Archive for October, 2009

This Isn’t Funny Anymore. Or, The Night Project Runway Jumped The Shark.

Monday, October 26th, 2009

The End of Reality: Part I.

On Thursday, October 25, 2009, at 9:57 PM, Project Runway jumped the shark.

I know ‘jumping the shark’ is a loaded concept that’s now bordering on the cliché. And it’s easy to indict a show that’s having a lackluster season — especially a reality competition that’s suffering from inconsistent and frustrating judging — of having debased itself in some core way. But I think ‘jumping the shark’ is a very particular kind of invalidation, one perpetrated by PR in its last episode.

First, the facts. Spoiler alert.

In the bottom two on Thursday night: feather prince Nicolas Putvinski, with his malproportioned Grecian fantasy; and fragile autodidact Christopher Straub, with his indescribably bad “Sante Fe”-“inspired” “outfit” to match his unfortunate, hairline-thin, jawline-hugging facial hair.

Christopher, an earnest if overconfident soul from Shakopee, Minnesota, was making his fourth appearance in the bottom in just as many weeks. After a strong showing early in the competition, Christopher continued to display an utter lack of taste; it was his third time in bottom two, a perch from which he outlasted better competitors Louise and Shirin.

Somehow, Christopher had continued to squeak by on something — remembered potential? Simple favoritism?

This week, though, the there was simply no way he could get another reprieve after running so long on fabric fumes. Michael Kors described his Sante Fe garment as “costume.” Heidi was more frank: “unwearable,” she said; and, later, “just ugly.”

It was thus with the collective gasp of a million viewers that Heidi announced, “Christopher… you’re in.”

***

This season of Project Runway was problematic far before last week. After relocating to Lifetime and Los Angeles, the show has been unmoored by innumerable absences from New York-based judges Nina Garcia and Michael Kors.

Consistent judging is essential for a show like Project Runway, where contestants prove their mettle and articulate their point-of-view over a season’s worth of wacky challenges. If I had missed school as many times as either judge has abandoned their post (or, more accurately, their runway-side stool) this season, I would’ve never made it past the seventh grade.

There have been other problems, too.

None of the contestants has impressed audiences with innovative design. Each week, the winning designs seem to be the ones conceived and executed with the most competence, not originality.

And none of the personalities has proven exceptionally engaging, leaving an absence of interesting interpersonal dynamics. Yes, Irina is a bitch and Carol Hannah thinks Logan is attractive. But it’s hard to summon hatred for Irina, as she is the most consistently successful of the designers; it’s harder to empathize with Carol Hannah, as Logan is criminally devoid of personality.

So why was Christopher’s third bottom-two survival the moment that marked the jumping of the shark?

***

Let’s take a step back. What does it mean to jump the shark?

Wikipedia defines the term as “a colloquialism coined by Jon Hein and used by TV critics and fans to denote the point in a television program’s history where the plot veers off into absurd story lines or out-of-the-ordinary characterizations. This usually corresponds to the point where a show with falling ratings apparently becomes more desperate to draw in viewers.”

This definition approaches the phenomenon by metonymy: yes, jumping the shark is often found in conjunction with declining ratings, and it often occurs vis-a-vis absurdity or inconsistency. But these are not the ding an sich.

What these associations hint at is the core of shark-jumping: a cultural object’s forfeiture of artistic integrity. A TV show jumps the shark when it ceases playing by its internally-established rules or abandons its foundational premises.

Happy Days jumped the shark when Fonzie literally jumped a shark on water skies (still in his trademark leather jacket), but it jumped the shark because in that moment it gave up the pretense that it was a naturalistic representation of the lives of Richie Cunningham and his 50s teenage friends.

Cousin Oliver came to stay with the Brady Bunch because of their declining ratings, but the show jumped the shark because his arrival fundamentally altered its premise as a sitcom built on the foibles of what happened after a lovely lady bringing up three very lovely girls married a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own — this was a show with its premises built right into the theme song!

When Christopher lived to sew another day after first taking up residence in the bottom and then living their comfortably for a month, it wasn’t just an opportunity to scream at the screen — it marked Project Runway’s loss of artistic integrity.

***

Much of the best cultural criticism being written today can be found on a blog called FourFour, where Rick Juzwiak meditates on music, web culture, and, most prominently, reality TV. (His recaps of America’s Next Top Model offer enough motivation in themselves to continue watching.)

On the occasion of Project Runway’s sixth season premiere, he wrote about the show he once recapped but never fell in love with:

Project Runway has a reputation for being a high-brow reality show, probably because of its supposed investment in talent, its tempered contestants and its consistent pacing. I think assigning high- and low-culture status within the genre of reality TV is like assigning a hierarchy of pork products, from, say, belly to scrapple. In the end, it’s all fucking pig…

I don’t mean to hold its hype against it, and it’s not like Project Runway ultimately does that great of a job in avoiding being what it is, anyway. People are not there to make friends, they throw each other under the bus, this isn’t the last you’ve heard of them when they’re bounced. As though sniffing out truffles, the casting agents fill the show with types…

There is an androgynous, aggressively coiffed pseudo-intellect who described his design as “ineffable,” but was unfortunately incorrect as he didn’t then shut up.

In response to the task of designing for the red carpet, this one also said “I don’t differentiate between different colored carpets,” which, uh, yeah you do because you just called them “different.” It was here that I was reminded of maybe the main reason I stopped watching this show: I find humorless snobs too excruciating to even laugh at, and as a fashion-design competition, pretension runs thick on Project Runway. It’s not the show’s fault, per se, it’s just how it works out.

Juzwiak has never been able to sign onto Project Runway’s premises — that it is a cut above the typical reality competition, a true search for the best that rewards the excellent and dismisses the dilettantes — but these are its premises indeed. These are the reasons discerning viewers, who would never deign to watch Top Model, have fawned over Daniel Vosovic and Jeffrey Sebelia and Christian Siriano and Korto Momolu for years.

But Juzwiak is right: Project Runway was never perfect, and it has always had more base reality conventions sewn into the muslin core beneath its silk exterior. Yes, contestants who make for good TV might outlast their less interesting competitors. Yes, the challenges with their money- and time-limits are contrived.

Still, the internal logic of the competition demands that continued ineptitude be punished. The show is built on its premise of pretension, of being the highbrow reality competition that may give a second and third chance, but never a fourth.

***

At the beginning of this season, there was a contestant named Mitchell, whose last name I forget. Technically talentless, he seemed constitutionally incapable of assembling a wearable garment by the time of the runway show.

He was in the bottom two in week one, but was kept over the otherworldly Ari Fish. He was in the bottom two in week two, but was kept over the ineffable Malvin Vein. Viewers were frustrated, seeing admittedly eccentric designers leave before the bungling Mitchell.

But, then, justice.

In week three, Mitchell found himself in the bottom two for the third time — and this was after a challenge in which his team had won!

It was unprecedented, but clearly required by the logic of the show — his continued failure could not be countenanced.

Heidi made the awaited pronouncement: “Never in Project Runway history has a team member for a winning design been eliminated. Three strikes and you’re out.”

Flash forward to October 22. Christopher sews together fabric that leaves fellow designer Althea dumbstruck: “If Christopher can put that garment down the runway and not get eliminated, then I don’t know what’s going on.” We all agree.

He lands in the bottom two for the third time. The logic of the competition, the internal rules of the show articulated by Heidi herself, demand his expulsion.

But he survives. And he’s not even good TV.

The rules are broken. The premises are thrown over. The foundation collapses.

Project Runway jumps the shark.

***

In my next post, I’ll explore what Project Runway’s shark-jumping says about the state of reality TV — a genre built on the premise of representing “reality” that may be increasingly incapable of fulfilling its foundational requirement.

Note that this series is also being posted on Tears and Jeers, a pop culture blog written with Sachi Ezura. It was relevant to both blogs’ interests, and I couldn’t choose just one place to post. And some cross-blog promotion never hurts.

What Ever Happened to Ostracism?

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

A couple of months ago, during the late-lamented summer, my parents and I found ourselves driving from Shelter Island’s Heights back to the Center, from the pharmacy and Stars Café to the post office and George’s IGA.

Turning into Dering Harbor village (population: 13), we were treated to a unusual sight for our small, modest island community: two young women in bikinis skipped down the street arm-in-arm, Laverne-and-Shirley-style, with their bikini bottoms pulled down beneath their pert-but-untanned buttocks. My father later recounted that day as his favorite of the summer.

We also later discovered that this semi-nude jaunting had been a summer-long habit of the two women, likely a fun way to get a rise out of the more staid and sheltered residents of the island.

Unfortunately for one of the women, who had been working as a hostess at one of the island’s inns, her reputation got back to dining room. When it did, she was fired.

While my parents thought it was ridiculous that the woman should be dismissed just for having a little fun, my grandmother and I agreed that the inn’s owners were right — or at least had the right — to dissociate their business from their hostess’s indecent public displays.

It surprised me, though, to see an institution actually exercising a desire to uphold somewhat stuck-up standards of “decency”; the idea of a small-town community collectively looking down their noses at an impetuous young woman — and actually ostracizing her in some real way — seemed to belong more to the age of Ellen Olenska or even Hester Prynne than the age of Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga.

I thought about the incident again last month after reading an article in the New York Times “Vows” section about a couple that met and fell in love while performing together in La Bohème:

…When he kissed her, she momentarily lost her footing. “I was thinking, ‘What was that?’ ” she said. “There was definitely something there.”

After the rehearsal, Mr. Miller decided he had to see Ms. Kabanuck outside of work and invented a reason to call. A question about their schedule quickly turned into an invitation to a movie. That evening they went to see “50 First Dates.”

“I was so drawn to him immediately and tried to talk myself out of it,” Ms. Kabanuck said. Theirs was a clash of outlooks, if not cultures. He wore red cowboy boots, had earrings in both ears and spiked hair. She had been raised as a Baptist fundamentalist and said she remained devout, describing herself as “a little church girl.”

A sweet story so far, an opposites attract rom-com plot against the backdrop of a classic love story. Very Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey. Just one problem:

The date led to a few other encounters, but he was about to depart for Piacenza, Italy, for what he expected to be a triumph as the Duke of Mantua in a new production of “Rigoletto.” She drove him to the airport. Neither of them knew what would happen next. She was still married, but very much wanted to be close to him. He later described the experience of looking into her eyes on the first date as “that thunderstruck moment.”

“I was in love,” he said, “not just in my heart but in head, my body, my soul. That was it.”

…Holed up in a hotel in the Latin Quarter for two weeks, they reveled in their own vie bohème. Only in this version, the two lovers began planning his next career move, an audition for the pop-opera quartet, Il Divo, then being put together by Simon Cowell. She scraped together the last of her money to buy him an MP3 player so he could rehearse.

The player turned out to be a solid investment. He became a member of Il Divo and now tours the world with the group.

Ms. Kabanuck, when she returned from Paris, moved out of the home in New Jersey that she shared with her husband and found an apartment in Manhattan. The decision to leave her marriage and devote herself to Mr. Miller was extraordinarily difficult, she conceded. Still, she added, “from the moment our eyes met through those two weeks of being in Paris and the pain of going through a divorce, I knew that I loved him.”

Emphasis mine. Call me old-fashioned, but I was a little thrown to be reading this in the Times.

Sure, love doesn’t always happen neatly, but should adulterers be rewarded with a profile in the Sunday Styles section? The Times chooses whom to include in their highly competitive Weddings pages — isn’t the inclusion of the cheating coloratura and her Divo an implicit (bordering on explicit) endorsement of flouting marital bonds?

The devout “little church girl” shouldn’t have to be marked with a scarlet A, but shouldn’t cheating on her spouse disqualify her from being celebrated in a national newspaper?

I wasn’t the only one surprised: a post on New York Magazine’s “Daily Intel” blog slammed the couple — and others who end up in Vows after cheating on their spouses — for wanting the world to applaud their disregard for their first husbands and wives:

We at Daily Intel are not naïve. We understand that sometimes people in relationships fall in love with other people, and that they sometimes want to marry those people, which necessitates ending their current relationship. The heart wants what the heart wants, and all of that. We get it. We’ve even applauded it, bizarrely. But what we do not understand, what we cannot abide, is when said people, in the throes of connubial bliss, lobby to have themselves included in the New York Times “Vows” column, and then proceed to tell the reporter about how they cheated on their previous partner in a way that suggests they think of it not as something crap they have done to another person but instead like it is a part of their personal love story…

We actually just find it kind of distracting as a reader of Vows, because it raises all kinds of questions that then go unanswered, such as: Do the people who tell these stories really realize this stuff is going to end up in the Times, really? Do they worry that it’s going to ruin their wedding announcement by making them sound awful? And what do the exes think? What’s their version of events?

The authors fault the Times for lazy reporting in not getting the story of the disbanded husbands and wives, but, really, it’s a question of values. Why offer your institution’s extremely well-respected stamp of approval to clearly distasteful if not unethical behavior?

In Edith Wharton’s world, one whiff-of-a-hint of an adultery scandal that coalesced into an acknowledged item of society gossip could push someone out of social life forever.

That end of the spectrum seems too extreme. One mistake doesn’t define a person; there should be room for rehabilitation — of one’s reputation if not of his character.

A few weeks ago, after Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s address to Congress; after Serena Williams told a line judge at the U.S. Open that she’d shove the f-ing tennis ball down her f-ing throat; and after Kanye West assured Taylor Swift he was really happy for her and he was gonna let her finish, but Beyoncé’s video was one of the best of all time, the blogosphere punditocracy’s take-away message was that civility was dead.

But my take-away was slightly different and more reassuring: ostracism was alive, if not totally well.

Joe Wilson was “rebuked” by the House of Representatives, Serena Williams was fined by the tournament, and Kanye West was called a jackass by none other than Barack Obama.

The institutions which these individuals represent — Congress, professional tennis, the United States of America — made clear that their constituents’ actions were not in line with their institutional values.

Like the inn on Shelter Island, unlike the New York Times Vows section, these institutions (metaphorically) fired their flashing hostesses.

But we have a short societal memory and a shorter cultural attention span. These events will remain wrinkles on their perpetrators’ reputations forever, but they won’t bar all reputational rehabilitation.

Case in point: Eliot Spitzer. Eighteen months after resigning in a prostitution scandal, he has a column in Slate and may even run for office again.

This is a kind of provisional ostracism that we now generally practice. Serena can earn back the respect of her fans and become a model sportsman. The flashing hostess can be hired by another Shelter Island restaurant next summer. Institutions can censure those who show disregard for their values while still leaving the door open for redress.

If we want to keep civility alive, though, we must keep ostracism working. We must sometimes retain collective scowls at distasteful behavior. Let’s congratulate former adulterers on their weddings but keep them out of the Weddings sections. Let’s let Michael Vick play football but not give him endorsement deals. Let’s let Joe Wilson keep his seat but not make him minority leader.

And let’s get the flashing hostess a job at the Gardiner’s Bay Country Club so my dad can see her more often.