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The Monitor: The new, improved 'Project Runway'

Sniping designers, an undone Tim Gunn and explosive video recaps. Has 'Runway' finally become a soap opera? It's certainly turned it into the best of the three season's Lifetime's run.

September 26, 2010|By Jon Caramanica, Special to the Los Angeles Times

For the first time in a while on "Project Runway," feelings are raw. Designers are sniping at each other with ferocity. Even levelheaded Tim Gunn is coming undone. After a recent challenge in which one team of designers was unfairly dominated by a peer, he exploded. "I don't know why you allow Gretchen to manipulate, control and bully you," he sternly lectured, in a voice that for the even-keeled Gunn qualified as yelling. "I don't understand it."

Each week, Gunn posts a video online recapping the previous week's episode, and these are even more explosive. Through Gunn's lens, show producers are sometimes hapless, forcing him to intervene on behalf of reason and sanity. As for his thoughts on the judges: "I'm not going to talk about the crack-smoking judges," he said in one. "I promised I wouldn't."

Is "Project Runway," the foundational reality competition, finally accepting its destiny as a soap opera?

These conflicts have helped make the show's current season the best of the three that have aired on Lifetime, which picked up the show after a contentious struggle between its former home, Bravo, and one of its producers, the Weinstein Co.

The new, improved "Project Runway" is different from the original, great "Project Runway" in small but significant ways. Early seasons privileged craft as much as character, but over time it's become clear that the latter can be a worthy stand-in for the former, eliminating the need for much focus on the more technical side of design.

The expansion of the show's runtime to 90 minutes from an hour this season has allowed for more exposition, which seems to have gone largely to the runway show and deliberations. That watching people sew — and agonize over sewing — isn't much fun is a valuable lesson producers appear to have learned. That means more attention to the backstage room where designers await their fates, in the manner of the "stew room" on "Top Chef." Now, in addition to the judges' commentary, the backstage talks provide a second running conversation about the show, and often a better one.

In the last two years, "Models of the Runway," a secondary competition that used the show's models to give an additional point of view, aired as a companion piece to the show. It's been a pleasant distraction, and sometimes hilarious. But the extra half-hour is better used on the main show.

There's also stronger camera work on the runway, including shots that begin as the models strike a pose behind the main scrim, for a shadow effect, then follow them around the side of the set as they walk out onto the runway. A minor tweak, but it works, giving the show more movement. That's echoed in the interview segments too; they're more tightly cut, cramming more voices and more information into each minute.

And of course there's Gunn. As "Runway" has become more and more popular and familiar, Gunn has evolved into a fascinating character. On the show, he's a deeply ethical presence. Elsewhere, he's a card, tossing off his now-famous story of Anna Wintour being carried down some stairs with wit and panache. He's taken potshots at the Kardashians for their "absence of taste." He's guest-starred on "Ugly Betty," "Drop Dead Diva" and "How I Met Your Mother." He's just released his second book, "Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work."

His spinoff show, "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style," might have flopped, but he's otherwise done a strong job of creating a future for himself that doesn't depend on "Runway."

After all, he's the show's consistent voice, its moral center. And what surrounds him varies in quality and attitude. The last two seasons have suffered from underwhelming casting, a problem that's less a function of its new home, Lifetime, than of the process. When the show switched networks, it also switched producers, from Magical Elves to Bunim-Murray, which appears to only now have grasped the dynamics required for this show.

This season, there's a villain, the self-important and imperious Gretchen, who barely has time for her own clothes in between telling other designers how to improve theirs. There's a pair of true eccentrics — the manic Valerie and the art-piece Mondo, with his precise, magical outfits. There was a warm den mother, Peach, who, along with her fantastic loafers, was eliminated earlier this month. Another recently eliminated contestant, Casanova, was the show's consistent source of hangdog humor. In one episode, he lamented that the judges had been stereotyping his clothes, moaning that they were for "old ladies, sluts, flamenco dancers."

Finally, there's Michael C., a chubby naïf from Palm Springs, and one of this season's stars. He lacks formal training, a sticking point with the other designers, who all campaign mercilessly against him. (Except for Mondo, who, after working with him on a recent challenge, pronounced himself cured of his distaste.) To the other designers' faces, Michael is unfailingly polite and respectful and naïve. To the cameras, he's alternately wounded and knowing.

And he has persevered. He won two challenges, including the one that required the designers to remake a bridesmaid's dress into something more wearable and fashionable. His result, a jutting black number with a lacy top, was particularly reviled by his peers. On his post-show video, Gunn dismissed it as a "hooker" dress. The reunion show this year should be a blast.

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