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The wonderful surprise of Project Runway Junior

Project Runway Junior is, surprisingly, not another MasterChef Junior, a charming show with talented kids. Nor is it like one of the many clones that popped up after MasterChef Junior’s success, most of which failed to see what made the original so great (talent + charm + seriousness).

It is also not, thankfully, Project Runway: Threads, the 2014 well-intentioned but flop of a series that tried to turn the show into a fashion version of Chopped for kids, except with their parents hovering nearby for drama.

Finally, the new show—the fifth spin-off of the show, including Tim Gunn’s version— is also not Project Runway: All-Stars, which feels watching past designers play around in front of stand-ins for the real judges.

The big surprise of this latest spin-off is that it is exactly like the original. There is no difference between Project Runway Junior and Project Runway. And that makes for a terrific series.

Yes, the designers are teenagers. Yes, the judges are different. But unexpectedly and weirdly, these things don’t register in any kind of noticeable way. The sets, editing, are all identical. So is the structure of the competition.

The most obvious change is the condensed episode—and those 30 deleted minutes are not missed. There aren’t any scenes with the designers at their hotel (which are usually filler though can sometimes flesh out the designers’ relationships to one another). Also gone are the extensive, fast-forward-worthy visits to the product placement hair and makeup studios. There is still time for the judges to look at the clothes up close after the runway show; there is plenty of time for consultations with Tim.

Meanwhile, host Hannah Davis and judges Kelly Osbourne, Christian Siriano, and Aya Kanai don’t do anything new—though there is something about Aya’s delivery and commentary that is very reminiscent of Nina Garcia, and Hannah Davis isn’t quite doing a Heidi Klum impression but does host similarly.

What’s left, then, is a show featuring talented designers being challenged to produce clothes under extreme pressures and deadlines, and being fairly judged on their work. That works.

The key, as always, is Tim Gunn

The one person who permanently spans both shows is Tim Gunn. What’s remarkable is that he is absolutely no different on Project Runway Junior than he is on the regular show.

He has no kind of kid filter; he’s not saying the equivalent of, This is great for someone your age. While he sometimes challenges the designers, he’s also sometimes affirming their choices and helping them get over self-doubt. He does that with the non-junior designers, too.

Gordon Ramsay and his fellow MasterChef judges tone down their shtick for the Junior edition, which isn’t patronizing, but appropriate, since their cast members are so very young. These young designers are older than MasterChef Junior’s cast—the youngest here is roughly the same age as the oldest on the Fox show.

Tim Gunn treating the designers the same way he treats all designers on Project Runway signals to the audience that they are no different. And they aren’t.

To my untrained fashion eye, the clothes the young designers made in episode one were pretty much on part with the regular show. The second episode featured unconventional materials, and some of the outfits were a little less impressive, though it also looked like they didn’t have a huge range of choices for materials, and they also only had one day.

The designers are enthusiastic and excitable, and there’s a lot of energy and joy, but they also take the work seriously. Meanwhile, the show hasn’t piled on any gimmicks or twists, nor do the challenges appear to be dumbed down for kids—if anything, they seem to be working under greater time constraints, at least so far.

Talented designers having fun, supporting one another, being challenged by a competition and experts? That’s Project Runway at its best, and it’s also why Project Runway Junior has been such a great surprise so far.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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