Project Runway: “Off The Track”
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Project Runway: “Off The Track”

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Project Runway

“Off The Track”

Season 9, Episode 5

“Off The Track” is the kind of desperate, anything-goes episode you get when the TV wizards at Bunim-Murray realize that the show has been boring lately. So many rules are bent and/or changed outright in the course of this episode that the entire field of Project Runway legal theory has been turned on its head. This is Project Runway’s equivalent of the Bush V. Gore decision—it ignores precedent, possesses no rational foundation, and makes only the thinnest attempt to hide its self-interested motives. A heck of a lot more watchable than that Supreme Court business, though.

As the episode opens, the designers dress up in the Heidi Klum New Balance line, which apparently is still a going concern, and they trek down to The Armory New Balance Field Center. It would be nice to run around and “get the blood flowing a little bit,” Heidi says, wearing a pair of huge high heels.

The contestants will be racing around the track to determine who will be the captains in today’s team challenge. Wait, you might ask, didn’t we just have a team challenge? Yes, but now we will have another. We will have team challenges every week if that’s what it takes to cure these people of their dullness.

Before anyone can start running, Cecilia grumbles something about how she doesn’t want to be there. “Cecilia is thinking she doesn’t want to continue,” Tim tells Heidi, and she says to Cecilia: “Oh, you don’t? …Or are you just worried about this next challenge, and you don’t wanna run?” This is nothing more than Heidi’s usual half-oblivious, half-cruel teasing, but man, it would be pretty great if a contestant did walk off the show because a challenge was just too dumb for them to bear.

No, Cecilia is simply angry because Julie was sent home after the last challenge and not herself. She’s tired of Project Runway. It may be that Cecilia wants to talk it out a little more, but before Tim can step in to offer any motivation, Heidi tells Cecilia to make up her damn mind already so they can make the clumsy fashion kids race and Heidi can plug her sneakers.

Cecilia opts to leave, and everyone’s pretty fine with it. It’s an early departure, and the designers have a vague sense that they’re supposed to be sad or shocked or something, but instead, the vibe is, “Welp, that just happened.”

The footrace is perhaps the crassest trick in the Project Runway bag. It takes a group of people who got picked on in gym class all their lives and forces them to relive those terrible memories for our enjoyment. Usually the producers muster some flimsy pretense, like making the designers race to grab fabric or materials, but in this slapdash episode, they don’t have time to justify themselves. Everyone just has to run, so there.

Truly, it is a sick genius that forces poor Olivier to run. Just as his accent is a bastardized hybrid of some half-dozen European dialects, his running style seems to borrow from a number of different animal species, not all of them land-dwellers. He looks like a panel from an Andy Capp comic strip where Andy and his wife form a fight-cloud with limbs flying in every direction. Except there is only one person in this conflagration, and his cloud is made of awkwardness.

Down he goes. After seeing Olivier tumble to the ground once, we see it again in a slo-mo instant replay. You can almost hear the video editor grunting, “Ohhhhhh yeah.” Much is made of the fall, but not enough is made of the fact that despite his mishap, Olivier gets up and still manages to beat Bert by a wide margin.

See, once again, Bert has decided that a Project Runway exercise is beneath him, so he runs the race at a slow jog. Bert is still waiting for the genteel, dignified part of the competition to begin. Somebody needs to grab him by the collar and scream, “Don’t you see, you fool? This is IT! This show is kind of insane, it will continue to be kind of insane, and that’s the damn point!” Given the impracticality of this direct tack, I like Heidi’s passive-aggressive approach. She punishes Bert’s intransigence by giving him a second helping of humiliation. Not only does she run the last 10 yards alongside Bert in those big high heels, but she actually edges him out.

A medic tends to Olivier. Tim is concerned. Heidi wants to follow his lead, so she tries to remember what people say when they’re saddened by another person’s suffering. She thinks she saw it on TV once. “Wow! Look at that! Oh my gosh!” Heidi says, which would be the perfect thing to say if Olivier were a street magician performing stupendous tricks, rather than a helpless weakling who was injured in her athletic torture circus.

A little later, Tim cries, “Oh! What’s happening? Did Olivier just pass out?” In a series of shaky, quick shots, Project Runway tries to convince us that Olivier’s bruised knee has him on the edge of death. After the commercial break, he gets up and is fine. That’s the part they don’t show in the promos.

The top four finishers—Josh M., Bryce, Anthony Ryan, and Viktor—choose their teams. Nobody wants Bert. Before this week, I was willing to entertain the theory that Bert was getting an unfairly harsh edit, but after seeing the unanimity of the other designers’ disdain for Bert, I think he probably is an insufferable dick to be around. The contestants are falling over each other not to work with Bert. Anthony Ryan ends up with him.

Because the competition is now short one contestant, Project Runway tradition dictates that the designer who was most recently eliminated gets to return. However, nobody wants boring Julie back, so screw tradition. Heidi makes up a new rule and tells Viktor that he can choose any of the designers who have been kicked off so far to fill out his team. Their faces are displayed on screen, hovering in a talentless miasma. Apparently, everyone loves Josh C., so the bald Mormon phoenix rises from the ashes.

Although Track & Field Fun Day has just begun, someone off-camera reminds Heidi that there is also the matter of a fashion-design competition to address, so she informs the designers of that day’s challenge. They must design a look to be worn with Heidi’s denim and suede sneaker design, and the winning look will be sold on the highly exclusive pages of Amazon.com. “It’s so big, I can’t even conceive of it,” Anya says of the opportunity to have her design comprise 0.0000001 percent of Amazon’s product line.

As expected, Anthony Ryan and Laura have a hard time with Bert, who skulks around the workroom muttering incoherent three-word anger bombs like “Fucking hardball shit.” Bert also can’t remember Anthony Ryan’s name, remarking, “It takes me a long time to remember their names because they’re not that significant.”

Bert’s problem-child shtick is old hat by now, though. There’s a new emotional nincompoop in town, and his name is Josh M. As team leader, Josh says he chose Anya for her design talent and Becky for ability to work a sewing machine with acceptable efficiency. “I don’t really need Becky to be thinking too much and designing anything at all.”

I won’t pretend that Josh M.’s teammate-selection strategy is unwise. In fact, it’s pretty smart. Becky has shown herself to be a lackluster designer, after all, but she is better at sewing than Anya, so he’s just maximizing everyone’s strengths.

Josh could, however, be a little more subtle about saddling Becky with all the scutwork. His philosophy is to shove it in her face. “If Becky’s not getting the picture,” Josh says in a testimonial, “then I have to paint it for her.” Except when he says “paint it for her,” it sounds like he says “pee in it for her,” which is a more accurate metaphor anyway.

During his workroom visit, Tim’s not so crazy about the division of labor on Josh M.’s team. He tells Becky, “I don’t want your role to be so trivialized that you’re thrown under the bus.” So this is what it has come to. It’s not enough to use the phrase after people have been thrown under the bus or to comment on bus-throwing-unders as they are happening. Now, like an insatiable fungus, this godforsaken blight on the English language has spread its tendrils to the subjunctive, and we are INVENTING situations in which someone COULD be thrown under the bus so that we may remark upon those! In the Project Runway universe, our world exists only to be thrown under an enormous bus, and under that is another bus—in fact, it’s buses all the way down.

At first, the deadline for the challenge is set at an unusually early 11 p.m., for no apparent reason. The producers suddenly realize that if you do not give the designers any time to get angry at each other in the workroom, you’re not going to have much of a television program. So Heidi performs some song and dance about how she’s “worried” about the designers and extends their deadline to 4 a.m. The designers are happy, but they’re also stunned, like, “Hold on, can she do that?” They have the same look on their face that every Lost fan had when they realized that, yes, they really are making it up as they go along.

All work and no sleep makes Project Runway not such a dull boy anymore! The extra hours allow the Josh-Becky conflict to come to a full boil, as Josh M. (the “M” is for “diploMacy”) tells Becky to shut up and stop trying to design because “You do dowdy dresses; you know that.” After she storms out of the room, Josh M. doubles down on the sentiment: “Her aesthetic is 40-to-death!”

But then it is time for healing. Should be easy enough to spackle over this wound, Josh figures. So he and Anya march over to Becky’s sewing machine, and Josh M. clarifies that his comment on the stifling dowdiness of her design aesthetic “wasn’t meant as a bad thing!” Becky asks in what context the word “dowdy” could possibly be considered a good thing. “Style-wise!” he says.

Somehow, Josh’s loving application of gasoline fails to extinguish this fire, and Becky is even angrier than before! Anya tries to intercede and calm Becky down, but Josh has had it with this nutcase who seems to take offense no matter how much he insults her. He screams, “Becky, if you’re tired, TAKE A NAP, because I don’t have time for it! I’ll do it myself!” Wait, does he not have time for a nap? Or does he intend to take Becky’s nap himself? (That’d show her!)

Becky runs into the women’s bathroom, and after settling down to weep in a stall, she notices the camera. The camera’s all, “Hi, I am contractually obligated to follow you around, even in the bathroom,” which make Becky whimper and slam the door shut. Eventually, Anya and Josh M. pile into the stall, too, and when they are done reenacting the stateroom scene from A Night At The Opera, Josh M. apologizes and also orders two hard-boiled eggs. “Sometimes my head is speaking before I’m registering what I’m saying,” Josh M. tell Becky. So that’s the problem: He was speaking from the head.

The next morning, after Bert is done reminding his teammates how “clean,” “modern,” and “young” his designs are, he plops down at Josh M.’s sewing machine. When Josh discovers this, the Ali-Frazier of catty gay bitchfights ensues. After much scattered yowling and caterwauling, Bert tells Josh to drop dead, to which Josh replies, “Bert, you’re closer to death than I am!” Bert parries this with, “Oh, really? Well, death might be a blessing with you around.” Which is almost a good comeback, except that Bert still dies in his scenario, so this bout goes to Josh on points. “Self-centered prick,” Bert grumbles, sensing that he has been bested.

Runway show. Model and designer Erin Wasson is the guest judge. She has scary eyes and says nothing of consequence.

Bert, Anthony Ryan, and Laura are judged first. Bert’s blouse and skirt are decent, although the strange trapezoidal shape in the chest area makes the model look broad-shouldered and mannish. Still, it’s fine. It doesn’t exactly go with sneakers, and the judges notice this mismatch, but they ignore it because the adequacy of Bert’s design is surrounded by a whole lot of awful.

Unsatisfied with mere camel toe, Anthony Ryan goes for the whole foot. His gym shorts are so copious and bunchy that they threaten to collapse in on themselves, creating an infinitely dense singularity of crotch discomfort. The blouse is a shimmering black tarp draped over his model, making her look like The Ghost Of The La Brea Tar Pits. On her shoulder is a square of taupe fabric, or maybe a forgotten Post-It note.

Anthony Ryan and Laura both complain about how difficult it is to work with Bert. As Michael Kors drinks down their anguish, Anthony Ryan tells Bert, “There is no confronting you, and there’s no budging with you. I pulled you aside—” Bert butts in. “No, you didn’t,” he fucking lies. Anthony Ryan: “That’s a fucking lie.”

But Anthony Ryan is in an impossible position, as Bert is the only one on his team who produced work of any merit. Nina and Kors develop a theory that perhaps Anthony Ryan and Laura got so caught up in being mad at Bert that they lost track of their own work. It sounds plausible.

On to Collaborative Disaster #2: Josh M., Anya, and Becky. Heidi loves Anya’s look, and the other judges like it well enough. It’s a sporty quasi-evening-gown design whose elegance is diminished a little by the fact that it’s paired with sneakers and by a strip of colored fabric down the front that causes the fabric to pucker near the bottom. The design ostensibly concocted by Becky is an ill-fitting patchwork, but Josh M. admits that he had a big hand in creating that look, too. Then he drops the D-bomb again: “I just can’t have anything that’s going to be dowdy.” Finally, the judges mumble some bullshit about “synchronicity,” and the two teams leave the runway.

Backstage, Bert laments being ostracized from the other designers: “Every time I say something, everybody laughs.” But Anthony Ryan is not about to shed a tear for Bert Keeter, The Poor Little Bitch Boy. “While we were on the runway, you were making snippy little comments in my ear. You were basically laughing at Laura’s and my looks.” It’s true. When Nina asked Anthony Ryan’s model to turn around, Bert helpfully noted, “You got camel-butt, too.” I’m pretty sure that when you openly revel in the failure of your compatriots, you lose the right to be all sad that nobody loves you.

The final two teams come out on the runway for a brief judging session. (At least, the part we got to see was brief.) On Team Viktor-Olivier-Josh C., the judges love Viktor’s look, which is the best of the night, pairing a cute rumpled summer dress with a sleek black motorcycle jacket. A surprising combo that works beautifully. Viktor gives the jacket’s leather some weight and shape without making it seem heavy.

Olivier’s skirt looks like farmhouse wear to Heidi, et al., but I disagree. The pairing of the sneakers and the simple long skirt gives Olivier’s look a youthful puckishness, and the skirt has a mesmerizing movement as the model walks down the runway.

On Bryce, Kimberly, and Danielle’s team, the judges are fond of Bryce’s little gray dress with studs down the sides, but they can’t stand Danielle’s look, with good reason. Her turquoise chiffon top is a turquoise chiffon top—does anything more need to be said? Well, OK, it’s a turquoise chiffon top that looks like it has been turned inside out and worn through a few days of very humid weather. The thing is absolutely dead.

The judges deliberate. They marvel over the dysfunction of Anthony Ryan’s team. “He lost control of the bus,” Kors remarks. No. BAD Michael Kors. NO MORE BUS METAPHORS.

Nina and Heidi end up in yet another judging fight. Nina thinks that although Anthony Ryan had the worst garment, Danielle should go home, since she has been more consistently full of suck since the beginning. Also, nobody will notice she’s gone, because we’re still not entirely sure she was ever on the show anyway.

Heidi won’t hear of it. The worst designer in a given week is supposed to go home, she says. “I think the show is cut and dry! ‘One day, you’re in; the next day, you’re out!’” Nina and Kors frown at the revelation that Heidi has started to believe her own catchphrases.

Once again, Heidi is right, and once again, she will lose the argument. The worst person each week is supposed to go home; this is baked into the premise of the show. But Project Runway is operating under a state of martial law this week, where the only directive is to maximize the potential entertainment value of the remaining cast. Nobody has been or ever will be entertained by Danielle. The choice is clear.

The designers return to the runway. “This was my challenge,” Heidi says, “and maybe you noticed that I’ve been changing the rules a little bit.” Thank you, Heidi, we DID notice! “So I want to do one more thing to mix it up.” Sure, go for it. This episode long ago ceased making sense, so just reinvent the game however you want. Hell, let’s play Final Jeopardy, or spin the big wheel in the Showcase Showdown.

Heidi names two winners, because this runway show was overflowing with so much sparkling fashion that its greatness could not be contained by one winner alone…? Viktor and Josh M. both win and receive immunity for next week. OK, fine. Viktor: “I am very excited Amazon.com is going to sell my clothing.”

Danielle is out. Heidi tells Anthony Ryan that if it were up to her, he would be out. But it’s never up to her, is it? Pity Heidi, trapped in a gilded cage of her own construction.

“I’m very sad,” Danielle says, with no trace of emotion. “We’ll miss you,” say the other designers, likewise.

Tim prepares to make a little speech to the designers. Here we go! No doubt Tim is going to reprimand the contestants for selling each other out on the runway and failing to behave themselves. He gathers them all around and says, “I have to tell you all, I am so proud of you. I have such admiration and respect for each of you for being very straightforward, honest, and truth-telling on that runway!” Haha, what the hell? Apparently, Tim was as bored as the rest of us and is delighted to see this group start tearing itself apart. So yes, here’s hoping there’s plenty more “truth-telling” next week.

Stray Observations:

  • Between Olivier’s droopy cardigan and his Walgreen’s store-brand reading glasses, I half-expected him to start handing out Werther’s Originals to the other designers.
  • “I would have liked to be the captain. However, I had to fall like a bitch.”
  • Tim at Mood: “One minute remaining! … Time is UP! … I’m such a nag.”
  • Josh C. is thrilled that he got to return to the show and try out his “Klum of Doom” nickname for Heidi. It’s a pretty good nickname! Now go away again soon, Josh C., because I hate having to specify which Josh I’m talking about.
  • “That blouse is like a soufflé that flopped.”
  • Kors: “I don’t know if I remember people having that many problems within a group ever before on Project Runway.” OK, have the producers instructed the cast to declare Historic Project Runway Moments at every opportunity? Because they’re doing it all the time, and it’s nuts. Kors doesn’t remember ANY group problems worse than the ones we saw tonight? Does he watch the show?