Project Runway 12: gimmicks that actually work

Last December, I wrote that Michael Kors’ exit from Lifetime’s Project Runway was further evidence of the series’ death spiral. I didn’t watch that season, but watching some early episodes this season, I was shocked to discover that, as others have argued, the show is good again. Unbelievably, that’s thanks to all of the gimmicks and twists the show has introduced.

First, the bad: the product integration is out of control, reaching such egregious levels that are beyond comical and just embarrassing. The 90-minute format is still too long for me, with the material that would have–or should have–been cut from a 60-minute episode standing out pretty clearly. Also, Zac Posen is no Michael Kors.

But the new additions to the show have worked well. While I think Tim Gunn used his new power to save a designer too early, his expanded power and presence is welcome, and has pulled him out of the “make it work, make it work” catchphrase-spewing rut that he was in for several seasons. In particular, his insight is really valuable and welcome, especially as the judges examine the clothes up close–another smart and thoughtful addition.

The blind judging and suggested budget twists haven’t yet seemed to have any noticeable impact, but it’s interesting to give the designers agency over their spending, and the judging should be blind to protect against even subconscious bias toward a designer because of, say, their horrific attitude. (And this season has had some real winners in the personality department, though the show never lost its focus amid the drama.)

This season has also had a lot of really interesting challenges, from using parachutes to designing with bow ties or shoes as inspiration. Last week’s episode, when fans got makeovers and became the models for a week, added some real consequence to their work, and also gave us a fun look behind the scenes at the runway set.

All of these additions to the show have the effect of highlighting what really makes Project Runway work: the skill and craft of fashion design under enormous constraints.

Compare that to Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, which just concluded a season that was mostly about piling gimmick on top of gimmick. Cook a meal in the middle of nowhere–after skydiving, using a camp stove, with no utensils or knives, and your feet tied behind your head. (I exaggerate only slightly.) Likewise, Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race has become unwatchable because it is nothing more than the producers screwing with the contestants via Tyler Florence (who’s as unlikable a host as Curtis Stone), preventing them from doing what the show is supposed to be about: running a food truck.

Project Runway has finally figured out how to add new dimensions to an almost 10-year-old series by making sure the core of their series, fashion design, remains the focus of every episode.

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