Rubbernecking: <i>Project Runway</i> Season 8, Episodes 1 and 2

Only two shows into Season 8, I'm hooked all over again. I already have my favorites, I already know who's going home sooner than later, and I think Season 8 has the makings of a really strong season.
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I must admit that only two shows into Season 8, I'm hooked all over again. I already have my favorites, I already know who's going home sooner than later, and I think Season 8 has the makings of a really strong season. That being said, I'm kind of not sure how some of the 17 contestants on the premiere made the final cut. But reality TV has its own modus operandi and this show is just as formulaic as the rest; in other words, some folks are picked because they will obviously make for good television.

It's Project Runway Business-As-Usual; the designers bunk down at furnished rental building atlas, which is located near their workroom at Parsons The New School for Design and also close to Mood, the fabric store they will be visiting most weeks for their materials. For the premiere, we're thrown a curveball with Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn doing voiceover intros about each contestant. After this we see them all meeting up at different ports of entry into Manhattan -- by land, air, and sea -- before uniting as a group, along with their suitcases, at the Lincoln Center Plaza (home to this year's New York Fashion Week, mes cheres). Whereby Tim and Heidi greet them with the news that their first challenge takes place that day -- they have a mere five hours to accomplish it -- and they are not yet definitely on the show. In fact, this is the final hurdle in the acceptance process.

And of course, there's another curveball. They are told to take a garment from their suitcases, and this garment will be the basis of their design -- after which they then have to pass the garment to the person next to them. Ouch! Off to the workroom they go. For this challenge, because of the time constraints, Mood has created an annex so there's no time wasted on a shopping trip. And it's the usual plethora of sponsorship opps; the L'Oreal Paris makeup room, the Garnier hair salon, the HP Touchsmart notebooks, the Brother Sewing Room, the accessory wall, etc. etc. And once again I yearn for Tim to tell the designers about Kohler-faucet and toilet outfitted washrooms, but no dice. It is a school, after all.

The reason I think we have the makings of a really good, if not great, season, is that there are truly some peeps to keep an eye on here. There are egos the size of the workroom (Ivy: "I know this sounds totally vain but I think Project Runway is the Ivy Show"), cartoon characters (Mondo - who at 32 dresses like a gothic punk 12 year old boy; Casanova -- words almost fail me, he must be seen to be believed and even then I don't), a goth-influenced new college grad (April: "I'm inspired by morgues"), an earthy-crunchy Northwesterner who designs sustainable clothing (Gretchen), a Philly girl who works mistakes into her designs (Kristin: "Embrace the crooked zipper!"), a Utah housewife with dreads who misses her baby daughter (McKell), a guy who talks like he just injested helium (Michael Drummond, the St. Louis Michael. There's also Michael Costello from Palm Springs, who tried out for the show twice before), Peach (at 50 the eldest of the bunch, from suburban Chicago, who usually designs -- blanch! -- for "the ladies who lunch"), and -- my current favorite -- Valerie (from Cleveland, which I happen to know is a hotbed of awesomeness).

Since this episode happened two weeks ago I'll cut to the chase so we can get to more pressing matters, like this week's episode. The kids (and Peach) are struggling, thrown into the fastest turnaround in Project Runaway history on the day they arrive in New York to find they're still not definitely on the show. Casanova's model -- who's wearing the least amount of clothes, mind you -- is not even dressed by the time Tim comes in to herd them all to the runway. The judges are, as always, Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, and the guest judge this week is actress Selma Blair (who's a member of the internationally best dressed list, dontcha know). The winner is Gretchen, who's whipped up a lovely sophisticated yet simple and elegant black cocktail dress with the sleeves accented by April's icky spangly disco jacket material. Color me surprised. Obviously Gretchen will be a force to be reckoned with.

In the bottom are Nicholas, Ivy, Jason, McKell, April, and Casanova. Nicholas' look, per Heidi, is "odd and boring." Ivy mouths off too much to the judges defending herself but the fact is she literally took Peach's pants, made capris out of them and added a blouse. Selma tells her it looks like "small town hick outfit night at the bar." April's look is just plain "a hot mess" according to La Klum, to which Nina adds "she looks like an 80's streetwalker." Michael Kors tells Casanova that his look, which is pretty much two scarves on top and a filmy low cut skirt, looks like "a pole dancer in Dubai" (Nina: "fascinatingly bad"). Jason -- who has the no people skills, keeps to himself, and is just plain creepy -- took a kimono and turned it the other way around - and stapled the belt to it because he ran out of time (Heidi: "It looks like a hairdressing cape"). And McKell, our young be-dreaded Utah housewife/mom, is told by Michael Kors that her garment looks like "a trainwreck" and by Heidi that it is "butt-ugly" ("She's in an alternate universe," says Michael during the critical assessment). Seriously though McKell's dress is at least tailored (and has no staples!), and Jason should have been sent packing -- or perhaps all of them at once, which I guess would have thrown off the season's arc.

At the outset of the second episode, Sarah from Toluca Lake makes this comment: "I'm pretty sure this show is not about fashion design. It's about public torture of designers on television." Which leads me to conclude she's going down soon, as this is just Week Two. I would expect that kind of comment to come around Week Five or Six. The ladies all like Peach and seem to see her as a sort of "surrogate mother" (April's words). To me this means she's not at all a threat, and I agree. She's definitely not going to be around long. She's very nice but her designs so far have been screamingly boring and she keeps bringing up her advanced age ("My only hope is that they'll take mercy on the old lady"). My guess is she hasn't read The Secret.

It's imperative that someone look like a walking cartoon character every season, I guess. For Season 8 this person is Mondo, who keeps to himself and is not making any friends as of yet. Ditto Jason, but he has no apparent talent (how in the hell did he make the cut?). Jason affects a bowler hat a la Clockwork Orange (I wish I could say I made this reference but my girl Valerie did).

The challenge this week is delivered to them on the rooftop of atlas from Heidi, Tim, and Marie Claire Editor-In-Chief Joanna Coles. They are to design a look for the quintessential Marie Claire woman -- who is intelligent, practical, fashion forward, confident, and sexy. The winner's look will be featured on a 40-foot-tall Times Square Billboard for the magazine.

AJ (sporting a - I kid you not - Hugh Hefner style boat captain hat) sketches out a design for a grungey punk rock chick going to a concert, mentioning Courtney Love and Gwen Stefani as his inspirations. (Um, this is Marie Claire - not Nylon. Have you ever looked at the magazine?) Gretchen decides to make a jumpsuit even though she's never designed pants on her own before. I love her for her cheerfulness. Jason's idea is an "infinity dress" which is a concept he's had "for a long time." The dress will incorporate the number 8 for Season 8. We get a glimpse of his handwriting which is very squiggly and serial killer-y looking. "Infinity is forever. What's better than infinity?" he muses. Indeed.

When Tim comes to check in with the crew during their workday, he allows that he likes Jason's color palette but looks dubious about the dress itself. At which point I notice that Jason is wearing a strange shark tooth bracelet. He grouses to the camera, "Everything's against me. I'm a straight guy in a gay man's world and I'm trying my best." Oh, poor you. Violins please.

You just know Nicholas is doomed when he pronounces that his look will be "absolutely amazing and really innovative." He's making a three-piece outfit -- cape, blouse and skirt -- and the back of the blouse eerily resembles the back of Gretchen's winning dress last week, only much higher, cheesier and cheap looking. Tim sniffs when Nicholas describes his concept for the cape -- "a complete circle." Tim: "I'm ambivalent."

The group is told there is a new wrinkle (sorry -- couldn't resist) to their challenge. They will be dressing and styling their model for a photo shoot with a Marie Claire photographer, and choosing one shot which will be part of what they are judged on. Jason's shoot is a disaster. Marie Claire Senior Fashion Editor Zanna Roberts Rassi states the dress isn't working and the safety pins Jason's used because he ran out of time to add buckles "look like a mistake." "I'm not Prototype Jack - I can't pop these things out," Jason complains to camera, saying he is emotionally and physically drained. It's only Week Two -- obviously you're not long for this show, sir.

Michael Kors (let's call him MK for now) and Nina Garcia are joined by Joanna Coles for the runway judging this week. Mondo's growing on me -- besides the fetching outfit he did this week, he's wearing bright orange glasses and a black satin jacket festooned on one shoulder by orange and yellow feather boa shreds. But in general there are so many bad and boring looks this week I'm truly amazed that more than two designers are not sent home. It's a billboard, people -- why so many drab and dark colored outfits? Like Christopher's boring dark two piece dress trimmed with mustard -- I mean, seriously. AJ's punky gothic dress is cute, but not Marie Claire in the least (black lipstick? really?), and even he admits that the model looks like she "was impregnated by a weird alien creature." St. Louis Michael's black meshy frock is way too short which even he realizes on the runway, and the model pulls it down over her bum as she's making her final turn.

The three standout outfits are by Gretchen (a beautifully made jumpsuit which fits like a dream on her perfectly styled Blake Lively-ish model - although I wish it wasn't so dark), Valerie (a cute, fresh, summery red dress with a collar that exquisitely frames her model's face), and Mondo (an adorable houndstooth skirt with a cute black top garnished with black and white and pink polka dots, black leggings and gorgeous black heels with rosettes on the front). My pick is Valerie's dress but the judges go with Gretchen, awarding her the winning look for the second week in a row. Clearly she's now a favorite, but my money at this point is still on Valerie.

Peach, Nicholas, and Jason are in the bottom three. Peach escapes narrowly to design another day although her pink polka dot snore of a dress (even she admitted earlier it looked like "Barbie's sofa") is called "matronly" by the judges and like "an Amish cocktail dress" by MK (his lines are doubling me over so far this season). Nicholas' outfit is noted as "complicated", MK: "If she takes the cape off, she's naked - if she keeps the cape on she might be joining a religious sect." Jason's dress is possibly the ugliest thing I've ever seen on this show, it looks like the model is a futuristic waitress in a wrong side of the tracks diner on Battlestar Galactica, the first one - and paired with combat boots it looks even worse. The model looks completely miserable. (Alas, who would have thought I'd miss Models of the Runway from last season? I'd love to hear the girls dish on this dress.) MK says it looks like a "walk of shame dress." When Jason is asked how he could possibly think this would be a Marie Claire woman, he's adamant: "it's me for Marie Claire." Jason also thought the model looked "bad-ass" in his creation (hey by the way? 1965 called, they want their slang term back).

As the judges discuss amongst themselves who to send home, Jason tells the other designers that he felt his model is not a runway model, therefore removing the blame from himself. They're flabbergasted. He reveals to the camera that he has a chip on his shoulder because he's been misunderstood since he was a child. Eeeeesh. He gets the boot, and doesn't bother to wait around for Tim to bid him farewell like he was no doubt instructed to do by the producers. Nicholas, who seems way too fragile for the show, is also sent home because of his disastrous three piece nightmare.

I have to say I'm not down with the expanded 90-minute length of the show this season. One hour was enough. But I digress. As I said earlier, I think we're in for an interesting time. I've already memorized everyone's name and this early in the season, that's unusual. And sew it goes!

Project Runway airs Thursdays at 9PM on Lifetime Television

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