Project Runway 4 debuts tonight

After being off the air for about 13 months, its longest break yet, Project Runway returns tonight for its fourth season at 10 p.m. ET.

Perhaps inevitably, the first episode makes non-stop references to the show’s own success, a reminder that this was the series responsible for brining talent to TV. But the self-referential moments go beyond that; one designer cries and says it’s because he’s on Project Runway and can’t believe it. Even Tim Gunn refers to his own catchphrase and name-drops his own show. “So, in our ‘Project Runway’ tradition, make it work,” he tells the designers. In addition, the show also returns with more product placement; for example, the clock in the workroom now has a sponsor’s logo on it.

The show’s 15 designers are, of course, extremely talented–they’re so talented and successful that their introductions consist almost entirely of them justifying their presence on Project Runway 4. That got me thinking about whether or not it’s raw talent alone that draws us to the series, or something else.

Some critics seem thrilled to have the series return: “entertaining and likable on so many levels that it’s hard to resist”, “every bit as delicious as the kickoff of past seasons”, “better than ever”.

But there’s also somewhat of a backlash. Gannett’s Ava Gacser asks, “Will fans be satisfied after waiting more than a year for the hit reality show to return? Judging by the premiere, we’re not so sure.” The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan writes that “too many of the competitors have settled into well-worn archetypes” and “All the conversations and exchanges feel predictable. … With the emergence of so many stock characters — and the return of such reliable ones — the first episode begs for a dazzling challenge,” which it does not have. The Knoxville News Sentinel’s Terry Morrow has stronger words, as his reaction to the first episode was “slight boredom, a mild curiosity about why these people are considered talented, and a strange itching — to find the remote … because these flamboyant contestants are living and breathing jokes.”

Project Runway 4 [Bravo]