Top Design’s third-act problems: the judges and the worst reality TV catchphrase ever

After three episodes, Top Design is shaping up to be an interesting talent competition, and a semi-worthy replacement for Project Runway. It benefits from a process we can watch unfold and judge in a way that Top Chef will never be able to match. And perhaps because the show is produced by Mole producers Scott Stone and Clay Newbill, not Magical Elves, its production is smoother than Top Chef, with less skittish editing and a greater concentration on the actual work.

But Top Design still isn’t great. Todd Oldham is growing into his role, and apparently having to record fewer voiceovers, so while he’s not perfect, he’s better than Katie Lee Joel ever was. The three real major problems all occur in the show’s final act, which should be high drama as the judges quiz the contestants and deliberate.

But here, the third act is a black hole, and it’s that way because of two major–but at this point unchangeable–things:

The judges. They’re annoying and weak, and they have almost unbearably awkward chemistry. None of them are as hysterically bitchy (Michael Kors) or angry (Tom Colicchio) as they should or could be, and instead come off as whiny (Kelly Wearstler) and petty (Margaret Russell).

Their deliberations are stilted and aren’t really conversations, but an exchange of phrases. Plus, while their decision-making is certainly subjective, it sometimes comes across as irrational. For last night’s challenge, the designers were told they would be judged on teamwork, but then the judges spent most of the time trying to reconstruct each project in order to assign blame. Individualism is the opposite of “teamwork,” and while they certainly had to pick one person to go home, they were too obsessed with breaking down each project by the designers’ contributions.

The catchprhases. Jonathan Adler tells designers that they’re safe by saying, “You can stay,” which comes off as rather condescending, and implies that they’re all terrible but, because the show can’t end now, they have to stay. Worse, he says it with a look on his face that says, “It pains me to say this because you suck so very much, and your presence in this room makes me want to dry heave, so just move out of my line of site, you piece of schlock.”

And “see you later, decorator” is the worst catchphrase in all of reality television’s history–and I haven’t forgotten Martha Stewart’s short-lived “You just don’t fit in.” Top Design‘s goodbye line is, its creator and speaker Jonathan Adler admits, “tres controversial,” in part because “The word ‘Decorator’ is quite controversial,” apparently. But the phrase itself is amateurish, juvenile, and cheapens the whole elimination ceremony. If a five-year-old said it or wrote it, the phrase might be cute. But as of now, it’s a dreadful conclusion to an unnecessarily weak third act.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.