I’ll grant that 95% of reality television is a soul-sucking stink-heap, but every now and then, on one of the better reality shows, I see something that reminds me that the genre isn’t inherently awful. Last week’s Project Runway, example, was maybe the best episode in the history of the series. I refer you to John Teti’s keen, funny TV Club write-up for a full recap, but in brief, in the last 20 minutes of the episode, we saw this season’s front-running contestant, Gretchen, go from hailing the magnificence of her team’s collection to calling for solidarity and sympathy when the judges named her team the losers, and then finally to trashing her team’s work openly and almost gleefully. It was a sequence so stunning in its reversals and self-delusion that it was like an astutely written and performed one-act play, and it was a reminder that when reality TV is done right—when it’s cast well, with people who are as colorful and unselfconscious as they are genuinely talented—it can show aspects of real life and that elude most scripted series.
That said, I think what surprised me most about that Project Runway episode is that I was ready to quit watching the show after two consecutive dreary seasons. I only set a TiVo season pass for this season because my wife’s still a fan, and because there hasn’t been much to watch this summer. (Plus we have Lifetime in HD on our cable system now, and I admit I’m still a sucker for shows that look pretty on the TV.) Otherwise, I would’ve dropped PR and never looked back. It’s been my experience that when reality shows start to go south, they don’t rally, because even the really good reality shows—which are primarily the ones with a competitive element, like Top Chef or The Amazing Race—are saddled with a lot of the same problems as the terrible ones. They’re just as contrived and repetitive, and edited to maximize drama even when there’s nothing really happening. (Hence the sad spectacle recently of Top Chef scrambling to enliven a mediocre season by turning a missing pea purée into a source of tension and speculation for about three episodes.) So what initially seems fresh and fun grows tiresome much faster than it might on a scripted series, where the producers have the luxury of invention.
Some people don’t like it when I label the likes of Man vs. Food or Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations “reality,” but those shows are certainly closer on the programming continuum to Jersey Shore than Mad Men. (Anyway, what we now classify as “reality” is really just a mélange of venerable TV genres: game shows, how-tos, travelogues and network news special reports.) And like the higher-profile reality series, those quirky little basic cable shows suffer from the same bright flash and fast fade. There was a time when I’d make a special effort to TiVo Man Vs. Food or No Reservations, but now I only record them if there’s something special happening. It’s not that the quality has declined appreciably on either show—or on Mythbusters or Good Eats or Iron Chef or Ice Road Truckers or the half-dozen or so other Food/History/Discovery shows I used to watch eagerly. It’s just none of them hold any surprises. They’re just decent background noise now.
And it doesn’t help that so many of these shows rely on the now over-familiar reality TV grammar. In recent weeks I’ve been watching Fox’s latest Gordon Ramsay showcase Masterchef and Food Network’s “Amazing Race meets Top Chef’s ‘restaurant wars’” effort The Great Food Truck Race, and while both have the potential to be pretty entertaining shows, they’re damnably formulaic. They’ve got the over-dramatic cuts to commercial right before a contestant gets eliminated, and the direct-to-camera contestant “confessionals” which turn minor conflicts and challenges into major crises. (If a reality competition host were to say, “Sky sure is blue today,” the producer would undoubtedly cut to an interview with a contestant, saying, “When Gordon said the sky was blue, I was like, whoa, I was not expecting that right now,” etc.) And both shows have the frustratingly vague editing designed to keep viewers from knowing what’s happening when. Sometimes I think that that the first assignment every day for a reality show PA is to go through the various locations and remove all the clocks and calendars.
Project Runway isn’t above those kind of shortcuts and manipulations either, and as with so many other reality competition shows, it’s gotten harder for PR to come up with challenges that longtime viewers haven’t already seen in some variation or another. (Plus, maybe it’s me, but I hate the way Top Chef and Project Runway edit their interviews so that there’s no space between words; I know it’s a time-saver, but it makes all the voice-over parts sound Frankensteinian.) But one advantage that PR has is that it tries to cast contestants who have real skills and unique artistic gifts. Watching them succeed or fail is not unlike watching a sporting event. What makes it different from sports is that each season there are a new set of teams, and if there’s no one worth rooting for or against, viewer interest fizzles. This season, Project Runway has rallied with a genuinely compelling slate of designers. Next year, odds are that the show will be blah again, but I’ll be watching tonight not just to kill 90 minutes during a slow TV time, but because I genuinely want to see what these people will do next.