This is the first installment in Jacob Passy’s online column “Reality Bites” which examines trends and highlights in the world of reality television.
“Project Runway” has been around a while – 11 seasons to be precise (if we’re not counting the additional two “All Stars” installments.) And in that time, it’s run the gamut of challenges and contestants. So in its attempt to stay relevant and fresh, it fell into the latest reality television trap: the twist.
Ah, the classic twist. Just when you think you know how a show’s going to go, it changes everything up. Better yet, it changes its complete format. That appears to be the thinking behind the latest trend in reality competition series.
Take, for instance, NBC’s “The Voice.” Although based on a pre-existing Dutch singing competition, the show threw a wrench in the chokehold that “American Idol” appeared to have on the genre. But with its mix of popular and attractive judges – we’re looking at you, Adam Levine – on top of chair-turning gimmicks, it became the one to beat.
One by one, reality competition series began copying its style. Cooking competitions suddenly were done in teams with celebrity chefs – à la ABC’s “The Taste”. Nigel Barker, the photographer who famously was sent packing after a longtime stint on “America’s Next Top Model,” took the same approach with Oxygen’s “The Face,” having three supermodel coaches select teams of aspiring female models. Barker’s former show reinvented itself even as Tyra Banks began to engage more with social media this past season.
Oh, and if you haven’t noticed, this nearly identical naming is becoming a thing. To the chagrin of “Project Runway” executive producer Heidi Klum, they couldn’t exactly rename the show. Or take the same format. But, as she knows all too well, you’re either in or you’re…cancelled.
Executive Producer and host Klum, left, is trying to keep 'Project Runway' fresh. Photo by Barbara Nitke Copyright 2011 (The Denver Post | Barbara Nitke)
In an effort to avoid the chopping block – not that they have much to worry about since Lifetime’s never been a ratings powerhouse – the show re-invented itself. They chose to do so with teams, naturally, so they’re sort of like “The Voice.” For their eleventh season, the big twist is that every challenge is a team challenge.
Don’t ask me how that will work for the finale, which typically features three solo designers, but so far it’s proved… Well, actually, that’s the problem – the concept is so uninspiring that it’s hard even to assign an emotion to it. In their constant effort to attract ratings, the show’s producers forgot that the show’s audience hates team challenges as much as the contestants do.
But – let’s be honest – how hard can it be to do a team challenge. Sure, you need to stand out to win and all that jazz, yet have none of these designers ever looked at a fashion label? Everything is done in teams. In today’s world, how can you avoid coordination and working together with people. If this reality TV show is indicative of actual reality, I’m concerned for the future of our workforce that can never get it together to make a single successful garment.
I’ll cut the show some slack – there have only been two episodes with this theme so far – but I don’t expect it to make for very interesting television. Within the second episode, the designers have already run out of ways to say “I hate my team,” not that I had much faith in this year’s batch of uninspiring contestants. In their defense though, these tired tropes have been overplayed on “Project Runway,” which had enough team challenges each season prior to this one that this is hardly much of a change.
I’m going to wager that – in the effort to join the club (or team, as it were) of reality shows trying new things – Klum’s show is on its way out. Sure, I love watching pretty clothes, but the German supermodel and her crew are no longer as fresh as they once were. And to think, less than a decade ago, this show was the most stylish new kid on the block.
So if “Project Runway” is no longer the future of reality TV, then what is? Each week I’ll be trudging my way through these unscripted beauties – or tragedies depending on your taste – to find my winner. Stay tuned!