When Project Runway’s migration to Lifetime — and Los Angeles — was announced in April 2008, we as a nation clutched our collective pearls in horror: The show’s sass and edge seemed at odds with the network that made its name putting the likes of Susan Lucci and Meredith Baxter Birney in both peril and soft-focus, and dragging Runway out of New York ripped it away from the locus of American fashion. So, despite early positive reviews, it was with a nervous and critical eye that we sat down to watch last night’s premiere. Would Lifetime put its signature Danielle Steele, woman-on-the-edge stamp on our beloved fashion competition? Would we get a string of challenges based on such classics as Co-ed Call Girl? And would setting it in a town that can’t even fully book its own Fashion Week dilute the show’s relevance? Fortunately, after the first hour, we’re pleased to report that we can all unclench. It’s going to be fine.
Truly, the similarities are uncanny. For months we’ve heard that the new producers, Bunim-Murray (of The Real World fame), bent over backwards to keep Runway looking and feeling exactly like its old self, and clearly that worked. Watching was a bit like studying the face of a close friend, convinced she got some nice rejuvenating work done but being unable to pinpoint exactly what. The runway is the same. The judges are the same. Jovial shepherd Tim Gunn is still there, trying to steer his sheep safely away from the dude with the shotgun who’s hungry for lamb. As for Lifetime-friendly touchy-feely sob stories, ex–meth addict Johnny wept an awful lot about his struggles — forcing Tim to play Dr. Tyra for a while — but the Bravo iteration was equally guilty of this, often to the detriment of winner-loser suspense. And despite skepticism over Lindsay Lohan’s participation as a guest judge, Runway has never shied away from using celebrities — remember when everyone had a cow over Sarah Jessica Parker? — and in fact, Lohan was pleasantly articulate. (Although we couldn’t keep a straight face when she advised the designers not to cross the line of propriety, as Lindsay herself obliterates it nearly every time she crosses the threshold of her front door.) Ergo, early on, the only changes we spotted were terribly important details like the size and font of the front-of-show credits, and the occasional ad for Centrum Silver — a sponsor that would, most likely, never back a Bravo show unless it came out with a vitamin called Centrum Housewives.
Eventually a few cosmetic differences did rear their heads. The camera angles on the judges are so tight we practically were cut to shreds by Heidi Klum’s cheekbones. The workspace in New York was a large, windowless cell that left us with zero sense of day versus night — much like being at a blackjack table in Las Vegas, minus the risk of crushing financial ruin — but the space at L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising is replete with tall windows. Handy for fantasies of jumping when, say, you just can’t make a well-boned corset out of fish tacos and painter’s tape, but otherwise certainly not as brain-scramblingly oppressive. Still, much as we forgot we weren’t watching Bravo until the commercials ran, we also forgot the cast wasn’t in New York until the cameras went outside. In fact, other than the expanse of blue sky visible between mildly tall downtown buildings, the switch to Los Angeles almost felt like an afterthought.
The operative word being almost. The risk this Runway may run is beating us over the head with its Hollywood adjacency, at the expense of actual interesting challenges. The first was a snooze: Design a red-carpet-ready dress (Tim trotted them out to the Kodak Theatre, decked out for last September’s Emmys; amazing to think this season is so old it’s come back around to being timely). Next week, the task is crafting clothes for a surprise star. An overreliance on boldface wearers rather than makers of clothes will get boring, fast. If the producers did resist the urge to make it Project Runway: Hollywood, then based on this crop of crazies, we could be in for a strong season. If not, though, then at least Lifetime itself will be absolved of guilt, and at the very least it might achieve what this whole thing was probably about in the first place: Making us all say auf Wiedersehen to our channel snobbery and just sit down and be entertained. So far, to borrow from Heidi, we are in.
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