When faced with the reality of lower ratings and lackluster reviews for the past two seasons, the powers that be behind reality TV’s ultimate designer showdown, “Project Runway,” fashioned a solution no one expected — make it longer.
Yes, despite the fact that show mentor Tim Gunn routinely reminds contestants to find their focus and never overdesign, “Runway” itself plans to ignore that bit of conventional wisdom. Thursday night marks not only the season eight premiere, but also the debut of a new 90-minute format.
It’s hard to imagine the always-on-point Gunn greeting such news with anything other than his telltale sign of concern — a silent, wary glance over his glasses. Surely the former “Guide to Style” guru knows that more of what’s not working won’t suddenly fix everything.
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So how does a plus-size “Runway” reclaim its name as a standout in the enough-already reality TV landscape? By making sure every extra second features fashion-forward moments and not just filler.
Quality, not quantity
For example, more time could mean more chitchat from host Heidi Klum, or longer snark sessions with returning judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia. The latter would be a welcome addition, especially in the case of Kors and his penchant for “Barefoot, Appalachian Li’l Abner Barbie” quips, but the former might make it hard to excuse that bonus half-hour of “Runway” running time. Klum’s great at delivering the introductions and “aufing” the rejects, but she’s not the most compelling on-air conversationalist.
Besides, the big names are just a small part of the mix. It’s the not-so-familiar faces that are more likely to influence whether more “Runway” is a better “Runway.” And much like those additional minutes, premiere night packs more contestants, too.
Past seasons of the cut-and-sew competition have featured between 12 and 16 hopefuls, which is more than enough to leave viewers referring to the non-front-runners as “that blonde one,” “the loud one,” or “that other blonde one” for the first few weeks. But this time, a jumbo crowd of 17 starts the game.
Well, sort of.
Early teasers indicate one or more might make their exit in twisty reality TV fashion before the real competition kicks off. So why bring them along if they’re just disposable premiere-night baggage? For easy quick-cut drama. It’s an expected trope in the talent challenge genre, after all. Then again, “Runway” works best when it avoids those game-play clichés and just focuses on the characters — er, designers.
When Gunn isn’t grooming the would-be greats, Klum isn’t introducing the guest celeb du jour and the judges aren’t taking well-placed potshots, it’s down to the contestants to manufacture the entertainment.
The Bryant Park hopefuls are the go-to guys and gals for distraction. It’s their show. Face it, watching someone simply sketch and sew is about as interesting as watching paint dry. The gang must multitask and offer witty banter, a touch of improv and occasional backstabbing along with their stitches, or no one would want to watch anything but the highlights and final designs. (Take note, seasons six and seven!)
So while this idea may seem oh-so six seasons ago, the one sure way to fix what ails “Runway” is to look back at the one season that turned out nearly perfect — season two.
If the talent load alone wasn’t strong enough in the show’s sophomore run (Daniel Franco notwithstanding, it was), some contestants more than made up for it with hammy personalities and a gift for machine-side humor. In short, the upcoming season could really use a Santino Rice.
Not in the relentless use of flowing chiffon sense — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but most definitely in the fashion-visionary-meets-personality-powerhouse way. “Runway” needs participants who are just as comfortable riffing on the great Gunn or singing off their fallen friends as they are ruching their latest layered design.
Cast the right contestants and the lulls fade away, trips to Mood become a little less routine, and the workroom becomes the best part of the show.
Make it work
Sadly, there’s only one Santino. At least fans will get a chance to catch him, along with first season alum Austin Scarlett, in their new show that airs right after “Runway,” “On the Road with Austin and Santino.” And hey, that means there’s already one bright spot for “Runway” fans looking for improvement — the end of “Models of the Runway.”
Strictly speaking, “Models” wasn’t actually a part of the “Project Runway” episodes — it was simply an attempt to elevate the adjunct model action to its own show. But as any viewer who failed to flip the channel at the end of the hour could tell you, it sure felt like the boring last bit of the main course.
At least now a longer “Runway” followed by a quick 30-minute Rice-Scarlett chaser might not feel as long as it once did. Heck, throw in a hefty amount of what’s always brought fans back for more — in short, Gunn and the right mix of big egos — and that 90 minutes could just fly right by.
Ultimately more doesn’t have to be a bad thing — if it’s more of what viewers want. It’s a message the last couple of standard-length seasons of “Project Runway” would have benefited from. Here’s hoping certain fashionable behind-the-scenes decision makers figured that out before embarking on this upcoming version of “Runway”-and-then-some.
Ree Hines would gladly watch 90 minutes of Tim Gunn just being Tim Gunn. Follow @ReeHines on Twitter and share your own “Runway” wishes.