MasterChef Junior should have more imitators by now. Fox’s curmudgeon-proof cooking competition has connected with audiences and critics, proving the viability of a kid-focused reality show. Given TV networks’ history of borrowing each other’s reality concepts, by all rights, MasterChef Junior should have a glut of youth-edition competitors nipping at its heels.
Project Runway: Threads, the teen spin-off of Lifetime’s flagship fashion face-off, offers a cogent explanation for why there are so few Junior imitators. The problem isn’t the concept, which couldn’t be stronger: Threads’ aspiring auteurs are in their early to mid-teens, the age at which fashion becomes a potent tool for expressing individuality. It’s also a time when kids become acutely aware that they’re being compared to their peers and designate high-achieving nemeses. Energy, unbridled creativity, sharp elbows—what more does a Project Runway contestant need?
Except that Threads isn’t quite Project Runway. In fact, Threads bears more resemblance to Food Network’s frenzied competitions than it does to the show from which it was adapted. It’s essentially couture Chopped: All of its episodes are self-contained, beginning with another fresh-faced trio of competitors, so there’s no opportunity for the audience to build relationships with the contestants. Without serialized storytelling, Threads feels like a washed-out Project Runway facsimile, at once too close and too far away from the brand it’s extending. It’s made in the same silhouette, but the finishing is sloppy and the fabric is too thin.
Naturally, Threads is at its best when its working from a familiar playbook, condensing some of Project Runway’s greatest strengths in ways that occasionally surpass the old, plodding Runway. Runway now produces bloated, sometimes interminable 90-minute installments, while Threads is a brisk hour that manages to do more with less. Each episode features two runway shows: one featuring garments produced at home that best represent the contestants’ design point of view, and another with dresses the kids make for the challenge of the week. Between both runways and the critiques that follow them, there’s not much time for aimless workroom footage.
Host Vanessa Simmons is a charming presence with as much fashion authority as anyone with a vanity line, and Project Runway season four winner Christian Siriano is the judge-in-residence. Together, they do a playful riff on Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn’s dynamic. Simmons issues the challenges, which are conceptually simpler and more approachable than those the adults get. Once the kids are in the workroom, Simmons fulfills her next vital role, stopping by each worktable for a progress report and gaslighting the designers with faux-innocuous questions designed to undermine their confidence. “Are you sure about that color?” is Simmons’ weapon of choice. Siriano still has the charisma that made him the breakout star of his season, and while his critiques can be barbed, he has a good grasp of bedside manner.
Sadly, the young contestants are among the reasons Project Runway: Threads feels like unsuccessful imitation, even while it’s hard to blame them. The dialogue in Threads can be grating because the kids can come off pretentious, like they’re playing Runway in the backyard, wielding all the fashion buzz words with no clue of what they mean. But in their defense, a 14-year-old barely has memories of a time before Runway existed. So if you’re a kid that age with dreams of being a fashion designer, you wax poetic about your “design aesthetic” and name-check Balenciaga because it’s all you know. Consider that a grave warning to those revolted by kids who talk like graduate students, because there are plenty of them in Threads.
Still, it’s clear the gladiators of Threads are bright, driven, and respectful, qualities the show is intent on concealing through the most tragic misstep of its format. The kids don’t work by themselves or with other children; their parents join them as assistants in the workroom, which dilutes the appeal of having child contestants in the first place. To watch MasterChef Junior is to be stricken with awe at home cooks as young as 8 preparing fine-dining-quality meals all by themselves. There’s no such awe in Threads because the contestants actively collaborate with their parents, making it unclear how much work the kids did themselves. To muddy the waters further, the parents even join their kids for the runway critique, deflecting negative feedback and falling on their swords if a piece isn’t well received.
The parent-child pairs have the occasional sweet moment, as when a macho, baseball-coach father with no knowledge of fashion helps his daughter assemble her dress. But more often, as the pairs are put through such standard paces as the mid-challenge twist and the surprise addition of a second outfit, the stress gets to them and boundaries are tested. Reality-television producers excel at stoking discord within teams, a welcome technique when adults are competing, but the sniping Threads encourages between kids and their parents is irritating. In one of the show’s twists, Simmons tells the designers they have to leave the room, let their parents work solo, and communicate instructions via walkie-talkie, all but begging them to turn into monstrous brats who scream at their mothers about hemlines.
As bad a choice as it is to include parents, the thought process kind of makes sense if the goal was to approximate the workroom drama of Project Runway in a show appropriate for kids. But in practice, the tone is completely wrong. Reality competitions are characterized by their unforgiving schedules, crazy-making twists, and withering critiques, and recalibrating those elements in a show appropriate for kids is more than a notion. MasterChef Junior gets those tweaks exactly right, and if Threads is any indication, it could take some time before another show figures out its recipe.