Design Star: Next Gen is excellent, a perfect mash-up between interior design and reality TV competition. It’s purely about design, without the conceit and artificiality that so many HGTV shows pack around design to make the reveals more dramatic.
The bad news is that Design Star is only airing its premiere on HGTV today (HGTV, 9 p.m.). After that, it is moving to Discovery+ for weekly premieres. (Update, Aug. 28, 2021: Like it’s done with so many other “exclusives,” Discovery is bringing the show to cable, airing Saturdays at 9 on HGTV starting Aug. 28.)
Discovery is not playing games with trying to get us to pay them directly for its content, moving shows old and new away from their cable networks and onto streaming. Whether this accelerates the demise of cable, alienates people, and/or creates a successful parallel business is unclear. I’m just sorry more people won’t get to see the rest of Design Star.
It’s been seven years since HGTV’s Design Star was cancelled, and I’ve missed it, and its sibling series, Food Network Star because they had the potential to be great talent competitions. Both eventually lost their way, especially the ever-changing Food Network Star, but they were
It produced at least one actual star (David Bromstad, who won season one) and others who you might recognize, though not many actual stars.
What it did produce was good television—and successful television. Design Star was, as Discovery+ said in a press release, “the most successful and highest-rated franchise in the network’s history.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to see that success continue, because its return is fantastic. And surprisingly, the limitations of filming in 2020 have actually made Design Star: Next Gen a better show than its predecessor.
How Design Star: Next Gen improves on the show that gave us David Bromstad
Design Star usually started with a group challenge, where all the designers would work together and design their own living space. That was a fun challenge, but like all the team challenges that followed, it allowed interpersonal drama to bleed into the individual design work.
On Design Star: Next Gen, the designers are in competition but not collaborating.
Each contestant has each been assigned an individual “lab,” which are basically tiny houses in a circle somewhere in the Los Angeles area, overlooking the ocean. The production pre-decorated the lab spaces, so the designers aren’t just starting from a blank canvas.
Nearby, there’s a giant warehouse with Wayfair furnishings, plus and an outdoor workshop. And the designers have the assistance of (masked) crew members, who help with things like carpentry and loading in the room.
While contestants on Design Star and Next Food Network Star often struggled to articulate who they were or what kind of show they wanted, most of these contestants have a clear sense of that. “My brand is 80s drug lord meets your grandma chic. Golden Girls meets Pablo Escobar—a, like warm, vintage-y, retro feel,” Arianna says.
Perhaps that’s due to great casting, or perhaps designers just don’t need linear television any more.
Several of the contestants actually recognize each other from Instagram, where they’ve already done their own brand-building.
They don’t need a TV show to make them think about how they’d like to be perceived, and they also may not even need it to be a star or successful—though clearly, they all want that, and the $50,000 prize that comes along with the amorphous “your own show” prize.
While other reality shows have embarrassingly tried to incorporate social media (the most-recent RuPaul’s Drag Race Rusical, I’m looking at you) or have the contestants use cell phones in corny ways (Love Island cast member: I got a text!), it’s all pretty organic here.
The “Next Gen” of the show’s title comes as part of a mini-challenge, the “brand-building challenge,” because these designers and renovators are not just TV stars, but “content creators.” The first challenge is to create an Instagram story, basically, and the designers all approach the task in very different ways.
They find out who won the mini-challenge via a video message, which makes sense because they’re all off working alone in their labs. (That said, I was baffled by the fact that the videos, both the designers’ and the one from the judges, were filmed with cell phone cameras held vertically, so that, on TV, it’s small and more than half the screen is just dead space. I suppose that’s accurate to the real world, but it’s not great television.)
The relative isolation during the challenges makes the show better, because it eliminates all of the interpersonal conflict, and just allows them to work, alone, on their own designs. The designers to interact and talk at other points, but they are on their own to just create and work.
How amazing is that! I suppose it’s possible that, later in the season, the producers will ruin this by forcing them to team up in some way, but by constructing these individual labs, it seems like they’re all-in on individual challenges.
As a bonus, we’re watching someone design and experiment in an artificial space that is just being used for this competition, which I so prefer to watching Hildi ruin some poor kid’s room by gluing fish hooks to the wall and flooding it with saltwater on Trading Spaces.
These “labs” are reminiscent of the blank canvases given to the stylists on the Bravo competition Top Design, which was also judged by Jonathan Adler.
Adler is better here; instead of his own ridiculous catchphrase (“See you later, decorator”), he just steals RuPaul’s. “Charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent—you’ve got it all,” Adler tells contestant Tony, who shows up to judging in full drag, because he’s also a drag queen, Alora Chateaux.
The judging—at least in the first episode, which Discovery+ made available to critics, and is the only one I’ve seen—is working quite well.
The criteria is clear and while taste in design is subjective, the judges seem aware of that, and willing to concede some issues of taste. Besides Adler, the other permanent judge is Lauren Makk; host Allison Holker Boss is also commenting and judging, like Padma Lakshmi on Top Chef.
The judging process is surprisingly intimate, as the judges and the designer tour the space together, giving the judges a chance to ask questions and for the designers to respond. (The other designers watch via monitors.)
The most overdramatic, reality TV thing that Design Star: Next Gen does in its premiere involves the announcement of the eliminated designer. Instead of just saying who’s eliminated, because that’s too easy, the bottom three designers have to go back to their labs, where the eliminated designer finds their door locked. Then the other designers show up at the eliminated person’s door anyway, so it’s all just unnecessary.
But for the most part, it sets up a strong challenge, gives them resources to do it, and then showcases their work. That’s what a talent-based reality competition should do, and in its first episode, at least, Design Star: Next Gen does it extremely well.
Design Star: Next Gen: A