Is it a coincidence that Project Runway’s latest season premiere happens to fall on the same day as the announcement that the show has racked up five Emmy nominations this year? Lifetime and the show’s producers must have thought they had a pretty good chance of being nominated: It’s in the nature of the Academy to base its notion of what’s award-worthy largely on what’s been deemed award-worthy in the past, and this must be especially true when it comes to reality-competition TV, where shows that can pass for classy are few and far between. So long as it never again strays from New York and manages to keep Tim Gunn interested, or at least under contract, Project Runway will always be classier than, say Survivor, just like the show where people cook stuff, the show where people who are said to be well-known for something or other ballroom dance, and the one where people in distant lands race through airports trying to make their connections.
Classy and hot are two different things, and Project Runway has been steadily losing heat for years now. (Bravo loyalists would say that its better days ended when it moved to Lifetime, which was six seasons ago, or half its full life span to date.) The show doesn’t seem to have the heart to try to pretend otherwise anymore; the timely reminder that it’s up for five Emmys is the only attempt in tonight’s episode to claim an important place for it in the culture at large. In previous years, the pre-game Road To The Runway show would have stuffed with footage of excited potential contestants lining up for miles outside the audition space, looking like kids waiting to greet the Beatles at JFK Airport. There’s none of that this season; it’s just one scene after another, chop-chop-chop, of the fifteen new contestants hauling their designs into a small, unfriendly-looking room to show Tim Gunn and his fellow talent scouts what they can do and give them a taste of their personalities and back stories. This is the Age of Austerity Project Runway. (There is a sixteenth contestant, drawn from the ranks of contestants from previous seasons and selected by viewers. It’s Kate Pankoke, a mouthy redhead from last season whose bossy streak apparently struck a lot of people as making for good TV.)
To start things off, Gunn takes his charges out into the countryside to watch a bunch of skydivers plummet to Earth—an opening stunt that’s short on both glamor and big-city energy, more The Amazing Race than Project Runway. Once the skydivers have landed, they hustle away from the camera, without showing us their faces or taking time for them to receive a hearty “Thank you!” from Tim Gunn. It seems like a brusque way to treat people who’ve just risked their necks to deliver some fabric. Yes, the designers will be using the divers’ brightly colored parachutes as their primary material this week. Whatever else they might need to supplement the fabric is already waiting for them in the work room, which means no trip to Mood, not even to give Swatch a scratch behind the ears. The designers haven’t even settled into Manhattan yet, and already this austerity thing is out of control.
Once the designers fall to work, the viewer can begin the business of dividing the more immediately attention-getting designers from the ones who will need time to grow on you, if they can get it, and then take the next step of deciding which of the more eye-catching designers are eccentrics who seem to have some talent and brains, and which are here for the freak appeal. One of the most likable is Bradon McDonald, a former principal dancer for Mark Morris’ company. Then there’s Miranda Levy, a decorated Army vet (“This one’s for grenade-throwing…”) who seems to have a good eye but who also seems weirdly out of it on a lot of levels, as when she blithely asks Bradon, the 38-year-old dancer, “Why the change in career?” Another designer, Alexandria Von Bromssen, is a bright-eyed, ultra-blonde former model who grabs the camera not with her creative energy, but with the way she constantly scans the room, seeming to compulsively size up and re-evaluate her competition. She speaks in a strange hushed voice, as if she were trying to get everyone to lean in closer when she talks, and her voice gets even more hushed when she starts listing for the camera which of the other designers is going down. It is hard to watch her for any length of time without thinking of Diane Kruger’s detective with Asperger’s on The Bridge.
Among the candidates for weirdo of the week, there are two standouts. Sandro Masmanidi is a Russian cancer survivor whose work, if his first design is anything to go on, is marred by serious, Vegas-level taste issues and massive deficiencies in the eyeball-measuring department. He sends his model down the runway in wearing what looks like bondage gear for a top, festooned with trinkets and jewelry, but without enough material in place to cover her bare crotch, which she spends a lot of time shielding with her hands. (When her hands fail her, Lifetime slaps a rectangular black box over her, so that it looks as if her public hair has been shaved into the shape of a Hitler mustache.) Then there’s Timothy Westbrook, who takes top honors in the “Always leave ‘em guessing,” or “Is he a mad genius or just a nut?” category. Like Seth Aaron Henderson, the winner of the seventh season, he’s an eco-friendly designer who’s into what he calls, incessantly, “sustainability.”
This is all well and good, but Timothy takes his sustainability concept far enough to raise questions about whether he really understands the basic requirements of the show he’s on. He makes life hell for his model, Natasia, by refusing to let her have her hair and makeup done for the runway show. (The guy with the terrific facial hair who’s in charge of the salon area tells her that it’s a good thing she’s so pretty that it doesn’t matter, making him the Good Samaritan of this episode; he at least gets her to smile bravely.) He also wastes his time, and hers, by trying to “choreograph” some kind of interpretive dance number for her to do on the runway. (His ambitions are scuttled when Tm takes him aside and tells him that he won’t be allowed any more runway time than the designers whose models are just going to do the customary walk, turn, and walk. Trying to be a sport, Natasia does a walk, turn, and walk, with a frozen pose with her arms extended like moose antlers thrown in.)
Timothy, who gets some of his effects for the dress by applying a cigarette lighter to the material, comes across especially badly in the runway Q & A, when Zac Posehn points out that [A.] burning synthetic fabric really isn’t doing the environment any favors, and [B.] wearing an outrageous pair of glitter platform shoes to stand alongside his barefoot model isn’t exactly showing solidarity with his muse. It looks bad for Sandro and Timothy, but in the end, the judges keep both their crazy asses and give the boot to Angela Bacskocky, a former aspiring rock star (“I liked putting on the clothes more than playing the music.”) whose designs have little of the flamboyance of her back story. (Nina describes it as looking like “a disposable poncho.”) It’s the kind of judgment call we’ve come to see more and more of on Project Runway, the decision to throw out someone boring in favor of someone who gives every indication of being incompetent, and possibly unhinged, but who, hey, who knows, might turn out to be an erratic genius.
The winner is Bradon McDonald; Miranda the Army vet, whose work has much pleased the judges on its own aesthetic merits, gets a scolding from Heidi Klum, always a stickler for the rules, because she has failed to incorporate enough of the parachute itself into her work, despite Tim Gunn’s reminding her that it’s the whole point of the challenge. The good news for people who watch this show for reasons besides seeing people humiliate themselves, abuse others, and melt down on the air, is that, with the possible exception of Sandro, no one here seems to have been brought on board only because they have delusions of grandeur and cannot play and work well with others. (Road To The Runway makes it clear that the producers are making a conscious effort to cut back on the number of people they ship to New York, only to see them crack under the pressure and pull a Judge Crater, sneaking out of their hotel in the middle of the night and running away to join the circus.) It’s a good sign that there’s no obvious Joshua McKinley type, someone who combines bug-eyed craziness with cobra-spitting meanness, though Alexandria might have potential if she got a little more protein into her diet. It would be an even better sign if Lifetime were to get a grip on itself and restore this show to its natural state of an hour a week, but maybe you can only expect so much from a network whose other Emmy nominees this year include Liz & Dick.
- The regular judging panel is basically the same as last season, with Heidi, Zak Posehn, and Nina Garcia supplemented by a guest star; this week, it was Kate Bosworth. Michael Kors appears in the opening montage, but that’s just a tease.
- The accessory wall is now being sponsored by Belk. More austerity!
- There are a number of noteworthy changes in the presentation of the judges’ deliberations, which seem intended to pull back the curtain and lend a greater level of “transparency” to the proceedings. Although Tim Gunn doesn’t get to vote on who wins, he is onscreen now during deliberations, and he’s now armed with the “Tim Gunn Rescue,” the right to jump in, just once in the course of the season, and save someone the judges want to send home. Presumably, these changes are the producers’ overdue response to the fan reaction to some odd calls that have been made in recent years, and to the decision to throw last season’s eventual winner a lifeline and a second chance when she seemed to be a goner, which was apparently an example of a Tim Gunn Rescue before there was a name for it. Whether or not these changes placate the fans who have accused the show of shady backroom dealings, anything that gets Gunn more screen time works for me.
- Other new attempts to really pull the viewers into the judging process are less successful. At one point, Nina Garcia’s face is superimposed on the screen, along with the words “DOES NINA LIKE IT?” while the seconds count down until we can hear Nina announce whether she likes the next design. At one point, the camera angle shifts while the graphic is still onscreen, and Nina’s face is suddenly buried in a model’s cleavage.
- Viewers are also given the option of voting on whether they approve or disapprove of the judges' decision. (Tonight, some 80% of the respondents thought the judges had blown it.) I'm sure that reshaping this as a show that fans should watch with their phone in their hand, typing away, makes Lifetime feel all cutting edge, but I find it hard to get behind any programming innovation that may well have been pitched with the words, "Hey, if it worked for Sharknado..."
- Natasia’s plight stands out partly because she’s actually allowed to say a few words about it to the camera, with her name flashing on the screen. In the first couple of seasons, Project Runway actually made an effort to let some of the models come across as characters in the reality-show drama, with a stake in the proceedings. That was quickly abandoned, and tonight’s episode made me realize that I kind of miss it.
- Last year's winner, Michelle, contributes her own observations on the new bunch during Road To The Runway. She may be the only English-speaking person in the world who can sound pretentiously affected when saying “Holy cow!“
- Because he’s given them so much to work with, the judges are able to talk endless shit about Sandro’s dress without having to humiliate his model by mentioning that, as one contestant puts it, her “good china’s hanging out.” This did not go over well with my wife, who finally burst out: “I can’t believe nobody’s talking about the vagina in the room!”