Occupational competitive reality shows often suffer from a list of negatives. Donald Trump's The Apprentice was endearing in its first season thanks to an interesting cast and a fresh concept. But subsequent seasons have become unwatchable as the fun is replaced with droning corporate robo-speak and detestable contestants whose only goal is to become the kind of money worshipping slimeballs you could never feel good about rooting for. Other occupational contests like Hell's Kitchen or American Inventor hide the non-visual basis of their shows behind overbearing personalities or overwrought melodrama. And most of the musical/performance shows suffer from terrible taste and tacky production. (Rockstar: INXS was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that won't be replicated by the upcoming Supernova version.)
So it makes sense that of these types of shows the two absolute best are the two that cover the fashion industry, where the work is visual, the personalities are unique, and the demands absolutely creative. While America's Next Top Model relies on a lot of back-story and melodrama (given the ages of the contestants it's like MySpace exploded on your TV) it still manages to be one of the very best shows on television right now. The creative flipside to Model, however, perfects the genre to a delirious degree. Bravo's Project Runway is one of the most fully realized reality shows to air since the reality explosion began. The second season is just absolute genius as sixteen culturally diverse fashion designers from across the country are selected to compete in a series of design challenges to crown one the hottest new designer of New York's Fashion Week.
The first episode features clips from open casting calls across the country where a lot of wacky designers display a lot of bizarre, gimmicky and just plain bad ideas. It becomes clear, however, that the show is interested in breaking design down to its basic needs: Form, function, lines, silhouette, style, and originality. They choose some contestants straight out of school, some already running successful businesses, and some with little or no formal training. Like all reality shows, there's clearly a dividing line between the serious contenders and those whose work is not quite up to the same level of sophistication. But unlike most other shows, even the non-starters here are creative, thoughtful, enthusiastic people with drive and passion. No one here is incompetent and that adds to the level of the game.
And that's a good thing because many of the challenges take the concept of design back to its most basic level: Make a new outfit from the clothes off your back, create a gown out of flowers, design an ice skating outfit for guest judge Sasha Cohen. The challenges (which are extremely limiting in time and resources) force the designers to be creative and move quickly. With only a half-hour to sketch their designs, an hour to purchase their materials, and a day or two to do the actual work, the designers are often left with a last-minute scramble to finish, gluing unsewn sleeves together and working directly on their models.
The speed with which they need to work creates much of the fun of the show, as does watching the designers interact. Project Runway does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of a late-night study session. Anyone who has ever worked through the night on some sort of project in a room with other people will immediately recognize the kind of bleary-eyed camaraderie and spontaneous group singing that breaks out throughout the season. While most reality shows create drama with endless back-story and drama, the cast of Project Runway is interesting enough that just watching them do their work while cracking wise is entertaining enough.
Of course, it helps that there are some terrific and engaging personalities in the bunch. Nick Verreos is a design instructor from Los Angeles with years of work under his belt but who just hasn't had his big break. Andrae Gonzalo is a flamboyant, emotional designer who joined the show after having to shutter his own boutique in LA's Chinatown. Chloe Dao is a Houston designer who previously took a stab at the New York fashion world but retreated to her own boutique in Texas. Daniel Franco, a return contestant who was voted off early in the first season, is a quiet, contemplative designer who puts a lot of thought into his work. And Diana Eng approaches her designs from a technological angle, trying to incorporate unusual techniques into the clothes.
Nearly everyone on the show is a stand-out in one way or another but one personality really becomes the show's focus: Santino Rice. Like Nick, Andrae, and a few other contestants, Santino has a keen creative mind with a sophisticated eye. But more than anyone else in this season he's got star power even without the design element. Santino's cutting wit and hyper awareness give him perfect ammunition whether he's dissecting another designer's work or teasing the show's judging panel.
While it's easy to see how such an overpowering personality could become a distraction for some of the other designers (and Santino's performance does ruffle some feathers) it's pretty clear that he's mostly just kidding around. Still, there are times when he's also testing the boundaries of how to throw his competition of their game. Santino is the one who gets off that classic reality TV line "I didn't come here to make friends. I came here to win," and he means it. As a great philosopher once said (Okay, it was Jade on Model) "This is not 'America's Next Top Best Friend.'"
Still Santino shares some pretty tender moments with the other designers and he leads them in many hilarious workroom sing-alongs, often in homage to their fallen comrades. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud sequences revolving around Santino and his larger-than-life persona.
Even though relationships get strained at various points the show does a nice job of showing how sometimes the designers separate their personal feelings from their professional eye. Nick and Santino seem to regard each other as their biggest competition and, even after their relationship takes a turn for the worse, they talk about each other's talents with a level of reverence that they don't throw around carelessly. Even through all his bluster and sarcasm it's clear that Santino respects Nick and wants his respect in return. They all share a common ground with their love for design and this passion informs the whole show.
But it's not all fun and games for the designers. Different challenges demand different disciplines and none test the designers' work ethics more than the team challenges. One finds Daniel Franco's teammates bristling with frustration as his slow, almost meditative design style causes them deadline panic. Another challenge finds Kara Janx having to abandon a design midstream and start from scratch. Her teammate Zulema catches her crying from stress. "I don't mind if you cry," says Zulema. "But cry AND sew!" Nothing sums up the designer-under-pressure better than Kara bent over her work table, sobbing as she cuts fabric.
Unlike America's Next Top Model with its den mother leader Tyra Banks, there's isn't really a strong personality at the helm of Project Runway. Supermodel-host Heidi Klum is much less compelling than Tyra and, perhaps due to her being in what seems like her twelfth month of gestation with her Seal pup, her involvement with the show is mostly confined to the runway elimination sessions. Luckily the show has a much more knowledgeable and compelling authority figure in Tim Gunn, head of the Parsons School of Design's fashion program. The eternally bemused Gunn is hilariously deadpan in his interactions with the troops. Entering a room, one eyebrow cocked, he floats through every scene somehow managing to seem completely loopy and confidently authoritative at the same time. There is no other television personality like Gunn, a fact that doesn't escape Santino: His impressions of Tim Gunn during those long hours at the sewing machine are some of the funniest moments in reality TV. The combination of Gunn's unique persona and Santino's razor-sharp observations and wit is lethal.
The complete second season of Project Runway consists of thirteen episodes plus a reunion special that appears right before the two-hour finale. The packaging claims that the episodes are extended and they do seem to run a few minutes longer than usual one-hour TV programs run without commercials. While I'm not sure what was added to the DVD versions of these episodes I'd guess that it's mostly workroom and after-hours interactions between the designers. Seeing as how these interactions are a huge part of what makes the show special it's safe to say that even fans of the show will find a lot to love about this release.
As for the fashion itself, for a non-designer it's a little tough sometimes to see how one can be both bold and innovative enough to not be considered "safe" while not coming off as over-done or costumey. But then a designer will introduce something that just works so perfectly that even the least fashion conscious viewer will have to say "oh wow, that clicks." Seeing these original designs emerge out of often mundane materials is really interesting, especially when the thematic thought that went into it is clear but not obvious. Many of the designers on the show get off at least one really terrific design and it's great to see the breadth of styles that a group like this can create.
The full-frame video of the show looks good. The images are colorful and bright, although the resolution doesn't always seem to be as high as it should be. Some scenes look over compressed.
The Dolby Digital audio is fine. Voices are clear, although occasionally drowned out by the pumping techno score (particularly in the second episode where the audio mix is most haphazard.) Subtitles are available in English and Spanish, even in the special features.
The season two set packs a terrific set of extras onto the fourth disc. There's a selection of six outtakes, ranging from a few short moments with the contestants to a pair of lengthy, unedited runway judging sessions. One of these features a notorious emotional breakdown from Andrae (about nine minutes) and the other expands on a particularly heated debate between Santino and judge Nina Garcia (just under ten minutes). This one in particular is useful because during the show this exchange seems strangely truncated and appears to reach a boil very quickly. Seeing the entire conversation and how Nina and Santino slowly build in their frustration gives the judging session more depth and context. There is also a short blooper reel.
The fourth disc also includes very well produced "WEAR Are They Now?" segments with the designers who reached the final three. Each has the chance to show a little of how the show impacted their lives and what they are doing now to help build their careers.
There's also a 13 minute montage of clips from the casting tapes of the contestants from season two. It's always fun to see how reality show contestants presented themselves to the producers in the casting process and what it was about their personalities that got them cast. There's also a sequence from the casting process from season three, which will begin to air on Bravo in July, 2006.
Finally there's a lengthy on-screen blog from Tim Gunn dissecting the designers' work from each episode. It's a lot to read off a TV screen but it's worth it as Gunn offers his expert opinion on every outfit designed over the entire season, often disagreeing with the comments of the judges and giving his honest assessments of the contestants. Great stuff.
Project Runway is the rare reality show that transcends the drama and holds appeal beyond the weekly freakshow. Strong personalities, creative designs and interesting challenges make it remarkably rewarding viewing. Despite the rigidity of the competition format the show still seems to swing with a looseness that many other reality shows just don't have the time or personality to display.