A Reality Show About Art: Project Runway

It’s somewhat alarming how quickly this happened.

I went from catching the last half hour of a rerun on the TV at the gym, to obsessively Tivoing every new episode plus every rerun from every single season that has ever aired… in the space of about four weeks.

I’ve sucked Ingrid into it as well. And we have totally gone to the bad place, watching hours-long marathons and even renting the season we missed on Netflix. In a matter of a few weeks, this silly reality show has become like “The Daily Show” or “The Office” — one of the very few TV shows that I never, ever want to miss.

So here’s the thing about this show, the thing you might not be expecting, the thing that surprised the hell out of me:

“Project Runway” is actually smart and interesting.

Yes, it’s fun, entertaining, easy-to-swallow pop culture fluff. But it’s fun, entertaining, easy-to-swallow pop culture fluff with some thought and substance behind it, and with perspective and light to shed on the reality of the human world.

Maybe I’m just rationalizing. But I don’t think so. And I have backup for my opinion. I mean, the whole reason I watched the damn show at the gym in the first place was that I’d read more than one article, by more than one smart and thoughtful TV or culture critic, with a headline reading something like, “Project Runway: Actually A Good TV Show.”

Subhead: “No, Really. Stop Laughing. I’m Serious.”

So here’s my Grand Theory of what I think makes “Project Runway” smart and interesting:

It’s a reality show about art.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, “Project Runway” is a competition reality show about fashion design. Every week, a group of designers is given some design challenge — sometimes normal stuff like designing a wedding dress, sometimes goofy stuff like designing an outfit with materials bought at the supermarket. Every week, one designer is eliminated: the last three get a big-ass budget and several months to design a collection for some big fashion hoo-ha show in New York, and the winner gets a serious pile of cash to start their own line, plus some important career doors opened up (a mentorship at a clothing firm, a spread in a big fashion magazine, that sort of thing).

So that’s the setup. But what you’re seeing when you watch the show — in addition to the critiquing of the outfits by the judges, with the whole “who’s out this week” drama — is the designers doing their work. Sketching out their designs; buying the fabric; putting the outfits together; listening to feedback from the show’s in-house mentor; explaining their ideas; admiring and critiquing one another’s work (they’re all working in one big room together); adding final touches; trying to fix flawed designs.

In other words, the heart and soul of the show is the creative process on display.

And the issues the designers are struggling with will be instantly familiar to any artist, in any field. Writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, comic artists, choreographers, actors, architects, font designers… any artist will be able to relate to the questions that these designers are constantly wrestling with on camera.

Questions like:

How do you stay true to your artistic vision, while staying aware of and accessible to your audience? How do you stay true to your artistic vision, while still being open to criticism? When do you modify your work in response to criticism, and when do you stick to your original vision? How do you preserve your artistic integrity, while recognizing and working with the realities of the marketplace? How do you keep your high standards of craftsmanship, while staying within a budget and finishing on a deadline?

Watching these designers ask themselves these questions — and play them out in their work — isn’t just entertaining. It sheds real light on my own creative process. These kinds of questions are ultimately unanswerable, and it’s both fascinating and enlightening to watch, in detail, how other artists find their own balance. (Or how they fail to. In some cases, quite spectacularly.)

Which leads me to the other thing that sets “Project Runway” apart from other reality shows… a thing that I think has everything to do with the fact that it’s a show about art.

And that’s the relative absence of cut-throat, Machiavellian, backstabby competition.

Of course all the designers want to win. And there is a certain amount of Machiavellian scheming and stupid competitive drama. But there’s really very little of it. Surprisingly little, considering that it’s a competition reality show. There’s plenty of freakouts and conflicts and drama-queen histrionics… but there’s very little in the way of calculated backstabbing. The overall vibe of the show is one of camaraderie, cooperation, mutual respect, and even affection.

One designer falls way behind schedule… and another, who finished ahead of time, helps him complete his work. One designer has an outfit that isn’t working at all… and another designer offers useful ideas on how to fix it. One designer’s model doesn’t show up for the runway show… and another designer agrees to replace his model, and model his outfit for him. (And does a good job of it, too. Especially since it was a male designer standing in for a female model.)

With no immediate advantage to themselves.

You don’t see that sort of thing on “Survivor.”

And you do see it on “Project Runway.” Not just now and then. You see it all the time. It’s standard operating procedure. It’s a defining characteristic of the show.

In fact, the lack of Survivor-esque backstabbing is sort of a running joke on “Project Runway.” There’s a hilarious episode where two designers are neck and neck in that week’s challenge: one wins, the other is obviously disappointed but is gracious and sweet… and they then enact a mock hissy-fit catfight, shrieking and smacking each other with magazines and totally cracking up. And there’s a reunion episode, where one woman who had been a Machiavellian bitch gets taken to task by the other designers… who specifically say, “This wasn’t ‘Survivor.’ That behavior wasn’t necessary. Yes, you were supposed to compete… but you were supposed to compete on talent, not scheming and game-playing. You totally missed the point of this show.”

And I think this attitude has everything to do with the fact that the show is about art.

Sure, artists can be competitive. They can be jealous, catty, insecure, high-drama. But they also know that they’re in a community. They know that they’re in an endeavor that’s extremely tough sledding, and that nobody’s going to help them if they don’t help each other. They know that a huge portion of their ideas and inspiration comes from other artists in their field, and that without their creative community they’d be flying blind. They know that they stand on the shoulders of giants, of every good artist who came before them and inspired or mentored them, and that they have an obligation to pass it along when they can. They know what other artists go through, because they go through it themselves, and they have compassion and understanding and an inclination to cut each other slack. And if they care about their art form, they — we — are going to admire other artists in our field, just because we do.

That’s the ethos driving the designers in “Project Runway.” And it’s unbelievably refreshing to see. Not just in the context of reality TV shows, but in the context of American culture. It’s refreshing to see a piece of pop culture celebrating the idea that you can be competitive and also be cooperative; that being ambitious doesn’t necessarily mean being cut-throat. And I think the fact that the show is about an artistic community is a big reason for that perspective.

Now, there are certainly other reality shows about art and artistry. “American Idol” leaps to mind, as do those shows about the restaurant business.

But the restaurant shows don’t do it for me. Probably because food isn’t ultimately a visual medium. Not in the same way that fashion is.

And “American Idol”… well, part of the problem is that I just don’t care for that style of music. Really, really don’t care for it. But the main problem is this: If you were going to have an “American Idol” type show that would parallel “Project Runway,” it wouldn’t be about singers. It’d be about songwriters. Singing other people’s songs does take artistry… but it’s not the full-on creative process in action, from a germ of an idea to putting a fully-realized work into the world.

I’m not saying “Project Runway” is a great show. It’s a good show, a very good show… but it’s not quite what I’d call great. It’s not “Six Feet Under” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; it’s not “The Simpsons” or “The Office.” For one thing, it’s not the sort of show that rewards multiple viewings. You watch an episode for a second time, you don’t really get hidden layers and shades of meaning that you missed the first time around. You pretty much just get a better look at the outfits.

And while I don’t dispute that fashion design is art, the fashion industry also has an obnoxious and shallow side to it… a side that’s on full display in “Project Runway.” Fawning over celebrity; crass commercialism (seen on “P.R.” mainly in the form of shameless product placement); feeding a rigid and impossible and actively harmful standard of female beauty… all of these are as prominent on “Project Runway” as the creativity and camaraderie are. And it does cut the show down from potential greatness to mere very-goodness.

That being said, the show kicks ass. It is that extremely rare commodity in popular culture: a TV show/ movie/ book/ whatever that is both vastly entertaining and genuinely enlightening. It gives you an hour of fun, shiny, goofy distraction, while also giving you intelligence and substance and food for thought. That’s a tough balance to pull off, and I’m always thrilled to see someone do it.

And this season, I’m rooting for Chris.

A Reality Show About Art: Project Runway

9 thoughts on “A Reality Show About Art: Project Runway

  1. 1

    Its one of the few reasons I miss paying for the full cable lineup. I watched the first season and totally loved it. The best part was watching the friendships form and the kindnesses. Competition and conflict can make for an interesting story, but sweetness is what makes life worthwhile. BTW – I looked up what Austin Scarlett does now – he’s a wedding GOWN designer. Talk about a dream job for the man who is Everything Gown.

  2. 2

    “Which leads me to the other thing that sets “Project Runway” apart from other reality shows… a thing that I think has everything to do with the fact that it’s a show about art.
    “And that’s the relative absence of cut-throat, Machiavellian, backstabby competition….The overall vibe of the show is one of camaraderie, cooperation, mutual respect, and even affection.”
    What’s interesting is I noticed a similar vibe on the show _Battlebots_ while it was on. In the ring where the robots are fighting, there’s all sorts of destruction going on, but the guys building and controlling the robots seemed to get along with each other, and I think I even remember one episode where it was mentioned that the competitors do sometimes share tools with each other.
    Then again, the robots are a kind of art, too, which sort of goes back to what you said.

  3. 3

    Also, Tim Gunn is a god. Or at least some minor deity. You forgot to mention that part. (Are god references allowed on an atheist blog? If not, change it to some sort of sexual reference.)

  4. 4

    I second Laura, Tim Gunn is THE best thing on that show. Most amazing speaking voice ever. I love how the designers are always imitating him. “Designers…I just want to let you know that you all are DOOMED. Nothing you do can save you now.”
    I’d “make it work” for him anytime.

  5. 5

    The lack of “cut-throat, Machiavellian, backstabby competition” is one of the reasons I like the Dancing With The Stars so much too.

  6. 6

    I’m addicted to the show for the same reasons. Seeing art being made is wonderful.
    (I watch Top Chef, too, but it just makes me hungry.)

  7. 7

    I love getting to see a new unique piece of art from each contestant on PR. And it’s art that we can appreciate via TV as opposed to the creations in the chef competition shows for example. Yay art and creation and craft. And gay fashion gayness.

  8. 8

    I’m such a Tim hag. I want to go to Red Lobster with him and dish about his post 3 am mistakes.
    When you need more PR fix, check out the Canadian version on YouTube. Brian, the mentor, isn’t Tim Gunn, but he’s sweet. It’s hosted by Iman who is made of awesome. They also had an interesting mix of designers. I don’t recommend Britain’s version which is called “Project Catwalk” because the designers aren’t as good as in the US or Canada for some reason and the mentor is a designer and not a design school teacher and he winds up either literally draping outfits for some of the more clueless designers or getting all hissy because they hurt his feelings (seriously could you see Tim Gunn storming out and refusing to help for the rest of the week because he didn’t like what someone said about him? He’d have never made it through season 2 and then who would have looked after Andre? ) also one of the judges is like the bitchiest queen ever and not in a good way and I was a drama major so I know bitchy queens. He just makes mean personal remarks about designers based on their body type or the part of England they are from and it’s just not as fun or artistic as the North American versions. Oh and WTF: it’s hosted by Kelly Ozborne!
    Loving watching Chris this season. I’ve heard about him for years because he’s friends with a bunch of my Krewe mates and has made some of their costumes. He was so robbed last week- I’m not getting the bright blue baggie with plastic gems glued on the chest winning, but then maybe I’m just not “fashion forward” enough.

  9. 9

    Yay! I just re-found your blog and loving reading what you write. 🙂
    Project Runway is totally one of my favorite shows and I’m glad you wrote about it because you put into words why I love it.
    Also, season 2 is TOTALLY my favorite. All the singing and crazy impressions of Tim make me so happy. Also, if Tim weren’t gay, I’d totally fuck him. XD

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