Project Runway

Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Three episodes into the third season.

Project Runway is the best reality program on television.

I hate it when people make statements like that. I mean, I could no more watch all the reality shows on TV than I could all the sitcoms or all the cop shows, so making a definitive statement about Project Runway’s universal superiority is rather silly, and I know it. But I don’t care. I will become what I hate. Project Runway is the best reality program on television. Period.

On Project Runway, 15 designers at various stages in the careers compete for a chance to show a collection at New York’s Fashion Week. In each episode, host Heidi Klum presents them with a challenge, and they have a limited time and budget to create a garment to meet that challenge. Many reality shows present competitions, of course, but behind all the reality conventions, underneath the sometimes manufactured conflict, Project Runway isn’t about competition; it’s about the creative process, and as such, it’s inherently engrossing.

Instead of just showing us the finished product on the runway, Project Runway takes us through every step the designers make, from their rough brainstorming sketches to their choices of fabric to their struggles to construct their garments to their efforts to fit the clothing to their models. We see how their ideas evolve, how they adapt to meet the constraints of time or resources, how a lackluster sketch can germinate into a stunning work of art, and how a brilliant conceit can founder under poor execution.

Not that Project Runway plays as an academic master class on the philosophy of aesthetics (though god help me, I’m just geeky enough that I’d love something like that). The show is populated by creative people, and creative people are bound to be dramatic and interesting. The “personalities,” of course, are inevitable on a reality program — the backbiting, paranoid Wendy from season one; the arrogant, razor-tongued Santino from season two; the seemingly unstable Vincent from season three — but even many of the more “normal” contestants are quick-witted and talented and intriguing in their own right.

This past episode, for example, I was touched by quiet young Alison, who sweetly offered to trade canine muses with shlubby Bradley, who didn’t seem to know what to do with his poodle. (The challenge involved designed an outfit for a woman who might own the dogs in question.) Alison went on to design a sleek, finely tailored suit that made her a strong candidate for the win — a very impressive showing, which I admit I didn’t expect from her.

But then, each successive season of Project Runway has attracted stronger and stronger contestants. The grand prize — money, a car, and a mentorship — is almost beside the point for these people. Many of them already own small boutiques; the allure of Project Runway is the opportunity to seize an enormous stage on which to display their work.

Project Runway doesn’t attract traditional media whores, as many reality shows do. It attracts people who are passionate about fashion and who deeply want to build a career in the notoriously difficult field. And indeed, even many of the show’s runners-up have been able to vastly expand their businesses and land jobs at major fashion houses after their time on-air.

None of this would matter much if Project Runway weren’t entertaining, but it is, wildly so. The judges — the wonderfully acerbic designer Michael Kors and fashion editor Nina Garcia — are insightful and sharply critical without being gratuitously so (usually), and the guest judges have included icons such as Diane von Furstenberg and Vera Wang.

The star, however, is the incomparable Tim Gunn, chair of the Parsons fashion department and mentor to the Project Runway designers. He is supportive without being a cheerleader and witty without being a clown. He is a master of constructive criticism, tactfully helping designers identify the weaknesses in their work. Those who ignore his advice do so at their peril; although Gunn is not a judge and does not participate in their deliberations, he is virtually infallible at predicting what their reactions will be.

Gunn alone might be enough to make me watch occasionally — he must be such a good teacher — but he alongside Heidi’s delightful German accent, Michael Kors’ wickedly funny takedowns (“She looks like Appalachian Barbie!”), and the designers’ increasingly gorgeous work result in nothing less than appointment television. With TiVo, I don’t even have to keep the appointment, but I do anyway because I hate delayed gratification. Why should I wait when Project Runway is the best damn reality program — hell, one of the best shows of any genre — on TV. Period. So there.

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