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What the Heck Happened to 'Project Runway'?

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Jul 26, 2012 | 9:32am EDT

Project Runway Bad

Guys, did you know that Project Runway is on tonight? Yeah, I know. I almost forgot too. The 10th season premiere was last Thursday night on Lifetime. Yeah, I didn't catch it either. And, for the first time ever, I'm not going to watch this season. What the hell happened to Project Runway?

Let's preface this by saying that I used to be a huge fan of the show. I wrote a glowing review of the first episode ever (back when no one was watching) for the newspaper where I worked at the time. I spread the word of my favorite new reality show like I was Tom Cruise selling Scientology. There was something about the characters on the show, the novelty of seeing them make outstanding things in no time at all with no money, and watching very skilled and talented people do something that I could never imagine myself doing. After getting myself and my friends hooked, we threw parties, talked about the show at great length (perhaps too great), and I even sent detailed emails to close friends on Friday mornings breaking down how I felt about each episode.

And the rest of America slowly caught on too. Runway was on the cover of magazines. Tim Gunn was a household name with a book deal and his own spin-off. Heidi Klum reinvented herself in a new role. Michael Kors was known for something other than selling all his gear at Marshalls (and that something else was a tangerine hue that is not found in nature). Companies were rushing to sponsor challenges on the show, countless sites were writing recaps, and the fans were clamoring for more, more, more. And now? Nothing. The ratings are holding steady at 3 million viewers which is good for cable and about on par with the final Bravo season (which some claimed the network failed to promote because it knew it was losing the franchise), but even if people are watching, it doesn't have the heat that it once did.

Sure, Heidi Klum naked in a pile of scissors (ouch!) is on every bus and phone booth in New York, but Anna Wintour and the staff at Vogue doesn't care anymore. The magazine profiles and editorials have dried up. The recaps have ceased and no one (at least that I know off, among my large group of once-rabid fans) is congregating to watch the show. No one seems to care.

So, what exactly happened? There are other greying reality shows (Survivor, American Idol, Top Chef) that show no signs of losing their cultural relevance like Runway has. Here are a few reasons why I'm over the show.

Moving to Lifetime: Now, this is has nothing to do with the fact that I think that Bravo, the network that originally aired the show, is somehow better than Lifetime. I'll watch a good show no matter what channel it is on. The problem was that, because of a lawsuit that Bravo waged against The Weinstein Group (who produces the show) the first season of Runway on Lifetime was moved to L.A. and rushed into production. The talent was shoddy, the new production company was unsure of what they were doing and the whole thing suffered. While the season debuted to record ratings the audience slowly trickled away (rare for a reality show, which usually peaks near the finale). Lifetime failed to prove itself with a shoddy, rushed season and people stayed away for good.

Lack of Talent: It's always been my conjecture that there is a finite talent pool for shows such as Runway, a small group of truly astonishingly talented designers who are willing to be on a reality show. Churning out 10 seasons over seven years seems to have depleted that pool to nil. The winner of Season 8 (more on her later) wouldn't have even made it half way through Season 4 of the show, a creative high point won by Christian Siriano, arguably the only designer to launch a successful career from this perch. In later seasons the outfits didn't seem as fresh, as original, or as well done as they did in the first few years. Some of that may be because I wasn't as excited about the show as I once was, but I'm convinced that all the good designers have come and gone and all we're left with is backwoods seamstresses and just-graduated FIT young guns.

90 Minutes: I'm sorry, but more than 60 minutes for any reality show is too much. Yes, that goes for The Biggest Loser too. Lifetime tried to milk an extra thirty minutes and it just killed all the dramatic tension and the whiz of the sewing machine against the clock. Because of the extra slog to get through it, Runway would languish at the bottom of DVR for days, sometimes weeks. Too much of a good thing really did it in.

Models of the Runway: Even worse than the bloated corpse of a 90-minute episode, Lifetime also tried to tack on another 30 minutes of this show, which was a competition for the models. Sure, it's one thing if you could just ignore it, but decisions about the challenges and how the models were included were starting to effect Runway proper. No more team challenges (we have to include all the girls!) and no more double eliminations (be fair to the girls!) or swapping models (who wants a run off?!) made what should be oil that makes things run smoothly gunk up the whole machine.

The Way It Looks: Maybe it's just me or the fuzzy lens of nostalgia, but does the show look worse now? It's kind of like watching a VHS tape of a show you recorded off the television. It's just not crisp, and when I'm trying to look at the clothes, I want it to be as vivid as one of Nina Garcia, Fashion Director of Marie Claire's scowls.

The Winners: We need to talk for a minute about Gretchen. Gretchen Jones won season eight of Project Runway and she was awful. Well, she was awful, but her clothes were hideous. The winners of Season 6 and 7 (a million points if you can remember their names, but of course you can't) weren't any better. (PS, it was Irina Shabayeva and Seth Aaron Henderson). The winner of Season 9, Anya Ayoung-Chee, was better, but had barely learned to sew and seemed to only do one type of look well. If someone without talent is going to win, what is the point of the competition at all? This also seems to have exposed a rift on the judging panel where Heidi Klum is looking for fun, wearable things, and Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, Fashion Director of Marie Claire, are looking for fashion with a capital F and bowing to the whims of the trend forecasters, even as it pisses off the viewers. If this show can't figure out what it wants to be, then why are we even watching it?

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan

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