Monday, January 23, 2012

It’s a man’s world: Austin (in bowler),Mondo, Jerell & Michael in the workroom

Project Runway: All Stars is interesting enough on the face of it.But it may be heading directly for a train wreck, insofar as reality TV shows go.

All Stars is the latest incarnation of long-running cable series that pits mostly young clothing designers against one another in a quest for prizes and a considerable amount of notoriety & exposure in the fashion world itself. The premise behind this version of the series is that 13 contestants who did not win first place in any of Runway’s nine previous seasons compete to win a considerably enriched prize package – the sale of a clothing line in “select Neiman Marcus locations,” $100K with which to start a clothing line, another $100K for the heck of it, the usual spread in Marie Clare plus a one-year job as guest editor of the fashion magazine. The contestants, seven women & six men, come from seven of Runway’s seasons– only the third & the most recent are unrepresented altogether, while three participants (Rami, Sweet P & Elisa) were on season four & two others (Anthony & Mila) were on season seven.

If the contestants are familiar to viewers, the rest of the cast is not. Gone, at least for this iteration, are mentor Tim Gunn, host & supermodel Heidi Klum, and permanent judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia. Losing the latter two after all these years is like standing up & realizing just how totally uncomfortable your chair has been all this time. Neither of the two new permanent judges, designers Isaac Mizrahi & Georgina Chapman, have taken the opportunity during the first three episodes to show off their pettiness, arbitrariness of judgment or over-the-top egos (tho Mizrahi has been around TV awhile & has certainly had his moments, such as squeezing Scarlett Johansson’s tit on the red carpet as an interviewer at the 2006 Golden Globes). On the other hand, the lack of Klum’s chipper Auf Wiedersehen & Tim Gunn’s tough love & constant admonition to Make It Work are serious things to give up. Thus far Klum’s replacement, supermodel Angela Lindvall is further evidence for the all-models-are-boring stereotype. Gunn’s replacement, tho, is Marie Clare’s editor-in-chief Joanna Coles (Nina Garcia’s boss in the real world), who makes up for Gunn’s buttoned-down style with her Britishisms & visible sense of being obsessively driven – she’s easily the most ambitious person on a show that is all about ambition. In keeping with the fashion industry as incest theme, Mizrahi worked with Tim Gunn at Liz Claiborne for a while. You’d think with all those great fashion minds, Liz Claiborne would be profitable, but it’s been hovering at the cusp of a death spiral for several years, and can be found now only in JC Penney stores. They may make great TV, but can they sell a dress?

But what really leaps out instantly as the show’s true weakness is the imbalance in quality of the designers by gender. Over the first episodes, eight of the nine designers with the highest scores have all been men, as have all three winners. Eight of the nine designers with the lowest scores have been women, including the three who have thus far been eliminated from the competition. Further, it’s hard to imagine that the final four designers won’t all be men: Rami Kashou, Michael Costello, Mondo Guerra and Austin Scarlett. Mondo is the only one of the four who has yet to win a contest. It’s conceivable that Kenley Collins – who is competing with Michael & Jerell Scott for the role of the designer who has most improved since their prior turn on Runway – could sneak in there, but almost anyone else will raise the same complaints of fixed judging that once kept Austin out of the final three in Season One (where it was widely reported that his “dummy” show at Fashion Week, presented so that viewers wouldn’t know that he’d already been eliminated, was far superior to the other designers,including eventual winner Jay McCarroll).

In those early days of Runway, the producers were still adhering pretty strictly to the formulas of reality TV contests, consciously framing one of the contestants as the “evil” one – in Season One, it was Wendy Pepper. It was only as the series proved to be a cable TV phenomenon that the producers came to realize that they didn’t need this level of hokum. Still, they have never had a final three that was all one gender. And it’s not at all clear what the consequences might be if it happens here. Lifetime, after all, which paid beaucoup bucks to wrest the Runway franchise away from Bravo, positions itself as a women’s network. You won’t find pro wrestling or 1,000 Ways to Die here.

Part of the problem simply lies in the fact that the women chosen for this series were not the strongest among the previous seasons. None finished second in their season, as both Rami & Mondo did. At the other end of the spectrum, two of the three designers who finished fifth in their seasons were women. One, Elisa, actually came in tenth.What a shock that she was the first to be eliminated this year. One of the fifth place finishers, Sweet P, was the next to go. Yet among the women who finished in the final three and are not here now are the aforementioned Pepper,Kara Saun (one of the most successful former contestants), Laura Bennett, Korto Momulu, Althea Harper, Carol Hannah Whitfield, Jillian Lewis & Uli Herzner, none of whom finished lower than third. Indeed, Kara, Korto, Laura & Uli would have given the women as powerful a lineup as the male contestants. It would be interesting to know why they aren’t here now. The only males whose absence might be comparable are Mycheal Knight & Daniel Vosovic.

One major gain from having so many strong designers, even if it’s mostly on one side of the chromosome divide, is that the quality of designs has been much higher than one usually sees in the early weeks of a Runway series. Once we get down to the final seven or so, the eliminations are going to be excruciating. I would expect them to be controversial, not necessarily in a good way, as well.