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msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/26/2008 11:07:51 AM ET 2008-08-26T15:07:51

The fifth season of "Project Runway" returned under a cloud. In April, it was announced that the series was leaving Bravo for Lifetime, and that the network's parent company, NBC Universal, was suing to stop it from leaving.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

Later, there was news that the show would film part of its sixth season in Los Angeles, followed by an announcement that the series' producers, Magical Elves, will quit after this season because they don't own the series.

Just as Magical Elves defined a new subgenre of reality programming with their cleanly produced, sharply edited fashion design competition, "Project Runway" essentially defined Bravo even more than "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," which preceded it by a few years and helped give the cable network new direction.

Ultimately, "Project Runway"'s influence and example has been excellent for Bravo, good for the rest of television, but bad for itself. And as it limps through its fifth season, that's become painfully clear.

"Project Runway" mentor Tim Gunn, undeniably the show's break-out star, spent last season repeating his catchphrases. Although he's less robotic now, he seems listless. He's had great moments when he offers critiques of designers' in-progress work, but appears to be affected by the diminished energy level in the workroom, like it's been filled with lethargy-inducing gas.

Some of the designers have talent, but they are (or are edited to be) more one-dimensional and one-note than ever before. In other words, they're terribly boring.

Not everyone can be a Santino Rice or Christian Siriano, who are both over-the-top characters and talented designers, but an edge to the new group's personalities would be nice. Blayne's adding of "-licious" to the end of every available word in the English language does not count.

Up until the drag queen costume challenge last week, the actual competitions have been on the dull, uninspired side. More significantly, two of the first three "Project Runway 5" challenges were just repeats of earlier-season challenges. That could have been interesting, a way to challenge the designers to bring their best to enhanced versions of challenging tasks from the past. Instead, recycling challenges just came off as lazy, as if the producers are simply going through the motions, or worse, trying to sabotage their own series.

On a similar note, Bravo has, on some level, not treated the show well since the move was announced. It relegated the series to the 9 p.m. hour, keeping a weaker series, "Shear Genius," in the 10 p.m. hour.

In addition, before the season started, the network didn't release information about the cast, insisting that it wanted to protect the "secrecy" of the series. Then, days before the fifth season's debut in July, Bravo sent out a press release that revealed (or spoiled, depending upon your perspective) nearly every challenge and guest judge for the entire season.

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Show still has style
Despite all of this, ratings have increased, both week to week and since last season, so it's not like viewers aren't tuning in. And the show remains watchable, with moments of the greatness that made "Runway" stand out and gave life to previous seasons.

When Michael Kors critiques a designer's work with his acutely critical but richly descriptive language, it's an instant reminder of how many terrible judges other series employ to try to duplicate what he — and Nina Garcia, and Heidi Klum — do so effortlessly.

Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings Structurally, "Project Runway" hasn't changed much at all in five seasons. While that appears to be a strength, it rapidly became a weakness, especially when Bravo aired back-to-back seasons of the show. Season five followed four months after season four's finale, while there was a thirteen-month gap between seasons three and four.

With a show that essentially doesn't change season to season, the longer wait allows anticipation to build and makes inevitable comparisons less likely, since the previous season is more of a memory. "The Apprentice" burned itself out by churning out back-to-back-to-back seasons, while "Survivor" continues to do well with just a short gap in between its seasons, thanks to key format changes.

Bravo's carbon-copying of the format has been a bigger problem, however, and is one of the reasons cited by "Project Runway"'s owner, the Weinstein Company, as to why they are taking the show to Lifetime. The network now airs a number of series that mimic the structure and style of "Project Runway," weakening the original's status as a one-of-a-kind program.

The format-copying clones include "Top Chef," "Top Design," "Shear Genius," and "Step it Up and Dance," and some of their seasons have managed to eclipse their ancestral relative in terms of drama, raw talent, and entertainment.

"Top Chef" had an awkward first season and a disastrous, embarrassing second season , but eventually found its voice. Despite its limitations — viewers inevitably can't judge the work, food, in the same way they can judge clothing — it has become the more compelling show.

Maybe what "Project Runway" really needs is to borrow from "Top Chef," which has called a new city home each season. Maybe it needs Los Angeles, new producers, and a new network to reinvigorate it.

Unless an unscripted series can reinvent itself slightly each season, while holding on to the elements that make it different and recognizable, it will inevitably weaken, losing viewers, buzz, and even its credibility.  The show that brought credibility to reality television talent competitions does not deserve that kind of conclusion.

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