Project Runway Season 8: One Last, Loving Look Back
As you may be aware, we can be quite opinionated when the mood strikes us. We thought we’d said all there was to say about the S8 finale of PR but something’s come up in the commentariat which got us thinking, which then got us talking, and then after 45 minutes of “And you know what ELSE?” at each other, we realized we had one last thing to say.
In the wake of Gretchen’s controversial win, there’s been a lot of talk about Nina and Michael needing to be sent out to pasture and new judges brought in. We admit, the thought occurred to us in previous seasons that maybe they’d gotten a little tired of the gig, but Season 6′s mostly Kors-less and Nina-less judging sessions were lifeless and a little painful. And say what you will about their conclusions, there’s no denying that the final judging session of this season was lively, to say the least. We can’t accuse either Nina or Michael of being bored with their jobs after witnessing that debate. The problem as we see it isn’t Nina and Michael. It goes a little deeper than that.
If you have DVDs of Season 1, now would be a fun time to break them out for a rewatch. One of the things we love about S1 (and we mentioned this to Jay McCarroll once and he heartily agreed), is that Project Runway had a “grubby little cable show” feel to it in those early days. No one involved really seemed to know what they were doing and there was this raw feeling of everyone just winging it to see what would happen. A common criticism of later seasons of the show is that they over-did it with one-day challenges and that’s why all the clothes suck. If you re-watch S1 you’ll see that they had plenty of one-day challenges themselves, although there were fewer them and we get the impression that even then, they had more time to complete the outfits.
No, the problem with the show isn’t Nina and Michael or one-day challenges. The problem is the challenges went from design-based to fashion-based. Allow us to demonstrate:
* Listen to this song (“I’m a GIRL on the VERGE of a nervous breakdown!“) Now make a dress for the woman singing it.
* What would the clothes look like in 2055? Make a collection.
* Redesign the U.S. Postal Service uniform.
* Make a red carpet dress. HOWEVER, it needs to be for an entertainment journalist who has requirements for color, length and practicality regarding battery packs and microphones.
* Make something entirely different out of the literal clothes off your back.
* Make something for a jet-setter that has to look good after a 6-hour plane ride.
* Make a pageant dress/figure skating costume/wrestler’s costume/drag queen costume.
* Make something for Heidi Klum.
* Make something for the cover of a magazine.
* Make something for a celebrity to wear on the red carpet.
* Make something that “shows us who you really are as a designer,” (i.e., make a pretty dress).
* Make something red.
There have been far too many of the latter challenges and not nearly enough of the former in recent seasons of the show. When you subtly shift the challenges away from problem-solving and working withing parameters, and shift it towards things like magazine covers and red carpets, then the judges are eventually going to pivot away from the criteria they chose to select previous winners and default to the person who’s coming closest to current or about-to-break trends. In other words, the show has stopped being a design competition and has instead become a fashion competition.
Many have decried the drama that permeated this season but we’re not among them. The show has always had interpersonal drama and would be pretty damn boring without it. If everyone quietly sewed for 45 minutes and then held up their dresses at the end it never would have made it past the 1st episode. We also don’t get particularly worked up over the shortness of the challenges. The whole point to the show from the very beginning was to put talented people in very stressful situations to see what they could come up with. Time management (under sometimes excruciating time constraints) has always been a huge factor with each challenge. But the problem in later seasons is that time management has become the entirety of the challenge. Instead of asking the designers to make practical and aesthetic considerations within unusual paramaters (What is the world like in 2055? How do you make a stylish postal uniform? How do you make something stylish that looks good after a plane ride? How do you make a dress for a man?), the major portion of their challenge is just to finish on time. “Make a pretty dress. You have FIFTEEN MINUTES!” In other words, it’s not just the shortness of the turnaround time; it’s that the turnaround time has become the entire challenge.
We still respect Nina and Michael as experts and we have no real desire to see them ousted from the show. It’s the show itself that needs a good looking-at. Judging by online and critical uproar, we don’t think we’re alone on that. Producers, what made the show great and gave it an audience was a combination of many factors but the one that seems to have been almost completely forgotten is the idea of watching creative people put through their paces, not to make something pretty that looks just like dozens of other pretty dresses on runways, red carpets and magazine covers, but to make something interesting because you posed a tough question and forced them to answer it.