Image A Sound B+ Extras C+
"Innovation," "Vision," "Commercial Appeal," "Collaboration," "'Model' Clients," "Making a Splash," "Design a Collection," "Postal Uniform Challenge," "Design for the Red Carpet," "Reunion Show," "Fashion Week"
by Walter Chaw It's easy to get frustrated with the Brothers Weinstein and, to paraphrase someone wittier than me talking about Kevin Smith (one of Miramax's pet directors), how they single-handedly turned independent film into the Special Olympics, but I confess I like their "productive" reality shows, "Project Greenlight" and "Project Runway". The end-result may be no better than that of a "productive cough," but the processes in these shows--the labours the contestants are forced to endure and the idea that the product of those labours will be presented for us, the schadenfreudians, to take our pokes at--is brilliant. What better way to pass the time, after all, than to observe homosexual men and castrating women engaged in arcane pursuits and then judge the arcane outcome of said pursuits, with equal portions of disdain and rapture of the unknown the only qualifications with which we're armed?
The great irony of my affection for "Project Runway" is that it's the same kind of diseased appreciation that's made "American Idol" the scourge of popular culture: this belief that everyone is qualified to pass judgment on artistry and, more appallingly in the case of "American Idol", allowed to impact the future success of these aspirants in a commercial arena. Truth is that not everyone's a critic, and that the more you democratize the conversation about art, the more art becomes "for everyone." It's not. Nor should it be. Crap is for everyone; art is for people armed with the ability to appreciate art. Elitist? Absolutely. What's the alternative? Populist? The arbiters of our culture shouldn't be people whose expertise and experience begins and ends with sitting their fat asses down on a couch and moving their thumbs across a remote control.
That said, I hated matronly harpy Wendy Pepper and her passive-aggressive tactics in undermining and setting her opponents against one another, and I really resented professional costume designer Kara Saun's remorseless cheating when she called in a few favours to supply her models with personally-designed, super-expensive shoes. It's not that she tried to get away with it, it's that she tried to pretend she didn't understand the offense: there's a thin line between doing what it takes to get ahead and being a fucking asshole, and Saun crosses that line the moment she's caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar and tries to climb up on a cross in response. I was sorry to see flamboyantly gay Austin jettisoned and bemused to see loverboy Robert try to drunkenly "skin the cat" for a girl he wants to sleep with and end up opening a hole in his scalp. So I guess it's not all about the fashions, though the fashions are interesting--and, in truth, from episode-to-episode it's possible to tell yourself that what's really addicting is the chance to watch these folks conceptualize a design, buy fabric, and actually create a prototype within a twenty-four hour time frame.
I mean, it's amazing that these challenges amount to anything, much less that home economics makes for an entertaining hour of television. The rationale is that "Project Runway" is about not the plotting and back-stabbing à la "Survivor" (which has the cunning to dub its factions "tribes"), but the talent of the designers--though I'd point to the astonishing longevity of Pepper as proof that more than a simple "rationale," it's an excuse for snobs like me to tune in religiously. The hero of the program is chair of the Department of Fashion at Parsons School of Design, Tim Gunn. Dapper and erudite, he appears a few times each challenge to dispense advice and, occasionally, to help a contestant along if he/she has gotten into a pickle. Rather than spoil the season by revealing the winner, I'll just say that victory has been worn uncomfortably if dramatically and that, for veterans of this first season, can't be any surprise at all.
Miramax crams the three discs of their "Project Runway: The Complete First Season" DVD release into a swingtray keepcase and punctuates them with a few extras. The best of these, a forty-minute documentary called "Wear Are They Now?", reveals that the people we're most interested in (Jay, Kara, Wendy, Austin, Robert) are mainly doing pretty well. A photo shoot at ELLE (one of the grand prizes) begins to show the cracks in the victor's thin skin of civility and is by itself more scurrilous and unpleasant than any other single moment of the program proper. The same could be said of ten "Deleted Seams" (15 mins.), which demonstrate that the show's producers exercised a lot of laudable restraint by holding back a good bit of infighting and drama-queen showboating. A designer gallery featuring 3-6 images per contestant rounds out the package on a redundant note, but with its bright, modern-TV visuals (presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen) and adequate Dolby 2.0 stereo audio it is, overall, a nice balm for your reality jones. Speaking for me and the missus, we burned through the set in one 36-hour period. Originally published: February 8, 2005.