The TV Room: Project Runway Season 14, by David Bax
“Project Runway season fourteen? Didn’t that end, like, weeks ago?” This is what I assume you’re thinking. But Lifetime extended the run this year to include not just the requisite reunion special but, a week later, a clip show called “Tim Gunn’s Ultimate Throwback Thursday,” which purported to be a look back at the biggest moments in the show’s history. Though the hour-long bonus episode contained plenty of fun highlights, it soon became apparent that the show’s “history” in this case referred only to its run on Lifetime and that no clips were to come from the first five seasons. It got me thinking about the history of Project Runway and its current place in popular culture.
First, though, a couple words on this season (so the headline of this post doesn’t make me look like a liar). It was good! It was not great. The biggest deficit was the lack of any particularly outstanding talent. The designers were good – the baseline of skill necessary to get on the show keeps it respectable and worthwhile – but there was no singular force like Kini or Mondo. There wasn’t even a storyline of a designer honing her personal style over the course of the season like with, say, Amanda. In general, what we knew about the designers by week three was all we were going to learn about them as artists and creators. However, the show’s producers – this not being their first rodeo – are more than capable of making up in individual characterizations of the contestants what may be lacking in individual skills. And they did it all, at least this season, without the blatant contrivances of shittier reality shows or of its shittier past seasons with their numerous group challenges clearly aimed at causing friction.
Project Runway settling into a comfortable groove is maybe the best we can hope for since its inauspicious exit from Bravo and debut season on Lifetime. On Bravo, the show was produced by the creditable Magical Elves team, who went on to create Top Chef for the network as well. In fact, it may have been the success of Top Chef that led to the abandonment of Project Runway. PR became overshadowed almost immediately by its younger sibling as well as by the Housewives strain of reality shows that came to dominate and define Bravo as a network. Interestingly, Top Chef and The Real Housewives of Orange County made their debuts less than two weeks apart.
PR found itself in a much different situation over at Lifetime, where it debuted its sixth season with an ill-advised and mercifully short-lived relocation from New York to Los Angeles. New producers Bunim/Murray found themselves with the network’s flagship reality series. That has only become more true over the past nine seasons, as Lifetime has repeatedly attempted to posit PR as the star in a solar system of offshoot shows, from Project Runway All-Stars to Project Runway: Junior to Project Runway: Threads to Project Accessory to weirder offspring like Models of the Runway and the Charlie Kaufman-like Under the Gunn, in which Tim Gunn mentored people on how to be mentors to a group of Project Runway style contestants. Lifetime has also metastasized the show’s runtime from a standard 60 minutes to 90, with occasional finales running as much as two and a half hours. This led to some literal growing pains, as Bunim/Murray (whose track record does not tend toward respectability) sought to fill the extra time with more manufactured drama.
The “Ultimate Throwback Thursday” special allowed us longtime viewers to remove the memories of the show’s flabby middle years and crystalized its legacy as an exciting series that has educated people like me on the world and value of fashion while showcasing voices from many underrepresented groups. The show has a reputation for casting female, gay and minority contestants that is so well-established as to be almost unremarkable at this point. This season’s winner, who chose to present a plus-sized collection at New York Fashion Week for the finale, is another part of that legacy.
As an aside, though, it’s unfortunate that the clip special returned to the footage of contestant Ken flying into a rage a couple years back. This man’s anger management issues are well beyond anything that can in good conscience be utilized as entertainment. For the producers to continue milking those moments essentially boils down to exploitation of a mentally ill person. They should pay for his therapist and any medications he is prescribed as penance.
All in all, season fourteen and its extended denouement proved that Project Runway has become, after some years lost in the wilderness, exactly what it initially seemed destined to be. It’s an institution.