CHECKING OUT? Even Heidi looks indifferent.
As I watched this season's 16 Project Runway hopefuls squinting into the setting sun during their champagne reception atop the Title Guarantee Building in Los Angeles, it was hard not to view the scene as a sad little metaphor for the state of the show. What's supposed to feel like the beginning of something new sure looks a lot more like the end of something old. Even Heidi Klum seemed a little checked out, indifferently raising her glass and neighing "Project Runway!" to the group as the hot wind messed up her hair.
It's not that this long-anticipated, lawsuit-waylaid, network-exiled season premiere was disappointing, exactly. That would imply some sort of new expectation had been set upon Project Runway, which for its sixth season has moved from Bravo to Lifetime (airs Thursdays at 10 pm) and from New York to LA. True, its potential to succeed anew was only bolstered by Bravo's C-minus attempt at replacing it with the Mizrahi-ble Fashion Show. But, really, most of us were just praying the thing would survive the flight west.
At this point, watching the contestants file into existence through the lethally edited intro montage of the season's first half-hour is tantamount to watching a shipment of refurbished bumper cars arrive. One is left to triangulate current contestants' presumed identities through quickie alchemies of past contestants. Like Johnny, whose meth-haunted falsetto freakout into Tim Gunn's fancy lapels wasted no time in marking him as this season's Ricky, maybe with a splash of musky Kevin. Or the freshly eliminated Ari, who has major crazybrains and produced a thermal-looking hexagonal skank parka — is like the freaky spit-marking Elisa from Season 4 plus . . . well, Kiefer Sutherland circaLost Boys.
In any case, there's something blandly familiar about it all. One hopes that this year's challenges (and perhaps the addition of the other-side-of-PR competition Models of the Runway) will give the program a desperately needed zhoozhing. For starters, we got the distractingly vague "red carpet challenge" ("I don't distinguish between different colors of carpet," said cadet Malvin) — hardly innovative, but it did siphon in LA's available fashion cred through a quick visit to the Emmy Plaza to supplant the instant prestige that Bryant Park accorded in past seasons. Oh, and speaking of celebrity-trodden red carpets: Lindsay Lohan was guest judge.
The dresses didn't inspire me to draft any recurring Evites either. Overconfident New York mom Qristyl Frazier constructed a ghastly purple tortilla with a messy floral wound down its front. South Carolinan ex-Yugoslav Gordana offered a Brutalist-busted body sock. Troutlike Georgian Mitchell Hall attempted to make what looked like a spoiled Victorian-era rocket pop but ended up finishing only the collar portion and draping the rest into being with sheets of what appeared to be untailored nylon. Class of '09 in the house.
The winning design, a little number from Christopher Straub, was a bunched-up overstatement on texture that seemed like a bizarre winner. It was the best of the pack — it was just too drab a heap. And though Straub himself may be "good at using the resources he has available," he's not very good at realizing he has a chinstrap beard, a cocked white baseball cap, and a pair of closeted-Kenny-Chesney-fan earrings.
Of course, we've no right to expect anything more than what we've demanded from Project Runway. And what we've got with this triumphant return is something so closely preserved that you need detailed notes to distinguish it from its forebears. Fashion, Oscar Wilde quipped, is "a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months." Profitable television most certainly is not.
Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article Ari was identified as a male rather than a female. The correction has been made above.