Thursday, October 07, 2010
It has taken me longer to decide what I think about Project Runway this summer & fall than it has in any of the show’s seven previous seasons. In part, that’s because the eighth season of Heidi Klum’s reality TV juggernaut doesn’t have the strongest set of designers in the world, nobody who is clearly going to become a Big Designer in the way Christian Siriano, winner of the fourth season, already has. But in larger part, this has been because this season of PR has been far less about the clothing & design & more about the dynamics of the people who make them. Three of the designers – Gretchen Jones, Michael Costello & Mondo Guerra (whose name, yes, translates into World War, tho he is the furthest from the image that projects perhaps of any of the 123 contestants who have at one time or another appeared on the show) – are interesting, complex, difficult characters. Between them, they have won seven of the first ten challenges & almost any other season it would be a no-brainer to conclude that these are the three who will be the finalists competing at Fashion Week. This year, tho, I’m not so sure.
For one thing, Fashion Week was quite a while ago and, as Project Runway has done in previous seasons, that meant that everyone who was then still a contestant got the opportunity to present at Lincoln Center (which has replaced the tents at Bryant Park): ten shows of ten looks each. Later, through the magic of video editing, it will appear quite different on television. I don’t believe they’ve ever had more than five designers present at Fashion Week in prior seasons, although even this has its risks, as when Austin Scarlett, who was not a true finalist one the first season, was widely perceived as having the best show in the tents. But in several previous seasons, it was pretty evident just who had brought in a show that was nowhere nearly as complete or envisioned as the true finalists.
But the larger wild card is interpersonal. This group of designers likes one another less than in any previous season. In part, this is because the strongest single personality – Gretchen Jones, a Portland- based designer who is into neo-hippie wear (one can imagine all of her fashions designed to old Van Morrison songs) – has also fallen into the reality TV stereotype as the Villain. In its first season, way back in 2004-05, PR active sought, somewhat unfairly, to present Wendy Pepper in that light (which was the sole credible reason that Austin Scarlett was not in the final three) only to discover as the show evolved that the producers had such a phenomenon on their hands – the bizarre (for television) concept of creative people being creative – that they didn’t really need to get bogged down in such clichés. Still, over the years designers with outsized egos (Jeffrey Sebelia, Santino Rice) have slipped into the black cape since it does appear to be one of the default positions for reality television, as such. Sebelia has even shown that one can win as the Villain.
But it is, frankly, quite different for men & women to occupy that role within the by-now-predictable structure of a reality show TV season. An expanded ego is as much about throwing a protective wall up around some serious insecurities as it is any sense of self-worth or entitlement. And each person deals with it differently. Sebelia made a point off-camera and after the fact to apologize to other contestants & make amends. Rice’s website acknowledges his role as “your favorite bad boy” and asks “Did I really suck all the air out of the room?” Yet in the current Lifetime show, On the Road with Austin & Santino, Rice comes off as thoughtful & caring.
Jones clearly does not see herself – and doesn’t want viewers to see her – as a monster. Yet she compulsively bad-mouths other contestants, mentor Tim Gunn, even host Heidi Klum. And she has all the control freak impulses of anyone who ever grew up in a dysfunctional family. This came to a head in episode five when the contestants were divided into two teams. One team included every designer who had, to that point, won a competition, while the other included those who had been mostly been at the bottom, skirting elimination. As a member of the team of champions, so to speak, Jones woke up at three in the morning to write down assignments for the other members of her team, although in fact she was not the leader. On the runway, she stepped in to speak for her team, and when it lost, was as thrown for a loop as its other members. While they waited their turn to be grilled by the judges backstage, Jones agreed that she would not break ranks with her teammates and throw another team member “under the bus.” One teammate, Michael Costello, had an advantage, having won the previous week, of having immunity. Regardless of what they said about him, he could not be eliminated.
It took the judges all of maybe 90 seconds to get the overanxious Jones to flip from her “I am Spartacus” stance to declaring that their team had lost because they had spent so much time coaxing the inept Costello through his tasks. Just as the other members had all acquiesced with their “assignments,” they jumped into a “pile on Michael” mode that left the judges sputtering with frustration. When asked point blank to identify who should be eliminated, only one member of the team did not name Costello – he named himself. And was for his honesty eliminated by the judges. The episode ended with Gunn verbally blasting “Team Luxe” (as it was called) for its bad behavior and for letting Gretchen “manipulate and bully” them.
If they were flabbergasted by Gunn’s scathing indictment of their behavior, members of Team Luxe were stunned the following week when the “inept” Costello won the challenge, making him at that point the only person besides Jones to have won more than one. A self-taught designer from Palm Springs, Costello is one of the more vulnerable men in the history of Project Runway, a series that has done more to profile varieties of male vulnerability than perhaps any TV series in history. The trash-Michael experience traumatized him more than a little, which only got worse when even members of the other team seemed to echo Gretchen’s “Michael can’t sew” litany as he proceeded to win the next challenge.
The first to really open up to Costello was the pint-sized Mondo Guerra, who surpasses even Andraé Gonzalo of the second season – he of the eleven-minute panic attack meltdown on the runway – in his ability to convey on-screen vulnerability. Guerra was so shy & quiet the first couple of episodes that he seemed virtually to be curled up into a silent ball in his room wanting to flee the competition. His kooky outfits – he often looks like something Papa Geppetto made – and his instinctive embrace of bright colors (he favors neon orange oversize glasses, for example) hardly make him the sort to disappear in a crowd. As the show has progressed, Guerra has come out of his shell, become more expansive as a designer and, as of this past week, won three competitions in a row. Even further, he based one design – a print he designed from scratch – upon a secret that he’d not acknowledged to his family (let alone publicly) for ten years: that he is HIV+. When he finally explained what the plus signs on his print meant, he had his competitors as well as the judges in tears. He was going to win the competition on design & construction alone, but this was as close to a win by acclamation as the show has ever had. It was a great moment of television and hopefully of personal liberation for Mondo Guerra as well. He may not be the best designer this show has ever had, but he is by far the bravest.
There are obviously further twists ahead – the promos for the series suggest an accusation of cheating (which has gotten contestants expelled in the past) & hint at a scene in which Gretchen threatens to throw something at Tim Gunn. After 10 episodes, only six of the original 17 contestants remain. Only one contestant to have won a challenge – Carlos Casanova, who was winner of the night of the Team Luxe meltdown – has been eliminated. Of the final six, Mondo has won three times, Michael Costello twice & Gretchen twice. April Johnston, the youngest contestant at 21, has won one challenge, and Andy South, a contestant from Hawai’i (who once flustered Michael Kors when he told the judges that he didn’t consider himself an “American” designer), has won once. Christopher Collins, a San Franciscan, has yet to win a challenge – although that didn’t stop first season winner, Jay McCarroll, who never won a week’s competition but walked away with the grand prize.
But in a larger sense, this season – in which the shows have expanded to 90 minutes while the time used showing their actual design & sewing has been cut back – is not about the clothes so much as it seems to be about these personalities. Or at least these personalities under pressure in a game environment. In the words of the LA Times, the show has embraced its life as a soap opera. I’m not prepared to go that far, although I certainly don’t mind the absence of the parallel games with the models – who in recent seasons have had their own follow-on show demonstrating what this might look like if one were not creative or introspective. It would be interesting to see what this current crop of designers might be like without the zero-sum pressure of a game environment, what it would mean if it wasn’t so important that somebody else must lose. Both Jay McCarroll & Christian Siriano have talked publicly about how one failing of Project Runway is that, in contrast with a show like American Idol which sets up a tour for the winners, even the winners at Runway find themselves dumped into the “real world” of the fashion industry without ongoing support. It would be great if the series could figure out some way to address that in coming seasons.
The website has, I believe, all of this season’s shows available for viewing. It is worth an evening or two. Project Runway remains something unique in television history.