Project Runway: “Finale, Part 1”
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Project Runway: “Finale, Part 1”

There might be a way to make the pre-finale episode interesting. (And yes, this was the pre-finale episode—the show’s official “Finale, Part 1” title is a bit of wishful doublespeak, much like the season premiere’s “You’re not really on Project Runway yet!” horsecrap.) Bunim-Murray could send a field production team out to each designer’s home and follow them during the weeks leading up to Fashion Week, documenting their real-life travails: Gretchen’s break-up, Michael’s parental tension, etc.

Of course, I recognize that this would be a very expensive undertaking for limited return. But that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied, year after year, with the half-assed solution that we get instead: Tim visits the designers and the show bangs through a checklist of obligatory life touchstones. Where do the designers live? What’s wrong with their collections in their current state? Did their families support them growing up? Once those answers are in the can, boom, they are out and back to the airport, because Tim’s Cadillac is being rented by the hour.

We started with Andy.

Where does he live? In Waianae, Hawaii, where the chief exports are vowels, sugar cane, and Chinese catfish. Andy netted out a few of those catfish from a tank. “GRBLUH!” Tim said, doing his best impression of the grape-stomp lady from YouTube. He added, “I’ve never seen a Chinese person who was that ugly!” which seemed like it should have been vaguely insulting to someone, but it’s hard to say who.

What was wrong with his collection? It didn’t exist yet, as he’d ordered all of his textiles from the other side of the world. Tim was forced to look at drawings. They made him “swoon” with delight but he said they could also be a “hot mess.” The old dog certainly knows how to hedge his bets.

Did his family support him growing up? Yes, quite genuinely and boringly.

Michael C.

Where does he live? Palm Springs, in an apartment furnished with a tasteful selection of contemporary American men. Tim found the house by typing “Palm Springs” into his GPS and letting magical technology carry him from there. It was like Knight Rider starring Tim Gunn, and you would get a DVR “season pass” to that show, don’t even pretend.

What was wrong with his collection? Tim remarked that it was “like design diarrhea.” This should have been alarming to Michael, but he just couldn’t get over the fact that Tim Gunn had said “diarrhea”! On TV and everything! The outtakes reel on mylifetime.com will include another 10 minutes of Michael giggling at this.

Did his family support him growing up? No. He was outed two years ago by his boyfriend in a painful ordeal, and his parents have been encouraging him to quit fashion and marry a nice girl. They wouldn’t even be coming to see his line be shown during Fashion Week. Harsh. Luckily, Michael could turn to his in-house network of hundreds of beefy gay men (which, in fairness, included the aforementioned boyfriend) for support.

Mondo

Where does he live? An especially Mexican part of Denver, according to Mondo.

What was wrong with his collection? Its inspiration was a combination of clowns and Day of the Dead, the two worst possible sources of Fashion Week inspiration in the history of the world. Ninjas and Yom Kippur would have been an improvement. Still, it’s Mondo, so whatever. Knowing that Mondo can get away with anything, Tim just offered that one hideous piece was “jejune.” Normally, I would appreciate that Tim Gunn always chooses precisely the right word for the situation. But I knew that as soon as this clip landed in the edit bay, it was earmarked for the painfully lowbrow “Gawrsh golly by cracky that Tim Gunn shore does use some kee-razy multi-syllable learnin’-type words!” montage on the reunion show.

Did his family support him growing up? Hell no, and they made no effort to hide it during dinner with Tim. Mondo’s mother complained that she tried her damnedest to raise him as a “macho guy,” yet alas, it didn't take. His father grumbled that the kid was never a good ball-player because Mondo always wanted to play the piano. That previous sentence does not make sense to me, but that’s the truth. For the love of God, they made him play a sport he hated in exchange for the privilege of enriching himself with music. Because they were afraid he’d end up like that loco Liberace, I guess. If I were at this terrible dinner, I would have been upending tables and throwing punches, but Tim was the epitome of grace. That’s why he has published a book about how to live your life with class, and I have not.

Gretchen

Where does she live? In Portland, Oregon, but she was moving out of her place after coming home to “a relationship that failed.”

What was wrong with her collection? It was designed a little too specifically for the  Lion King On Broadway gift-shop market. Also, she knitted a diaper, presumably in tribute to her fallen comrade April.

Did her family support her growing up? Terrifyingly so. Each day, “If her tights weren’t perfect, we did not go to preschool,” said her mother, cleverly phrasing the sentence to make it seem as if Gretchen were the one insisting that her little girl lead a regimented, mistake-free life.

Everyone came back to New York, and the show wallowed in how tedious this episode was. They practically rubbed it in our faces. Mondo jumped out from behind a bed to startle Michael and… it didn’t work. Tim reached into the dreaded velvet bag-o’-twists and… pulled out a list of glamorous places where Hilton has hotels. It was a televisual game of three-card monte, with Project Runway asking us to guess which card contained excitement, but the fix was in; every card was the boring of spades.

At long last came the challenge. The contestants had to show three looks to the judges—two from their existing designs and one new piece—to decide who would make it into the final, final, for serious this time final group of three for Fashion Week. To their credit, the producers did not try to pass the “eleventh look” off as a curveball, as everyone in the workroom saw it coming.

Accordingly, the workroom session was tame. Mondo hated the homely jersey dress that he made at first, so at the end of the first workday, he decided to scrap it. This has happened to him a few times, which he seemed to believe was a failing. In fact, his willingness to throw away a piece that isn’t working and learn from the mistake has always served him well. The dress he threw away this week did look awfully Filene’s Basement 1989, after all.

Michael’s last-minute look seemed to be pretty well finished during Tim’s critique, yet he was agonizing over which pieces to send down the runway with it. He fished for specific recommendations. Tim’s reaction was, in essence, “C’mon, man, this is not that hard.”

As he left the workroom, Tim called the names of Mondo, Gretchen, and Andy, telling them to “carry on!” Then he singled out Michael and said, “Don’t. Choke.” Tim meant well, but jeez, that was pretty brutal. It might have been the first Tim Gunn Jinx in Project Runway history. “It stresses me out a bit that Tim told me not to choke,” Michael said in a testimonial. Yeah, that tends to happen when you tell an emotionally fragile person, “Don’t choke.”

Runway show. Awful, underwhelming runway show. Michael’s last-minute look was the champagne version of his Statue of Liberty dress with the slit on the other side. Model No. 2 wore a giant, fuzzy version of those fur hats that Russian folk dancers wear. The third design featured a nice stringy top that was elaborate but not overdone. Everything was the same copper-y color, which was a rookie mistake. Michael Kors said later, “I think he thought, ‘Well, if they’re all the same color, that makes it a collection.’” Sounds about right.

Gretchen started off with a natural-textile dress whose hem came up in the back and up over the model’s shoulders. It created a huge pouch that bounced around as the model walked, as if it ought to be filled with a selection of organic wines and cheeses being carried home from Whole Foods. Then came a 1990s safari look done up with those pedal pushers that Gretchen loves so, followed by a sideboob jacket.

Andy’s only memorable look was an intricately pleated green dress. When I saw a medium shot of this dress in the workroom, with only the torso visible, I thought it looked fantastic. But on the runway, with a too-short miniskirt and that ridiculous “tears flying away from her face” headdress, yikes. She resembled an original-series Star Trek space alien, one from the third season, when the budget had been cut and they were making up stuff like, “This person is an alien because she has a weird contorted whisk on her forehead! A whisk of death!” Still, if you shaded your eyes the right way with a stack of index cards, Nina Garcia-style, there was some beauty to be had here.

Mondo mixed monochromatic prints ambitiously again this week. One dress seemed like a better version of the dress he made in the previous challenge. The polka-dot evening gown was too long and claustrophobic in the sleeves and hemline, but he earned points for the bold use of a wacky pattern. And his last-minute look had a great skirt, with a perfect yellow belt, even if the top was a charmless mass of turquoise.

Let’s not kid around, though. Mondo could have trotted out three burlap sacks and he would have been fine. After the judging session, he and Gretchen both got a quick “in.” It came down to Michael and Andy, and at the eleventh hour, the judges decided they were tired of the savant. Andy was safe; Michael was out. I’m not sure if people watching live were able to catch this—I use my DVR to rewind and double-check stuff—but Michael appeared to be a little distraught by this turn of events.

About half of tonight’s 90-minute running time was given over to shots of Michael standing on the runway in defeat, wearing an expression that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on television before. His baby face fell into such rock-bottom, I-am-a-worthless-shit despair. It was like seeing a manatee get laid off from his Wal-Mart greeter job for poor performance. He did not acknowledge a long hug from Andy or an unusually gentle “Auf wiedersehen” from Heidi; he just descended further into the darkness.

When Michael arrived in the backstage lounge, the tears started to pour, and the three designers started to come toward him for the standard consolation routine. But the camera movement was really shaky and fast, and when they don’t edit out those quick pans, you know something is about to go down—something where the producers decided that absolutely no footage could be left on the cutting-room floor.

Indeed, in short order, the top three designers realized that this wasn’t the usual post-elimination weeping jag Michael was exhibiting. This was a wall-punching, air-gulping delirium of BAWLING, the kind people experience only a few times in their lives, such as when they’re six years old and they see their dog get hit by a car. It had blown past the limits of socially acceptable crying into the realm of raw emotion, and the other designers were at a complete loss. Hell, I was sitting on my couch, watching it on TV, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. (Well, for one, I tried not to tear up; I’m not made of stone, people.)

The source of Michael’s agony was the fact that he would have to tell his parents—who sound like they’re close runner-ups to Mondo’s crew in terms of being homophobic, joy-killing assholes—that he did not make it to Fashion Week after all. He had not prepared for this outcome at all, and it became clear that his whole Project Runway experience had been like a strange magic-carpet ride to him.

It was nothing an extended Tim Gunn pep talk couldn’t fix. Eventually, Michael melted into the nervous giggles that result when your body decides, OK, that’s enough convulsive crying for right now. The designers shared goodbye hugs. “I’m really, really happy to have had this opportunity to share with you,” Gretchen said, finding a way to make the moment about herself, just in the nick of time.

Amid the exhausted valedictories, though, there hung the reality that Michael C., the battered yet triumphant whipping boy of Season 8, is not going to have an easy go of it outside the bubble of Project Runway. “This isn’t the end for Michael Costello; it’s only the beginning,” Mondo said, but that well-worn platitude felt even emptier than usual.

Stray Observations:

— Tim Gunn in the Hilton hotel room: “I’m going to move in here!” “It’s a trip for two, so you can take me!” Starting to sound a little clingy there, Tim.

— “I kind of feel like I’m falling apart. How long have we been here? Is it fall-apart hour yet?”

— “If you choose to use the piperlime.com accessory wall, you certainly may.” A pretty faint recommendation. Piperlime.com may ask for a refund on this episode.

— Heidi usually says that the designers are fighting to see who will be allowed to “compete” at Fashion Week. It’s an open secret that, to prevent spoilers, pretty much everyone except the hat-wearing guy got to show a line at Fashion Week. But when Heidi says that only the final three contestants are “competing,” that preserves the drama and is also technically true. Tonight, though, Heidi said more than once that “only three of you will be showing at New York Fashion Week.” And it sounds stupid when they straight-up lie like that.

— Edit of the night: Heidi said to Michael C. (he of the monochromatic collection), “It looks like they’re going to party where there’s not a dress code, there’s a color code.” Then there was a shot of Kors where you could tell he was thinking, “I had a zinger that was ten times better than that.”

— Runner-up edit of the night, also at Heidi’s expense: Andy said, “I was really inspired by the Buddha Park in Vientiane, Laos.” Cut to a shot of Heidi looking utterly dazed. And I get to make fun of her in this review because I looked up the spelling of “Vientiane” on Wikipedia so I could pretend I already knew what that place and/or thing was, which of course I did.

— “There’s also some cool shades of gray and warm gray tones in the collection as well.”

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