The breakout reality show hit on cable television this year was not a show about rich high schoolers or D-list celebrities. The series was hosted by a supermodel, but it was not about sexy models.
It was a show about fashion.
Almost impossibly, it was that unlikely focus that led to breakthrough success for "Project Runway." And the Bravo reality show was a huge success. Viewership grew an unbelievable 500 percent from the first episode to the finale. Although a relatively small number of people watched the finale — 2.5 million viewers is nothing even compared to an episode of the ratings disaster that is “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” — it had strong numbers for cable television. More importantly, the show quickly built an obsessive following, and not just among designers. And that's why the show is returning for a second season Dec. 7 (10 p.m. ET, Bravo.
The producers of “Project Runway” can list on their resumes some extraordinary if underwatched reality series, such as HBO (and later Bravo’s) “Project Greenlight” and VH1’s “Bands on the Run.” Both of those series recognized that talented people made for entertaining television, particularly when their talents were pushed to the limits by high-stress, unfamiliar situations.
“Project Greenlight” allowed a first-time directors and screenwriters to produce a film. “Bands on the Run,” which VH1 is considering bringing back for a second season, followed preexisting bands that were sent to unfamiliar cities to promote and stage shows.
Video: Who will be America's next great designer? Likewise, “Project Runway” gathered talented clothing designers and tested their skills under intense circumstances. Those circumstances made the show entertaining and watchable, but fashion was always the star.
That’s not the case with too many other reality series. “The Apprentice” isn’t really concerned with the business acumen of its contestants; instead, its challenges are urban versions of the obstacle courses on “Survivor,” designed to create conflict and provide an opportunity for some to shine and others to fall on their faces. “Project Runway” broke that mold, using photogenic and engaging challenges to increase the contestants’ stress levels up while still allowing them to show off their design skills.
In the first episode’s challenge, the designers had one hour and $50 to spend on supplies to create “a sexy, glamorous outfit for a night on the town.” The catch: They had to spend the money at a grocery store. The challenge’s winner painstakingly stitched together cornhusks to form a flowing dress; the loser did what many of us probably would have done, and used a garbage bag to make a punkish outfit. One designer brilliantly used the material from a blue vinyl lawn chair and some placemats, while another utilized shower curtains. Watching their grocery-store gowns take form was awe-inspiring.
For the challenges, “Project Runway” did not organize its contestants into teams, with the exception of one collaborative challenge. Each designer worked alone. That’s not to say there wasn’t any interpersonal conflict or drama; there was plenty, especially because they were competing against one another. As they jockeyed for the iron or supplies, worked with their irresponsible teenage models, or just got to know one another, more than enough conflict arose to fill 44 minutes every week. But, again, the fighting and drama complemented their craftsmanship; it did not overshadow their skills.
The series also succeeded where most others fail: in its casting.
Too many reality shows place conflict and personality above all else. “The Project Runway” cast certainly was full of colorful, over-the-top personalities. Austin Scarlett’s name was as over-the-top as he was, but his effusive personality was backed by exceptional talent. The show found its villain in Wendy Pepper, whose streak of gray hair reflected her occasional wickedness. Wendy openly criticized some of the other contestants’ work during judging, and never held back during confessional interviews, where she admitted that she was playing a game; for that, she was loathed by at least a few of her fellow competitors and some viewers.
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The show’s other two breakout stars ended up in the final challenge with Wendy: Kara Saun, a gifted designer whose work almost never failed to impress the judges, and Jay McCarroll, the eventual winner, whose clothes reflected his wild personality. His personal wardrobe consisted of such items as a cowboy hat and pink sunglasses plus bright red pants; even while he was constructing dresses, he was making bitterly sarcastic but outrageously funny comments. Jay’s hysterically extreme extroversion led Bravo to create a spin-off special, which may be expanded to a full series , “Project Jay,” which will follow his post-show life.
Before anything else, the men and women of “Project Runway” were talented, capable designers. And they also had a guardian.
Producers brilliantly cast a professional expert to serve as a mentor to the contestants. Tim Gunn, chair of the Parsons School of Design’s fashion-design program, shepherded them through their challenges and issued instructions. He was not, however, a decision-making judge, freeing him to be openly critical and brutally honest with all of the designers. He offered advice that some embraced and others rejected, but his comments were always aimed at improving the clothing the contestants were designing.
Other shows might have cast a ringer to sabotage the designers by giving advice designed to increases the show’s entertainment value. But Gunn’s presence, knowledge, and credentials always kept the series grounded.
This is reality TV, though, so the contestants were judged every week and eliminated one by one. Standing atop a dramatically lit runway where moments earlier models strutted with the newly designed clothing on their thin frames, the designers faced a panel of judges that included host Heidi Klum. After they deliberated, she would send them home by with an “auf Wiedersehen,” after explaining that, in fashion, “You in oh you ow” (“You’re in or you’re out”).
In reality television, thankfully, “Project Runway” is still in.
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