Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Project Runway S13 E1: "The Judges Decide"

First off, I owe everyone an apology. I've had a pretty crazy (but in a good way) kind of week, and PR coming back totally slipped my mind. Which is why it's been 5 days since the episode and I'm only just getting around to writing up the review, and for that, I am deeply sorry. Please forgive me, and then tell everyone you know that Project Runaways is back and will have more timely reviews up for the episodes for the rest of the season.

Secondly, maybe don't tell anyone about the show being back because to do so would be to subject them to this 13th season and if the first episode is any indication, that might be a punishment. You'll tell your friends, "On man, you've got to watch Project Runway and then follow this great blog that recaps the episodes! It's so much fun!" And then they'll watch it and they'll think you hate them for forcing them into such a shit show, and they'll never speak to you again. They'll move to the African safari and change their name in order to escape someone who must have so much animosity towards them and then they'll die alone of dysentery while wild animals gnaw on their feet. Friends don't let friends die of dysentery; as such, keep them away from Project Runway's 13th season.

Or maybe that's me being a bit harsh, but I watched the entire episode and left it thinking that after the full year of the useless PR knock offs Lifetime forced through, the producers of our little gem of a show somehow forgot how to make good reality TV. The episode starts with Tim telling us that there are 18 designers which will immediately be cut down to 15 in the first moments of the show. If you're anything like me, you watched these opening hours minutes wondering why we were subjected to such a thing. Instead of actually paying attention to what was happening on screen, I dedicated all of my brain power to discovering an answer. I came up with these distinct possibilities:
  1. The producers hate us and thought, "Fuck it, we can waste their time with this ridiculous bullshit which should have all been taken care of before our cameras even started running!"
  2. The show still has no idea what to do with its extended run time and decided it'd be fun to jerk off for the first half hour and hope no one noticed. No really, though, can someone tell me how long it took for us to get to the actual challenge? I downloaded found a copy of the episode without commercials, so on my copy it took like 20 minutes, but I'm guessing it was closer to 30 for others?
  3. The producers thought this would give the viewers the chance to get to know the designers just a little bit better than the first episode usually does. More on this a little bit later. 
Either way, it all boils down to the same thing to me: stupid, boring, waste of time, and I probably should have went for a bathroom break instead of watching it. But let's examine what we might have learned about the contestants during this snooze fest of an episode. I do this because it brings up some good points and also because I have no desire whatsoever to actually engage with this episode on a point by point basis.

In his quick rough draft write up of the episode, Julius listed out the roster for the season as follows:

  • Amanda Valentine: Originally from Season 11, Sister of Maroon 5.
        Reality Show Personality: The Elder Statesman
  • Korina Emmerich: White-looking American Indian from Eugene, OR who designs for NYC woman.
        Reality Show Personality: Wannabe Villain
  • Jefferson Musanda: Black Male, Hip Hop Dancer.
        Reality Show Personality: The Eager Beaver
  • Emily Payne: San Francisco punk mom with a kids line
        Reality Show Personality: The Mom
  • Sean Kelly: New Zealander who designs androgynously, and New Order Replacement Star
        Reality Show Personality: The Brit
  • Char Glover: Single Black Woman from Detroit
        Reality Show Personality: Sassy Black Woman
  • Kristine Guico: Grey Haired woman?
        Reality Show Personality: The Soon-To-Be-Cut Quiet Type
  • Alexander Knox: The Tall Gay Guy with Hidden Style
        Reality Show Personality: The Affable One
  • Mitchell Perry: South Florida guy with bad clothes; Zac Posen might want to sleep with him
        Reality Show Personality: The Obnoxious Bitch Who Throws Shade Because He's Untalented
  • Carrie Sleutskaya: Babygoth who can design
        Reality Show Personality: The Youngster
  • Hernan Lander: Spanish Guy who has previously shown at Fashion Week
        Reality Show Personality: The Hispanic
  • Samantha Plasencia: Texas Hipster not from Austin
        Reality Show Personality: The Hipster
  • Kini Zamora: Hawaiian who designs in denim
        Reality Show Personality: Hawaiian (yes, it is a personality type unto itself)
  • Fade Zu Grau: The elder German who has a moment with Heidi
        Reality Show Personality: Dieter, Gay Edition
  • Angela Sum: Asian immigrant, Computer Engineer
        Reality Show Personality: The Quiet Nervous Talented One
  • Sandhya Garg: The Subversive Indian
        Reality Show Personality: The Oppressed One
For what it's worth, I read through his draft before I watched the episode and I thought it was probably a bit harsh. But then he e-mailed me and I watched the episode. His e-mail read thus:
I dunno if it's clear in that post, but one of the things I was also trying to do was point out that this season's characters were dangerously falling into both cliches and racial stereotypes to an extreme I don't remember it being in Project Runway. I dunno if I'm being overly sensitive, but everybody just seemed to be fitting a little too succinctly into various tropes. It was the Hispanic dude and the nervous Asian woman who were setting off my cliche-dar.
He gave me leeway to disagree with him if I felt the need to, but here's the thing I was left with after watching the episode: I neither fully agree nor fully disagree with these points. In the cases of certain contestants (Hernan, Mitchell, and Angela to be sure) I think he's on point. These people verge almost into caricature in their time on screen. But I didn't leave the episode feeling like that was the fault of the producers or the editors so much as just who these people are. Hernan doesn't have a strong grasp of English, which is clearly not his first language, and there's no real other way for him to be portrayed. Angela probably was raised in a house and a culture that frowned on failure which made her hypersensitive to the possibility of failing, and a bit neurotic. And everything Mitchell learned about being gay came from the sassy gay friends on sitcoms and the internet, and he never really developed beyond that. If this is who these people are, and I don't doubt for a second that it is, then can we criticize them or the show too much for showcasing that? This is a slightly different issue (in my opinion) than the way the episodes are edited to make the drama and the fights seem like much bigger deals than they actually are. With the exception of villains, who I think we all know are made by editing more so than their own actions sometimes, how much do we think reality TV creates character types?

But that isn't to say that these kinds of tropes aren't being used. I won't shame Julius, or anyone for that matter, for looking at this episode and seeing nothing deeper than caricatures because this is one of massive ways in which I think this episodes fails. Remember earlier when I said I thought the producers were attempting to give us a little bit more on the designers this episode than they tend to in the first episodes of past seasons? Well the effect of that here is actually the exact opposite of what they intended. Because we spend something of an inordinate amount of time with so many contestants, we find ourselves incapable of actually learning anything about any of them beyond the surface. Never is this clearer to me than in the workroom where we glance over everyone's design and back story ever-so-quickly before rushing off to the next person. It feels like Sean only barely gets into his "Moved from New Zealand" story before we're rushing off to talk to Angela. We whisk on over to Mitchell talking about his typically whimsical looks, and then quickly cut to Sandhya dying her fabric without any real context to Mitchell's statements. I don't know these people well enough to know anything beyond what I'm being told and what I'm being told feels like nothing. Cap all of that off with Tim visiting pretty much every fucking person in the workroom as quickly as possible, and you're left with no real people--just blurs of personality types in the distance.

So that's the fundamental problem that I had with this episode. With so much time being taken up with the pointless exercise at the top of the hour, we weren't left with much time to actually buckle down with the people who would be on the real show for the next number of weeks. And when we do get to the portion of the show that would be dedicated to them, be glance over way too many of them to get a good feel for anyone. What they should have done is start the season like they always do: give them a straight forward kind of challenge, and then only follow a handful a people (probably the contestants who'd end up in the top and bottom by the episode's end) and let us get to know them a bit better. Trust that we'll have enough time to get to know the rest as the season pushes on.

But pacing problems aren't the only issue with this season premiere; let's head out to the runway to catch a glimpse of the final nail in this episode's coffin. Guest judge tonight is Julie Bowen from Modern Family. In truth, Heidi said Modern Family and I got excited thinking I'd see the love of my life, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, but then she said Julie, and I rolled my eyes and realized an already bad episode was about to get so much worse. To her credit, I thought Julie was a good judge, but no one makes me happier than JTF, so screw it.

Sandhya: I want to give her credit for having a vision that is all her own, but I really hate this look. It isn't functional at all, and the unfinished element (purposeful though it clearly is) makes it look less than fashionable too. And the fabric is hideous no matter what the dye job might have been attempting. I hate it!

Angela: This look almost could have been worth it, but the horrible fit issues and the plumber's crack in the pants just dooms it. I really like the color of the top, but it doesn't really seem to do anything. There's a design element to it (by which I mean it doesn't look like just a standard and simple top), but I don't think it enhances anything. She's got a style that leaves me feeling like I wouldn't mind seeing more from her, but this was a swing and miss on her part.

Alexander: Here's someone else that I think has good ideas that maybe needed just a little more execution to pull it all together. I don't hate the look; I like the cowl style neckline even though I don't love the final shape of it, and I think the two fabrics he chose compliment each other well even if I don't think that they're all that pretty individually. In the end, it's just a baby doll dress with an interesting neckline. But it's OK.

Sean: This is the first look on the runway that I honestly loved. The front is well designed, the color blocking is beautiful, and the back took my breath away. The open back combined with that slit gave it a great sex appeal. I like it a little less looking at the pictures. It's got an odd fit to it which makes the model look like she's got a bit of a baby bump from the side, but on the runway, I seriously loved it!

Carrie: I honestly wanted to hate this look, but I didn't. I think the neckline and the keyhole cut out were just adorable. the shape along the hips was interesting, and not in a bad way, and the whole thing came together to be nice. I expected something a lot worse from her for some reason, and so I was pleasantly surprised by this.

Samantha: My exact notes read: "Huh. So that happened I guess." This is an example of someone being about as simple and boring as possible in order to just be safe, and congrats since she got her wish. But I didn't feel like there was anything to take away from this look at all.

Mitchell: Messy is the only thing I took away from this look. Everything from the design to the execution to the model's styling just screamed messy as hell. I hated it!

Kini: It's pretty, but I find it too literal. It's a Spring dress with a floral pattern. Yawn.

Jefferson: What the actual fuck happened here? Horrible fit on the top and the bottom, two pieces that don't know what they want to be and have no business going together. Just no! All around no on so many levels. And I haven't even gotten to the abundance of butt cheek visible when she turns around. Tasteless and yet boring at the same time. Now there's a feat.

Emily: I honestly don't know how I feel about this. I love the dress and the color of it, I don't hate the mixing of the two fabrics, but I honestly don't know that the fabric of the breastplate allows for what she wanted to do. There's an odd kind of bunching up around the neck of the dress flowing into that breastplate that just throws the look off a little. In the end, I don't hate it, but I don't think it's breath taking either.

Hernan: Boring. And another floral patterned Spring dress. I really wish no two designers had had the same fabric, esp this ugly ass fabric, but whatever. Or maybe I wouldn't mind if everyone had about the same fabric and just had to make it work? Idk, either way I hated this.

Korina: I'm guessing I'm in the minority here, but I seriously loved this look. It flowed, the fact that it was a one piece was interesting, and pants instead of a dress too, and I thought the train was really nice. The color was vibrant. Just loved everything about it, really.

Kristine: I love Kristine's look on the runway, but I hate it in the photographs. It doesn't photo well at all. The colors wash out and make it look a bit boring. But on the runway I thought it was great. The colors popped and blended well together, and look great against her model's skin tone. The amount of skin showing is literally perfect, and this finds the level of sexy that Jefferson's look missed so spectacularly. Plus, a dress with pockets! This is almost always a good thing in my book.

Amanda: Love it, love it, love it!!! I think that this shows why the returning designers have an edge over the competition: the look is clean and polished and shows she knew how to maximize her one day time limit. It may not be the most unique or innovative design on the night (though I think the pattern on the pants and the fine details on the back of the top suggest otherwise), but I thought it had a refinement to it that a lot of the other pieces were lacking.

Fade: It's possible that I might have a bit of a crush on Fade. I loved all of his little Atheist clothes and jewelery throughout the episode, which I thought did a better job of informing me of who he is than anything the producers choose to tell me about any of the other contestants. But I say this in order to say that I liked his look without knowing why I liked it. So there's that.

Char: I liked it. And that's honestly all I had to say about it one way or the other lol.

Ok so Jefferson, Mitchell, and Angela end up in the bottom three, which is no big deal, but then Char, Sandhya, and Amanda were in the top. Or well, Amanda is asked to stick around, I don't know if her critique really sounds like the look was firmly in the "top" since the judges sound like they're just split on it. So why not make her safe and allow us to hear from Sean, Fade, Kristine, or Korina? All of whom I thought had strong looks and probably could have left the judges a little more unified. Keeping Amanda on the runway is an odd choice, but naming Sandhya the winner is something that honestly makes no kind of sense to me at all. This is another look the judges are kind of split on with Heidi loving it (surprise surprise) and the others being complimentary but no one really gushing. Julie's points about the messiness of it make perfect sense, but in the end, she beats out Char whose look had way more finish to it. It might have left me feeling underwhelmed, and as such I have no clue why it makes it into the top 3, but at least I liked it whereas Sandhya's I hated. So Sandhya wins and Jefferson goes home (which is deserved enough not to make anyone too upset, I'd guess), and ultimately the door is opened for some really odd and probably inconsistent judging this season. Or maybe I'm being too harsh? Maybe the winning look was a lot better than I'm giving it credit for and the 4 or 5 looks that I think deserved to be on the stage in its place are really horrible. I admit every time I start a season of this show that I know nothing about fashion and episodes like this serve to remind me of that fact. But either way, I left this episode feeling like if this is what we have to look forward to, this is going to be one long and unpleasant season indeed. Now might be a good time for us Runaways to actually take hold of our namesake and hit the bricks.

Stray Observations:
-- Sorry again that it took so long to get this up and running, and also sorry that the finished product is so long. With so little meat on the bones of the actual episode, I think we were left with a lot of *other* stuff to talk about. Plus the earlier episodes and their larger number of contestants tend to leave a lot to talk about when the runway comes around. Maybe we shouldn't touch on every single look that walks down the catwalk? What do you guys think?

-- Tim says something about this season being "Lucky number 13." I think you've got that wrong, you fabulous man, you.

-- Not to harp on the subject too much, because I honestly do think that Julius makes great points about the stereotyping in this season, but one of the places I think his outlook falls through just a little bit is with Char. I think we've seen black women on reality shows who were way more "sassy black woman" than she actually comes off. I honestly found her to be way more down to earth low key than I expected.

-- As much as I'm kind of crushing on Fade, Sean is clearly going to be the contestant I'll have to work on not drooling over in these reviews every week. Just too cute for words.

-- Where the FUCK is HMG?!?!? I didn't watch any of the waste of time that was the intervening seasons of the show all last year, but did something happen to oust him? I mean what's the point of the show without HMG?

-- Lastly, in case anyone's interested, I'm actually recapping each episode of So You Think You Can Dance over on my own personal blog. Feel free to join me over there if you want another companion to your summer Reality TV viewing. In the mean time, everyone spread the word that we're back for this season of Project Runway and let's get our great community and commenters  back over here to have some fun for the next few weeks.