What went wrong with Project Runway at its new home on Lifetime was subtle—but we all saw signs of the brewing wrongness in the very first episode of this sixth season. Just like when Frodo first put on the ring, Lifetime took us through some scary hole of broken space-time, revealing a world with a Project Runway nearly identical to, yet somehow totally opposite from, the Project Runway we knew so well from our universe.
"All of the elements and visual images are there, but it has zero of the magic of the original, and thus feels oddly empty," wrote reality-TV expert Andy Dehnart at Reality Blurred. Yes! That! What was it?
“They’ve let too many criers on that damn show. There is no crying in fashion. Get some balls and stand up to your garment. Don’t cry, it’s too annoying!”
And remember how stoked we were to have it back? Season 6 premiered on Lifetime to well over 4 million hungry hippos. This was a massive uptick over the premiere of Season 5 back on Bravo, which didn't even hit 3 million.
But, disenchanted with this strange parallel dimension, more often than not viewers left each week.
Women viewers in the ad-friendly market of women 18 to 49 left. They were down 25 percent between the premiere and Episode 9. (What's more, during Season 5 average viewership had actually climbed throughout the season—people weren't, you know, running screaming from the show. During this season, they were, presumably, back to Bravo, into the waiting arms of Real Housewives Nene and Kandi or whoever.)
I turned, of course, to homosexuals to explain what went wrong. I polled some of the show's core audience—smart, urban-living homosexuals who can afford to both wear clothing and own televisions—and asked them: OMG you guys WTF?
Location: That Gross Other Coast.
My first surprise came when most of the gay friends I asked about Project Runway were all, "Oh, I stopped watching that in like Season 3." That's typical: Gays get jaded extra-fast these days! Digging deeper, however, I found folks who still watched the show religiously—and boy howdy, were they ever disgruntled.
The two most glaring—and, really, potentially awesome!—changes to Project Runway were, unfortunately, what people said they never got over: a change of networks and a change of coasts.
"3 words... Los Angeles Lifetime," suggested Tim Smith, a New York artists' studio manager, in a summation of the season. "Sucked sucked sucked."
"L.A. L.A. is what went wrong. Sun-addled brains made for irrelevant hack design," suggested Shane Hoffman, an acupuncture practitioner in New York.
What's more, what are, to New Yorkers, concerns about the well-known inability of anyone permanently or temporarily within the county of Los Angeles to be able to think or even speak were often mingled with discomfort at the steps taken to make the show's drama happen. Which means….
It's About Story: Desperate Narratives.
This season showed a distasteful, cringe-worthy hunger on the part of new producers Bunim/Murray—who took over for the Magical Elves—to make story happen. But they didn't always know how to frame it when they did have a story. Take the cases of Johnny and Irina.
In Episode 1, right off the bat, we were treated to Johnny's sobbing over his crystal meth addiction.
Shane: "They signed on people with stories rather then people with personalities. Except in the case of that dark-haired gay one. Crying is not a story. Go to therapy or drink more or something. It was sooo tiring to see that gay's whinnying and weeping week after week. This is clear a result of the oversharing, overemotional L.A. experience. People in L.A. care or pretend to. New Yorkers and the rest of the world don't care."
Let us turn also to Shane's partner, Michael Goddard, a theatrical agent: "They've let too many criers on that damn show. There is no crying in fashion. Get some balls and stand up to your garment. Don't cry, it's too annoying!"
And in the case of Irina? Basically the producers had spotlight-wielding helicopters circle Irina, with giant billboards all around her to let us know she was evil. It was so amped up—and similarly, neither do we think that Johnny cries every day!—that it was unbelievable. "Such is the extent of her villainy that when it's combined with the sheer blandness of the rest of this season, it turns out she's not much of a villain," wrote Project Rungay.
Well, to address the issue of Irina, we must call in our token straight man, Tom Scocca, a married father in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.: "This past episode, as she was squinting over a pile of fake pelts while once again making three pieces while everyone else made one, I realized that what she is is not a New York princess but a crazy indomitable immigrant. Suddenly I could see her in a babushka. She's mean for two reasons. One is that she has immigrant snobbishness—she has no use for anything that doesn't look luxe, because you don't want to ever be mistaken for poor. So she has a so-classy-it's-trashy thing. But the other reason she's mean is that she looks at these soft little Americans fluttering around the workroom and playing grabass and having dithering fits about their clothes, and she's like, why are you so weak and incapable of hard work? And she makes the fuck out of some clothes, whether you like how they look or not."
Producing Irina into a villain was a mistake—because she was actually a good foil already, for starters, and, oh right, she could actually sew. Which is what we were doing here at Project Runway, right? Sewing? Anyone?
And Then There Went the Gays.
For the second time in Runway history—which is to say, this has happened one-third of the time!—we ended up with an all-woman final three.
Bruce, Tim Smith's partner in life and in business at Artists Resource Management, was not pleased: "I am all for diversity and playing to your audience’s demographic, but please. And not to sound completely misogynistic, but three women as finalists? No fags? Really? These women were probably the most talented, but obviously when you tell the Bunim/Murray casting juggernaut, 'This is Lifetime: Television for Women, not talented gay male fashion designers,' you get what you get!"
Meow! Equally suspicious was an opposite operation: the way that some gay guys were kept on the show so long. It makes sense that producers would keep some gays in the mix, right, because you know how angry the gays get.
Tom: "One form of their interventions has been to take a particular kind of boyish, all-American gay who is overmatched and to keep him out there crying on the runway in the bottom three week after week. In the first weeks of the show, it was this one guy who looked like Matt Damon's gay little brother and who was literally failing to get a usable garment put together, but who didn't get dumped till his third failure."
Poor gays. And then there's the worst problem of the season.
Fair Play: Judging Dynamics and Heidi Dominance
You would have thought we'd appreciate some relief from the annoying omnipresence of longtime judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, who apparently don't like to go to L.A. either. Nearly every episode, we got a guest judge in one or both of their places. Incorrect! In the end, we missed them.
This wasn't just disruptive to the viewer—it made contestants tense, confused, and a little bitter. "They want something bigger, they want this and that, but as soon as you do it, you’re giving them the opportunity to kick you out," Gordana told Project Rungay over the weekend. With so much judge rotation, no one judge ever told any contestant the same thing twice. (Also? Why did Heidi appear to hate Gordana so much? That was just weird!)
In the end, this was the year of The Heidi. Because of the oft-missing Kors and Garcia, her power on the show became as swollen as her belly.
Bruce noted the "inconsistent quality" of the judging, and even missed "Michael Kors' witty repartee," and if Michael Kors is basically now recalled as the show's Dorothy Parker, it just goes to show how dry this season was.
Tom: "Heidi keeps doing this weird apparatchik thing where she tries to steer the judging discussion by making unpersuasive claims in the service of what the producers want. Like everyone was ready to do away with the lunkhead eye-candy guy, and Heidi was like, oh, I didn't think his was so bad at all. Yeah, it was to the point where guest judge Milla Jovovich, who was actually the fairest and most incisive judge they've had all year, was like, I'm sorry, this isn't Project Not-So-Bad."
Confusion and bad judging conspired to create the worst crime of all: bad outfits. Unforgivable!
Shane: "We're watching a fashion reality-TV show to see these people tortured until the pressure cooker yields from their cold, stressed, bleeding hands something of aesthetic adequacy and import." We only got such thrills a few times—remember Gordana's actual garment made of actual newspaper? Instead, too often, we got the torture but never its reward.