Let’s say you have a favorite sandwich at a coffee shop close to where you live or work. Nothing fancy or high-end, just a simple meal you enjoy every so often that they make just right. A reuben, let’s say. Every week or so you go and have your sandwich, which leaves you happy and satisfied until next time.
Except suddenly they change it. They still call it a reuben, but they’ve swapped out the pumpernickel for Wonder Bread, changed the pastrami to Sara Lee honey ham, substituted lettuce for sauerkraut and stopped heating it entirely. Suddenly your weekly lunch treat is a plateful of blah.
And so it is with Project Runway All Stars. Same premise as the original show. Same format. Some familiar faces, but none of the important ones. And all the flavor? Gone.
Specifically, they’re brought back several also-rans from seasons past, hence “all stars.” But these aren’t the stars we tune in to see. We tune in to see Heidi, Tim, Michael and Nina. As the more recent, less talented casts have proven, the design competition is only the frame on which the real entertainment is hung. Without that frame it’s just a pile of clothes.
Let’s start with the prize itself. Supposedly the best prize yet, the winner will get an exclusive boutique in select Neiman Marcus stores instead of a runway show at New York fashion week and money to launch a collection. This makes sense from a competition stand-point, as many of the returning contestants have already shown at fashion week, and doing so again would be a mere rerun. It also makes sense from a production standpoint, since uncoupling the show from fashion week means they can shoot it whenever they want. (Presumably Heidi et al are tied up with the real Project Runway, which is why this version is stuck with Angela and the Blands.) But debuting at fashion week is a legitimately big, exciting deal for up-and-coming designers, whereas (as this hilarious recap points out) God only knows which corner of which Neiman Marcus is going to be the location of those boutiques. Considering the lackluster quality of some of the recent winners (I defy you to name more than one or two between Christian and Anya), it wouldn’t surprise me if major markets take a pass.
Of course, nobody tunes in because of the prize. Regular viewers watch to see Tim Gunn giving constructive criticism like everyone’s favorite, natty uncle. They watch to see Heidi smile with thinly-veiled menace as she tells the designers to make a dress out of pet supplies, or shows up midway through a challenge to tell them they’ll be making an additional dress with no additional time or material. They watch to see Michael and Nina try to out-do each other with ever more baroque ways of saying “I hate it.”
Instead we get Angela Lindvall, who clearly lacks Heidi’s demented glee at throwing the impossible at the designers. Instead we get Joanna Coles, who (pace my favorite non-LoOG bloggers) always seemed like a harpy as a guest judge but who fills the Tim Gunn advisor role with mealy-mouthed non-advice. Surely the woman who once said she’d fire Nina if she showed up at work wearing one of the designer’s creations could have found something either helpful or entertaining to say about something while strolling through the work room. But no.
And instead we get the most ineffectual panel of judges imaginable. How ineffectual were Lindvall, Georgina Chapman and Isaac Mizrahi (whose usual madcap charm seemed on hiatus)? [Spoiler to follow.] Not until after the designers had filed off the runway was I sure if the judges had liked Elisa’s outfit or hated it. Which is saying a lot, because a) it looked like it was designed by a forest sprite with literary pretensions and a disco fetish… who is also blind, and b) it was the design that ended up losing. I was afraid the judges, in a long PR tradition of seeming to adore clothing that would cause most normal people to burst into flames if they wore it, had liked her preposterous, quasi-mystical fug-fest. Unless the producers edited out the parts where the judges actually offered criticism (which makes no sense, since those would presumably have been the good bits), even poor Elisa must not have known they hadn’t liked it. And even if she’s nutso and (sorry, honey) untalented, that seems cruel.
In any case, it all made for bad television. Like the unwatchable Project Accessory before it (which gave the world the hilarious phrase “America’s next top accessory designer,” a winner who will presumably join the illustrious ranks of What’s His Name and Never Heard of Her), Project Runway All Stars highlights its manifold deficiencies by mimicking its superior precursor with lesser quality substitutes. Nothing makes you miss Michael and Nina quite like wondering how loudly he would have wailed at Sweet P’s dishtowel dress or how many synonyms for “awful” she would have found for Gordana’s brillo pad epaulettes.
It doesn’t help that the quality of returning designers is wildly inconsistent, with the best (Rami, Mondo) obvious from the start and the worst (poor, hapless Michael) there for reasons beyond my comprehension. (It may be for the best that Tim Gunn isn’t here, given that Michael is the only contestant whose behavior disgusted the usually unflappable mentor to the point that he could barely make eye contact as he gave him the heave-ho.) And lastly, can someone please tell Austin Scarlett that his mustache makes him look less like Errol Flynn and more like a barely-pubescent eighth-grader?
I will, of course, probably watch the whole thing, partly because I’m a completist and partly because I hope it gets better. There’s plenty of time for Lindvall to discover, if not her inner Klum, then some kind of spark that elevates her above mere placeholder. Plenty of time for the Mizrahi of “Unzipped” to show up. Plenty of time for Coles to remember “oh, that’s right, I’m a bitch” and slap the designers into shape. (Surely none of them are so naive as to expect otherwise.)
In other words, there’s still plenty of time for them to make it work.