"This is Project Runway," says Heidi Klum, and without further ado we are into Season 5 of the gold standard of reality competitions - winner of a Peabody Award! - and the possibly soon-to-be-extracted jewel in the Bravo diadem. It is slated to move next year to Lifetime, into whose gynocentric Weltanschauung it will less compatibly fit. But I would guess that the fans will find it, wherever it is.
It is always the same and always different. Here again is the ruling troika of "top American designer" Michael Kors; Nina Garcia, now an Elle "editor at large" rather than its fashion director (she is headed to Marie Claire); and Klum, your average German supermodel mother of three. They will be joined by a procession of celebrity guest judges, including Diane von Furstenberg, Brooke Shields and RuPaul, and over the coming weeks will winnow 16 bright-eyed contestants to three glassy-eyed finalists. And then there will be one, rewarded with a package of money, stuff and opportunity.
And here again is the redoubtable Tim Gunn, peering over his glasses like some urbane Charley Weaver, a teacher among judges. He comes with a "Talk to me" and goes with a "Make it work." Although he has been mocked (almost traditionally at this point) by those he is there to mentor, Gunn is the one they are allowed to love and the person they are most likely to listen to, if they listen to anyone.
The difference this time comes with the competitors. They skew younger than past casts - 10 out of 16 are in their 20s (last season, there were three), which also means that more of them are identified as "freelance designers." Some seem to resemble players we've seen before - the cocky one (i.e., the Christian Siriano), the quiet one, the tattooed blond, and so on - but they will individuate with time. If the show has a dramatic arc, it's not in the way that the characters develop but in the way that we come to see them better - as, with every passing week, there are fewer of them to see and more clothes to judge them by. It is by their works that you shall know them.
The first of their labors, after the designers check into their dorm suites, sniff the competition and share some rooftop Champagne with Tim and Heidi, is a repeat of the very first Project Runway challenge: To make a dress from materials found at a grocery store. They come away with plastic cups, dodge balls, oven mitts, fly swatters, coffee filters, vacuum cleaner bags, mop heads, candy, produce and far too many tablecloths. The solutions range from the inspired and unpredictable, to the merely unpredictable, to the "And how did you get here exactly?"
Still, the correlation between doing well as a Project Runway contestant and being a good or a successful designer is a loose one, and even those who flourish in the game can be knocked out by a single bad day. By the same token, second-season player Santino Rice made the finals, even though he was judged among the "worst" in seven out of 11 episodes. You can see the obvious talent here, but the only prediction I am ready to make is that people will be talking about contestant Wesley's taste in shorts.
Many watch for the personal drama - the fits and the snits, the alliances and antipathies, the nervous breakdowns and explosions of ego - and rate each season by how much trashy drama it generates. (Or is generated by the editors.) That's one way to read the show, and while I regard that as a kind of fabulous accessory, what makes the show worthwhile is this: Excellence is exciting, and in a world in which the dross so often rises to the top, it is useful to be reminded that there are people with the gift of making a little into a lot, instead of the other way around.
Robert Lloyd writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Project Runway airs at 9 tonight on Bravo.