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I know that reality television is all about stressing the contestants through sleep deprivation and unreasonable challenges.  But last week and this week, the challenges have gone beyond unreasonable and have started to impact the skills that are supposed to be on display.  I went on record in last week’s writeup that the challenge was a overstuffed mishmash of contradictory elements.  Turns out that the challenge we saw was just the tip of the messy iceberg, according to a widely discussed segment of Tim Gunn’s vlog that he pulled from his Facebook page earlier this week.

All that explains why Tim is so apologetic in presenting the twist for this week’s much more standard-issue challenge.  The designers are originally told to design a high-fashion look to be featured in a L’Oreal advertorial for eye shadow, and that they have two days.  In the midst of the general rejoicing about the timeframe, April sees the twist coming and gets down to work.  Of course Michael C. does too, so he’ll have time to make three more dresses just in case he needs to choose between them.  But everybody else takes the extra time as a license to dither and plan extremely complicated pieces of clothing.  Then Tim shows up, hat in hand and asking permission to deliver the twist: another look, this one ready-to-wear.  After the unfairness of last week’s unclear moving-target challenge and the judging based on criteria to which the designers were not privy, I wouldn’t blame Valerie or Ivy for just hanging it up instead of enduring the judges ripping them apart when they were set up for failure.

But let’s get to the looks.  In mid-design, a lot of the contestants look to be in big trouble.  Gretchen has chosen the difficult theme of velvet, vows not to “stray too far from the elements the judges know me for” (translation: I’m sending down the same old stuff), and praises Collier Strong for designing makeup that will put her look “over the top” when all I see is a slightly bronzed eye.  Mondo’s textiles look distressingly similar to last week’s (more colorful houndstooth).  April is making yet another black dress with tulle accents.  Gretchen’s draped burgundy crushed velvet looks like nothing else than outerwear for homeless women.

Valerie knows that her couture look is crap, and that she’s not going to be able to make a ready-to-wear look that has anything to do with anything.  Tim gives her astounding advice — advice that actually saves her, against all odds: You can’t do what you planned, you’re going to drive yourself crazy by refusing to compromise your now impossible vision; therefore you should consider yourself released from it.  And after a stint in the bathroom crying on Ivy’s shoulder, Valerie accepts this reality.  She makes a horrible black nothing dress to go with her misbegotten white wedding gown and mentally packs her bags to go home.

On the runway, in front of guest judge Naeem Khan, we witness the result of Ivy’s decision to show the judges she can do bright colors: a set of outfits Michael Kors (who was seriously on tonight) calls “bridesmaids under the sea.”  Christopher’s couture look seems like three ideas tossed in a blender, and his ready-to-wear look has no discernible relationship and is boring besides.  Michael C.’s bourdeaux gown has a weird-ass hip treatment thing going on, but his daytime dress is va-va-voom wowza aahOOOOga!  We actually had to pause the show for a second to wipe our brows and compose ourselves. Gretchen’s couture look is just awful.  Awful.  I don’t know what the judges were talking about, because that was the saddest thing that has come down the runway this season.  Awful.  Her ready-to-wear dress is quite nifty, though.  And then there’s Valerie, who doesn’t even bother to defend her look in the voiceover, calling the couture dress “Rainbow Brite on crack” and opining philosophically of the ready-to-wear look, “You know what, I’m human.”

I am stunned to see Gretchen in the top and to hear the judges praise her feathered Woodstock number.  Andy’s warrior-metallic number clearly is a winner even if it’s not to Heidi’s (or your) taste; it’s got a clear point of view, it shows skill, and most interestingly, the two looks clearly relate to one another.  And then there’s Mondo, who made one of the best daywear dresses and cleverly explains that he wanted to drain the color out of his crazy couture gown as a contrast.  That’s two wins in a row for Mondo, who steals my heart yet again by deadpanning, “I left Colorado with $14 in my bank account.  So now I have $20,014 in my bank account.”

In the bottom: Valerie and her I-gave-up-but-I-didn’t-forfeit disasters, Ivy and her ocean waves.  It’s clear from the critique that Michael C. is going to be safe, and the producers go so far as to let that cat out of the bag during the judges’ deliberations.  But I’m as stunned as Valerie that Ivy gets the boot.  And Tim gets in one more dig at the unfair situation when he tells Ivy that the judges shouldn’t have been so hard on what were clearly unfinished dresses.

No, the challenge wasn’t out of the ordinary for PR.  Nor was the twist.  But the tension between the reality show imperative of creating dramatic chaos by keeping people off balance and fomenting confusion, and the professional imperative of justice and honest competition, keeps tripping up this season.  If only it didn’t make for such compelling viewing.

Stray observations:

  • At this point I’ve seen Collier Strong so often on TV I feel like he’s a fictional superhero with the special power of makeup.
  • How would April use the $20,000 prize?  “It would not only help pay off my student loans, but I could also get a miniature pony.”  (She’s not kidding about that pony; after Mondo wins, she half-jokingly asks if he’ll buy her one.)
  • Give the editors credit for catching Nina Garcia cracking up over Michael Kors’ hilarious riffs on the bottom three tonight.  On Valerie’s couture gown: “The only possible accessory she could use is a wand.” On Valerie’s day look: “She just came from the office and somebody said ‘Oh, by the way, it’s a crystal challenge.’”
  • Speaking of Kors, has he lost weight?
  • Ivy keeps saying she’s going to miss designing.  Did she sign something saying she had to stop designing altogether if she got voted off?
  • “It’s an unbelievably tight race for hideous today.”