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Project Runway
Barbara Nitke  /  Bravo
On "Project Runway," even the drama tends to revolve around the designers' work.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/1/2006 1:41:44 PM ET 2006-08-01T17:41:44

Bravo’s “Project Runway” is the best competitive reality series currently on television. Since the second season ended in March, when Chloe Dao was awarded both money and a mentorship to start her own fashion line, the show’s absence has been felt. No other show offers its particular combination of talent, drama, and heart, and any day without Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum is a dark day indeed.

Thus, the show’s return for a third season should be heralded and celebrated. But at the same time, it should also be looked upon with skepticism and doubt, because if history is any guide, the show may be on the verge of betraying its viewers.

The series follows fashion designers who compete in challenges that involve making clothing for women. It’s an unlikely subject for a reality series that now has a cult-like following and draws record-breaking audiences (for its cable network). The show's popularity was so great, however, that Bravo ordered a third season even before the second season concluded.

But unlike the first two seasons, the show will not debut in December and conclude shortly after Fashion Week in March. It will begin in the middle of July, when shows like “American Idol” and “Survivor” originally found audiences. The final four designers will present collections at New York Fashion Week this fall, not next spring.

Perhaps more alarmingly, the second season of “Runway” ended fewer than four months ago, and Bravo’s rush to produce a third season could easily be a death wish. A few years ago, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” dominated the national discourse and ratings, but then ABC got greedy and started airing it four nights every week, which turned out to be overkill. Similarly, NBC’s “Apprentice” has suffered declining ratings and falling buzz in part because it airs nonstop. Seasons come one after another, with only a short break between them. As a result, the cast members blend together and become archetypes and stereotypes, not people with individual personalities.

The same thing has happened, to a lesser degree, on “Survivor,” which airs two seasons every year, although its changing game play and contestants’ strategizing helps to keep the show from getting especially stale. FOX’s “American Idol,” on the other hand, airs once every year. Of course, it takes a third of a year for the network to broadcast a single season, but the decision to not air the show more than once a year has proven to be a wise one. There are at least seven months between seasons for anticipation and buzz to build, and for the audience to really miss the show.

That happened last year with “Project Runway,” and news that it had been renewed for a second season was tempered only by the fact that we had to wait more than seven months for it to return. This year, the shorter break means quicker satiation. But can it live up to viewer expectations, to the audience's need for “Project Runway to be consistently outstanding?

No lemonade stands
Bravo has revealed the identities of the new cast, which is older than last season’s. Most competitors are in their 30s and 40s; the youngest competitor is 25. That’s a good sign, because “Project Runway” succeeds or fails on the talent (and personality) of its designers. With age often comes greater experience, and more experience means more intense competition. This is not a show like “The Apprentice” where anyone who has an ego can show up and sell lemonade on the street.

Sometimes, the designers of “Project Runway” have to plan an outfit, create a pattern, choose fabric, sew the dress, and fit it to a model in just a few hours. And, of course, they have to demonstrate creativity, whether they’re using materials from a flower shop or constructing an outfit that can be worn by Sasha Cohen while she skates.

And, of course, they have to keep us entertained. Last season, few moments were more incredibly entertaining than when standout personality Santino Rice imitated the warm, slightly affected intonations of mentor Tim Gunn searching for fellow contestant Andrae. He cried out, “Andrae! Where’s Andrae?” all while he worked in the workroom alongside the other designers, who were laughing hysterically.

Those lighthearted moments in the middle of intense competition best illustrated why “Project Runway” is a success. It is not just about fashion design, but about talented people working relentlessly at their craft. There’s drama, but it nearly always centers on their work.

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The behind-the-scenes work on the series is also strong, and its here that there’s the most concern with such a quick return to the air. Producing a new season so rapidly—from casting to production to editing—may mean less time to craft engaging stories and witty challenges. A thrown-together season may not be as absorbing.

But ultimately, it’s easy to have faith that the producers and cast of “Project Runway” will deliver a third season that’s as strong as the first two. At the very least, they’ve earned viewers’

trust and respect. If the third season builds on the first two as the second one built on the first, the only remaining possibility will be for audiences to tire of the formula and its regular personalities.

Right now, at least, that seems about as unlikely as Tim Gunn throwing fabric at someone and calling them a “stupid donkey,” as Hell’s Kitchen “mentor” Gordon Ramsay has done, or as unlike as host Heidi Klum deciding to arbitrarily dismiss someone based upon some facet of their personality she doesn’t like, as Donald Trump regularly does.

So far, “Project Runway” has risen above the challenges placed in its path by its predecessors and the pressure to imitate, and has instead continued to innovate. Hopefully “Project Runway 3” — and the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons in the future — will continue to do the same.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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