Thursday, November 27, 2014

Project Runway Seasons 1-5 Review

Hey y'all.  So one of my guilty pleasures is Project Runway, a show that has been running for 13 seasons, at the time of this writing.  So is it worth watching?  What if you're in a used bookstore, and you see some seasons of it on a shelf?  Which one should you get?  Well, it's all a matter of taste, but I'll go ahead and try to get across the general feel of each season, so you can make a choice.

Or I can use that premise as an excuse to rant about a favorite show of mine.

Keep in mind, however, that I have not seen every single PR thing there is.  Oh, pretty darn close, but not quite 100%.  I've seen seasons 1-10, most of them more than once.  I've seen PR All-Stars 1-3. I've seen a couple of episodes of season 11, a tiny bit of season 12, and as much of season 13 as I could tolerate.  I haven't seen the Under the Gunn show, but I plan on watching that.  Maybe it'll be fun.

For the record, the basic premise of this reality show is that 16 contestants are shipped to New York and forced to create an outfit based on some kind of twist or challenge.  The best outfit wins, and the worst one sends its designer packing.  The last few contestants (3 or 4) get to design a small collection and show it at New York's Fashion Week, and the best collection becomes the winner of Project Runway, with cash, cars, sewing supplies, and other fun, fashion related things.  It's hosted by Heidi Klum, and her fellow judges are Nina Garcia, Michael Kors (later replaced with Zac Posen) and a celebrity guest judge of some kind.

In any case, here we go!  Because I'm supposedly doing this for newcomers to the series, there will be no spoilers.

Season 1:

This, in my opinion, is the second best season of the show.  The best part about it is that everything is so fresh and raw, and none of the Project Runway cliches have been established at this point.  Heidi instantly expresses her emotions when she sees an outfit on the runway, they haven't figured out the most tense way to announce the winner yet, and they suffer the consequences of keeping in a less talented contestant for the entertainment value.  That, however, did not stop the show from giving its prize to the person who most genuinely deserved it.  This season was fun, casual, and featured a lot more of the models than any other season of the show.

That, of course, is Morgan's fault.  She's a drama queen who is constantly tripping up the designers, saying strange things, and generally just being oblivious to how much she gets on everyone's nerves. The designers themselves are full of drama, but also pretty relaxed.  Only one of the contestants took the competition too seriously, and everyone is willing to just get along.

Notable challenges: Making an outfit from objects sold at a grocery store, designing postal uniforms, and creating a collection based on what people might be wearing decades into the future.

It should be pointed out that the two biggest determinants of the quality of Project Runway are talent and personality, let's talk about those.

Talent level: Pretty good.  It feels more like there are a few very good people, while the rest are simply middling, with a couple lower.  This is a pretty good mix, but after a while you began to guess who was going to be in the top three.  Well, who deserved it, anyway.

Personalities: One of the best PR mixes.  Possibly the best.  There was the villain, the hot guy, the too-serious woman, the cranky artist, and the complete fairy.  Despite them all being competitors, for this kind of show to be entertaining, they have to have a sort of chemistry together.  And they absolutely do.

Notable contestant: Austin Scarlett, the fairy.  He's always obsessing over pretty, feminine things. Despite being old fashioned, he's...well, someone to watch, that's for sure.

Season 2:

This, imo, is the best season of PR ever.  I love nearly every single contestant on this season, and the only one I don't like has the unfair disadvantage of resembling a judgmental co-worker of mine. Well, and there was the one who made possibly the most hideous outfit ever made for the show, but at least that's a notable achievement, and he at least seemed like a nice guy.

The real draw for this season is Santino Rice, who is continually joking, singing, and apparently offending everyone else in the whole cast.  Actually, this season is really emotional for a lot of people.  There's Zulema, the woman with her supposed alternate personality, Shatangi, who is actually quite professional for someone so stern and forceful.  It's a weird combination.  And then there's Andrae, the guy who shows every emotion on his face and can't decide what accent he wants to go with.

I could go on.  Every one of these designers is interesting in their own way, and they have quirks which makes them fun and watchable.  They got along strangely well, most of the time, and were always game for whatever quirky challenges got thrown their way. The funny thing was, when it came down to the final 3, I couldn't decide who I wanted to root for.  I was just having so much fun watching everyone interact, that I forgot about the competition aspect.  I'm perfectly happy about the winner, but in a sense it didn't matter.  It was a fun ride all the way, and announcing a winner just means it's over.  This is definitely the most "road trip" of all the seasons.

Notable challenges: Designing for Barbie, ice skating costumes, dresses from flowers.

Talent level: better than the previous year.  When it got down to about the last six contestants, it really was a question of who would be in the top.  Though there was also a higher number of questionable contestants this year too.  But hey, when it comes to reality television, lots of good and lots of bad is much better than lots of middle.

Personalities: The best of the entire series.  When they're happy, when they're disagreeing, when they're pissed off, I always care about what's going on.

Notable contestant:  All of them, really.  But I do want to point out Diana Eng, the nerdy designer obsessed with somehow combining fashion with geekery, what with skirts held up by magnets and a geometric hoodie.  I'm on her website now, and girl's got a fibonacci scarf on there.  I'm so proud of her.

Season 3:

So this is where I diverge a little from what could be popular opinion.  I don't like this season very much.  Sure, it's pretty entertaining, and there were some good challenges in there.  However, the talent level isn't as high as it was, and the people who are the most talented had aesthetics that bordered on one-note.  For example, I loved Uli in PR All Stars season 3, which I saw before this season.  I came back to this season with high expectations, only to find Uli creating printed Miami dresses every challenge she has the opportunity, and when she doesn't, her designs still involve dramatic prints with flowy designs.  As a result, I can't get behind her that season like many fans would.

Other designers, though nice people, weren't so interesting in the design department either.  Laura Bennett, as much as people love her, is almost as close to being one-note.  Her designs too often resort to plunging necklines (I don't care what fashion says, that's always trashy), and when they aren't plunging, they're often dull.  Sometimes they're both.  While she did do some good outfits, dull and trashy are the exact opposite of what I enjoy in fashion.

Though I'd be remiss not to point out that she has a great personality.  Surprisingly, my favorite appearance of hers is when she appeared as a judge in season 5, as she showed she was a very professional judge.  It wasn't until then that I really started to like her, to be honest.  Though other people did fall for her during season 3, so I have to give her credit for that.

Michael Knight has an even greater personality...with worse taste issues.  Michael is the sweetest contestant ever, and took on no one's drama while on the show.  Too bad his aesthetic is so hoochie. It's as if an entirely different person is designing his clothing for him; it's so strange that someone so polite doesn't seem to get that most women aren't interested in showing so much boobery.  He's great at menswear, though.

On the plus side (for some people), there is a lot of drama this season.  Like, bursting at the seams.  If that's what you're into, alright.  But what makes this season's drama different from the others is that it's all so mean-spirited.  Much of this is the fault of "bad boy" Jeffery Sebelia.  While Santino from season 2 was fun and jovial, even when insulting people, Jeffery is just mean, bitter, and too happy when people he doesn't like lose. Add in Vincent and Angela, who are creepy and weepy respectively, and you have the group that has both the most likable (Laura, Michael, Uli) and the least likable (Jeffery, Vincent, Angela) of all Project Runway in the same season.  That's not even including this season's cheater.

If these people were more creative and/or had better taste, I could follow this season better.  As is, it's a whole lot of drama over outfits that either aren't interesting or aren't wearable.  While in the last season I had trouble rooting for a winner because I liked all of them, in this season I had trouble because none of the finalists really wowed me.  Well, one of them showed more creativity in their finale collection than in the season (which for the sake of spoilers I will simply say was not the winner).  While I didn't like the winner of this season, I had no argument against the victory.  Who else would it go to?

That being said, you might blame my lack of love for this season on my taste in fashion.  Thing is, my taste in fashion is broad, even too broad because I often like unsophisticated things.  That, however, is only proof that I am not the best judge of fashion.  You may find a lot of the things on this show more interesting than I did, or be less offended at some of the more dreary or dull or hoochie outfits.

Also, you may like the drama of this season more than I do.  If you're into mean-spiritedness, well, there you go.  It's just that this season reminds me too much of Project Runway Canada.  No offense to Canada, but somehow that show had a harder time finding people with good tailoring skills, and there was a lot of mean-spiritedness.  What made PR Canada season 2 very bad was its offensive choice to keep a hideously tacky man and a little-talented jerk in the show instead of Adejoke, someone who was head and shoulders above most of her competition.  PR Canada clearly sacrificed talent and taste for drama, and this season was almost as bad in that regard.  Both even brought in two less talented designers back into the competition late in the game.  The advantage of PR USA is that the judges kept their heads and didn't let the non-competition stay very long.

Notable challenges: Designing for the other designer's moms, making clothes from garbage, couture from French fabrics.

Talent level: Not the worst this show has seen, but not near the best.  Or maybe it just seems that way because the taste level was inconsistent and many of the designers relied too much on techniques familiar to them.  There wasn't nearly enough pushing the envelope in this season.

Personalities: The strongest personality set of the earlier PR seasons.  Lots of likable and unlikable people, and lots of controversy.

Notable contestant: Kayne Gillespie was perhaps the most fun designer in this season.  His stuff was fun, colorful, and something I could look forward to every episode.  While he certainly wasn't the most sophisticated, he was definitely the least boring in terms of design.

Season 4:

The return to talent!  Actually, this is the most talented season of the show.  It feels like a rebound from last season: in season 3, creativity was sacrificed for personality.  In this season, personality was sacrificed for talent.  There were fewer crazy people, and even a couple of very quiet contestants. Still, it turned out that two of the most talented designers had the funniest personalities, so we got to see them throughout the competition.  Also, there were a number of good challenges, so even when the personality aspect was turned down, there was always something to look at.

One of the reasons this seasons appears more talented is that there was a larger number of upper tier designers.  They could have given the prize to any of the top four and it would have been fine.  They were all great designers with strengths in different areas.  As far as a design competition goes, it was a real series of competitors.

While most of the challenges were pretty good, this is the point where the show started to go a little out there.  For example, the lady wrestler challenge.  That's right, lady wrestler.  That just screams fashion, now doesn't it?  Also, the menswear challenge was completely unfair, especially since it happened so early in the season, before the designers could show much of their talent before facing the chopping block.

Overall, this season is pretty symbolic of Project Runway as a show, especially when considering future seasons and how nuts those got with their challenges.  This is the point where the Project Runway formula gets set.  Which wasn't a bad thing, for a while.

Notable challenges: Making outfits out of candy, designing a suit for Tiki Barber, and, of course, the lady wrestler challenge.

Talent level: Best in the show.  While there were a couple of tacky people in there, a surprisingly large number of early-on designers had the skills to bring on fun outfits.

Personalities: While some cite this as a boring season in this regard, it was actually pretty fun.  There was the stressed out girl, the drag designer, the guy who kept saying "fierce", and a weirdo hippie chick.  Though when this season is compared to the first three, personality is obviously less of a factor.  However, that appears to be due mostly to editing, and the show deciding what it wants to be after three practice tries -- all of three previous seasons were more raw than the shows beyond this point.

Notable designer: Hmm...I'll go with Chris March, the flamboyant drag queen designer.  He's done a lot of ridiculous costumes, and it's weird to be impressed by talent and disturbed so greatly at the same time.

Season 5:

Season 5 is one of the better seasons, especially since we get to see so many of the older contestants return in cameos.  The very first episode sees the return of Austin Scarlett, who announces that their very first challenge is going to be the same as on his season: making an outfit out of grocery store materials. Even without Austin there, the results of the challenge are interesting for being fabulous, or interesting for being bad.  Great start to the season.  Not to mention that Laura Bennett comes back as a judge, and Chris March comes back for a drag queen challenge.

Yeah, they're going all out for fashion.  Sure, there's some subtle challenges in the mix too, like one where they're inspired by New York.  This season has my nomination for the one with the best mix of talent and personality.  You've got the crazy guy, the leather-obsessed girl, the girl who likes making 50s style dresses in 90s Easter Sunday fabric, and....well, just plain talented people.  Everyone there has something to offer in terms of interest.  While I would still argue that I had more fun watching season 2, this is the one that didn't compromise either talent or personality for the other.

Notable challenges: Making clothes out of car parts, "attempting" to make Olympian outfits (it's unbelievable how many of them lost the plot on that one), and designing fashion from astrological signs.

Talent level: Pretty good.  Not as good as season 4's group, but it's a high enough level to give audiences something to be amazed by, yet with enough kooky designers to give us something to be disturbed by.  All in all, satisfying.

Personalities: Very good.  There's lots of freaks and professionals, and even the villain of the season isn't as horribly unwatchable as what season 3 had to offer.

Notable contestant: Kenley the 50s obsessed girl.  She rarely did anything that wasn't interesting, and her personality, well, didn't exactly make her the most friends.

All in all, seasons 1-5 were the best of the show.  Even 3.  I don't mean to be a hipster, but that's just the way things turned out.  During these earlier seasons, things were more raw, less producer-driven, and more about the clothes/models than simply about hassling people into making whatever they can in a few hours.  Also, these seasons were produced by Bravo, and post season 5, the show went to Lifetime, a channel known more for its pro-woman propaganda than quality programming.  While on one hand the change made sense, on another, Lifetime got way too hands on with the show.  More on that next time.

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