Several years ago my wife and I read an article about a new kind of "reality" series about 16 people stranded on a deserted island. We looked at each other and laughed that anyone could ever think such a show would be worth watching. Of course we were hooked within 15 minutes of the first episode and have rarely missed a Survivor, for better or worse, since. The reality genre's formula of bringing together people of disparate backgrounds to share the same stressful situations seemed not to be readily translatable to other locales, especially not to the fashion world which Runway explores, where one would think most aspirants would share similar backgrounds and interests. Project Runway has proven for three seasons now that that is emphatically not the case, and it has done so with a surprising amount of drama, intrigue and superb casting. At least my wife and I knew better than to laugh this time 'round, and I for one am glad we didn't.
Season Three of Project Runway may offer no real surprises for fans of the series--it knows what it's setting out to do, and it does so following its own guidelines developed over the first two seasons. Interviewing potential contestants in several cities including Miami, Chicago and New York with the help of several season two players (and the ultimate winner), hosts Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum separate the wheat from the chaff with usually a more genteel approach than their counterparts over at American Idol do, though occasionally Gunn can get testy when he's not impressed with a candidate ("I feel insulted," he grimaces at one woefully underprepared man who seemed to have wandered in off the street with a few sketches but no constructed clothes to show). Klum, while obviously beautiful and knowledgeable about the fashion industry, tends to take a back seat in the early going as Gunn guides the proceedings to the eventual Runway.
To say that Season Three provides a wide variety of future Givenchys is probably the understatement of the year. There's a wound up way too tight older professional from another walk of life trying to break into the industry (Laura Bennett), a snowboarding 20-something (who looks 15, much to her own consternation), Katie Gerdes, a Harvard MBA who can't operate a sewing machine (Stacey Estrella), a man who spent years designing outfits for Barbie (Robert Best, and, no, that isn't a joke), and several proto-professionals who by the time they reached the Runway had already designed successfully (that is, for actual people, not dolls), albeit in niche markets, including Jeffrey Sebelia and Kayne Gillespie. Gunn and the casting pro's of Project Runway obviously take a lot of time developing a good mix of backgrounds guaranteed to add a bit (well, sometimes a lot) of spice as interpersonal conflicts arise, especially when people who don't necessarily like each other are forced to work with each other. Gunn is there to provide encouragement and occasional clucks of disapproval, always with his trademark phrase "Make it work." Klum handles the runway portions with grace if not the spunk of Gunn, and gets two catchphrases, "You're in" for the winners and "you're out" for the weekly eliminated contestant.
Season Three saw a couple of important developments, including the first ever banishment of a contestant (wait a minute, is this Big Brother all of a sudden? Oh, that's right, it's called eviction now) and a first-ever twist for the final four. Product/sponsor placement is de rigeur in most reality shows, and Runway is no exception, so expect a lot of not-so-subtle promo's for series backer Macy's, not to mention L'Oreal (the makeup room) and Tresemme (the hair salon).
Though the world of high fashion may not instantly spring to mind as an environment of intrigue and nail-biting suspense (designers everywhere are no doubt snickering at this statement even as they read it), Project Runway proves that it's not necessarily the industry that's featured in these shows that breeds success (though high fashion does indeed lend itself to this format), but rather the mix of contestants and the general zeitgeist of the show itself. Project Runway has proven itself to be at the head of the pack of the industry-centric reality shows, due in large part to Gunn and Klum and the always engaging mix of contestants. Now if they would only get rid of those damned rosettes (a little inside joke for Season Three aficionados).