We're about halfway through the thirteenth season of Lifetime's Project Runway, and the formula seems to hold up, though it's certainly showing signs of wear and tear. Anchored by the overwhelming popularity of host Heidi Klum and host/mentor Tim Gunn, it's entirely probable that we'll be tuning in for as many seasons as Lifetime is willing to produce.
Designers now shop the Aldo accessories wall, and models head to the Mary Kay and Philip B. studios for makeup and hair--a far cry from the Lord & Taylors and L'Oreal Parises of the past. And after three seasons, Zac Posen still sounds like he's trying too damn hard to fill the Zippy One-Liner role Michael Kors perfected; Posen actually seems sweet, so it comes across a little forced.
The judges' panel is hardly the most exciting thing about the show, which frankly is pretty short on excitement these days. We know what to expect--and it's rarely the unexpected. Even the return of Season 11 contestant Amanda wasn't a huge surprise, since PR has been bringing past contestants back for a few seasons now. It is a pretty big surprise to learn she's a fan favorite, but as frequently happens, returning designers become almost instantly more likeable as new contestants fume about the unfair advantage. Does Amanda really have that big an advantage at this point? I've never been on Project Runway, but it's been on the air for 13 years so the idea that being a past competitor is a HUGE advantage is not entirely believable. Just watch the previous 12 seasons! And practice sewing.
Even the challenges are feeling a little stale. The unconventional challenge is always fun, but it's also always there. (This year with a movie theme, using materials from a movie theater like old film and movie tickets.) Everyone gets whiny when it's team challenge time, and then they get pale when it's time to make a garment for a member of the judges' panel--this year it was Heidi's Emmy dress. Then there was the episode that kicked off at a Red Robin burger franchise. It begs the question--WHY? If there must be product placement (and clearly there MUST) it should at least make sense.
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And then there are the contestants. Besides Amanda "my brother is in Maroon 5" Valentine, the following remain:
• Sandhya Garg: Whether you think she's a crazy genius or an over-hyped crybaby, you have to admit Sandhya puts out some of the most original designs on the runway, week after week. Sandhya isn't afraid to manipulate fabric--or people.
• Sean Kelly: He's sent some ugly clothes down the runway, but his recent performance in the wedding wear challenge was well-timed. When Dita von Teese says she would wear your clothes, it's a good day.
• Samantha Plasencia: If you watch the show you may still be asking, "Who?" Samantha hasn't made a big splash this season, but the San Antonio native could slip through to the finals if she stays in the Safe Zone. A New York Fashion Week runway might be tough for a designer who considers evening wear her weakness.
• Korina Emmerich: Probably the weakest designer left, Korina's strength seems to be talking about how much better she is than the rest of the contestants--and she has a particular hatred for Sandhya.
• Kini Zamora: Even the other designers are stunned by Zamora's amazing construction and sewing skills--not to mention his speed. He is usually done hours early, even on one-day challenges. The judges should start calling him out on why he isn't using that time to innovate.
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• fäde zu grau: German, avant garde, atheist. He's a bit of an enigma, but he is as interesting as the clothes he sends down the runway each week--another front runner.
• Emily Payne: It's easy to see Emily's influences--Helmut Lang, Gaultier--on the runway, but it's not too referential. If she can learn to tell a better story about her clothes she may win the whole damn thing.
• Alexander Knox: This guy is so damn likeable, it can be hard to tell whether you objectively like his clothes. (Hint: They aren't that great, but he is.)
Putting strangers together and forcing them to compete on-camera is definitely the best thing about the show. Unfortunately for Project Runway, viewers really liked it when the best thing about the show were the clothes, and it's getting hard to remember the last time something truly innovative and exciting strolled down their runway. Short on fashion, Project Runway feels more than a little threadbare. It's a classic Tim Gunn make-it-work scenario. Let's hope they do.