CW’s Stylista: Bitchy, mean, derivative, unlikable

The CW’s new competition Stylista, which debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET, is produced by America’s Next Top Model‘s producers (including Tyra Banks), but it aspires to be like a Bravo competition. Instead, it ends up as a hybrid of Top Model and The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, but set in The Devil Wears Prada’s universe. That could still work, but since it pulls the worst parts of each of those and hits us in the face with them repeatedly, it’s kind of a mess.

The show is so derivative that its parts seem too familiar. For example, the send-off line borrows so heavily from two other shows that it’s basically just copied: Its first half comes from The Apprentice: Martha Stewart‘s initial send-off line “You just don’t fit in” (Stylista‘s version:”You’re not the right fit”) and from Top Chef‘s “Please pack your knives and go” (Stylista‘s: “Please pack your desk and go.”) That’s just outright plagiarism.

What is new is having such an extraordinarily unlikable star/host in Anne Slowey, an editor at Elle. The reasons why Slowley was dropped as a guest judge from Project Runway after the first season are clear: she’s terrible.

Slowley acts like she’s Trump-level famous, and throws her coat on the reception desk like she’s Meryl Streep playing Anna Witour, but she’s not even close to any of them. She also comes across as a terrible human being who’s just pointlessly mean and rude. Whether that’s a persona, the editing, or her actual self is irrelevant; she’s not that fun to watch. Trump’s a sexist dick sometimes, but he’s also charismatic and draws you in even as he pushes you away. You can’t help but watch. Keep Trump in mind as you watch this brief clip that illustrates Slowey’s on-screen persona:

Slowey goes on to critique their clothes, and then there’s another segment where someone else critiques what the cast looks like. During the first episode, pretty much everyone makes fun of and/or is mean to everyone else, and it’s super catty, which doesn’t seem to fit with the weight of the series and its prize. The contestants are Top Model-worthy, which is to say that their experience is minimal, so here they kind of seem like an embarrassment. Anyone who’s ever applied for a job at Elle–or got hired–probably feels insulted by this group.

That’s really the central problem: There are very few likable people here. Those contestants we actually get to meet are the ones who are the bitchiest, and we need people to root for. There is at least one reason to watch: the plus-sized model–I mean, aspiring fashion magazine editor–who gets a disproportionate number of compliments so they seem gratuitous. Still, you pull for her because the other contestant seem to hate her because of her weight, and she’s the only one with screen time who doesn’t rip on others.

Technically, the show is weak. There’s constant ADR, because apparently no one could say the appropriate lines when they were supposed to, and most of Anne’s instructions are delivered via voice-overs. The elimination set is basically Martha Stewart’s boardroom, and the loft space isn’t impressive nor is there a point to its quasi-minimalism (they sleep in bunk beds, although the rest of the place is well-appointed).

Whereas Project Runway makes fashion accessible and intriguing, Stylista makes Elle and, by association, the New York fashion industry, seem inaccessible, cruel, and self-congratulatory. The show wants to set Elle up as this glamorous, wonderful place to work, but the opposite seems true.

The good news is that the second episode finds a bit more manageable tone, and Slowey tones down her terribleness. When the challenges don’t focus on some reprehensible aspect of life at Elle, they’re engaging. But at its best moments, Stylista only reaches the level of America’s Next Top Model–which may help it find an audience, even if the bar for talent competitions with actual consequence has been set much higher.

Stylista: C-

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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.