entire pitch is clothes that you can finagle a few different looks out of). And, of course, there’s the somewhat dubious slate of mentors: designer John Varvatos, Nicole Richie, and America’s real-life Mildred Pierce, Jessica Simpson.

Parts of this seem appealingly, intentionally normal, but some of it, like Elle MacPherson’s lingerie line randomly being modeled at the show’s opening (like the viewer is trapped at a really dull burlesque club with Simpson), the just-enough-outdated-so-as-to-be-grating soundtrack, or the continued presence of two almost cartoonish designers, feels low-rent.

Considering the show was sold last summer before America sat, weeping, in the corner of a Target awaiting Missoni and Jason Wu, the show’s Glee-singles approach to selling what Fashion Star reaps could enliven the competitive fashion genre. Or it could be a wreck. Unlike Runway’s aspirations to high fashion, often unfulfilled like dreams in deceptively cheerful Mellencamp or Springsteen songs, selling dresses at H&M is in and of itself the goal. Really, this show’s basically built for those designers on Project Runway who fall in somewhere around fourth to sixth place, but hear the word “wearable” a lot. But are any of the designers on Fashion Star that good?

We don’t really get to find out in tonight's first episode.

Instead, the hour’s crowded with some very straight-forward execution: March some models down a runway set in Zordon’s Power Rangers base, hear from the mentors, and let the bidding commence—or in the case of more than half of the designers, let the bidding not commence. It’s kind of like a performance show, in that way.

And it’s a big flaw, or suggestive of one at least. For all I know, the mice from Cinderella designed the clothes and host Elle MacPherson labored over their designs the entire night before, spinning a haystack into golden thread and, then, ta da, blazers and pantaloons and shift dresses. Presumably, the show will open up that beginning-to-end design process a little more after the first episode, but good reality television depends on good, disciplined editing and an ability to situate the audience so they know what the hell is going on.

That may be a personal tic—I just love watchin’ people makin’ stuff—but without a little insight into the creative process to ground the show, The Price Is Right bidding gimmick could become very hollow very quickly. To remain entertaining (because it is entertaining), the bidding gimmick depends on a few things: that buyers keep saying no (eight of 15 designers don’t get any bids in the first episode), that the clothes sell, and therefore, that the clothes are either well-made enough or on trend enough to sell. The episode is filled with the kinds of mostly forgettable pieces you side-eye and consider fleetingly on a Saturday at H&M before meeting a friend at the movies. On the other hand, very few of the outfits that received bids could heave themselves over the very low bar of “cute.”

The other glaring issue is Nicole Richie’s presence as a mentor. This has its moments—at one point, a small man in an orange velour top hat hides peek-a-boo-style behind a mannequin from Richie, who responds, “Oh, there you are,” with indifference so palpable it’s in 3-D—but she’s out of depth here. Varvatos dispenses practical, sound advice to the designers, and while I find Simpson kind of charming in these settings, even if I didn’t, the monster success of her brand in this market would be justification enough for her to cheerlead here. (The buyers are the actual judges on Fashion Star—even if they’re not really all buyers.) But Richie is neither knowledgeable enough to give good advice, nor sharp enough to be the audience stand-in for a bitchy friend, even if she at least is willing to go negative.

And this raises the question: Could you, being of sound mind and able body, nod as Richie told you things like, “One of the dresses was a little '50s and the other two are a little '80s,” or “I would have loved for a woman to look like a sexy version of you”? Well, one designer cannot. MacPherson terms him an “Aussie chauvinist,” when he tells Simpson and Richie they don’t understand what’s going on in American men’s wear. The designer also ignores practical advice and the same opinion from Varvatos but, how about it America? Do Jessica Simpson and Nicole Richie and women as a whole know what’s going on in men’s wear? A 10-point debate follows about just who knows the leather jacket market best, an Australian model or a Macy’s vice president. This show knew a war on women would be afoot, and it was ready with its own bizarre, sort of low-rent version.

The bizarreness of Fashion Star, really, is what makes it watchable. Watching representatives from H&M, Macy’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue play Showcase Showdown is strangely entertaining, and if any of the designers turns out to be worth anything, it could really be fun. Or it could just be a mess where Simpson and Richie weigh in with asides you never really wanted to hear, about clothes you don't want to wear.