"Project Runway" is the show I name whenever I am asked to defend reality TV or my unwillingness to condemn it all out of hand. The popular fashion-designing competition finished its fifth season on Bravo last October and now circles in a holding pattern over its intended new network, Lifetime, while lawyers from its old home try to keep it from landing. (The disputed sixth season, minus its finale, has already been filmed -- and, for the first time, in Los Angeles.) I might also mention "Top Chef" as part of my reality defense, but "Top Chef" is just "Project Runway" with food.
You can watch it in a number of ways. (It isn't necessary to care much about fashion, or know anything about it, but of course it does add something.) You can take it as a "Real World"-style Stressful Dormitory series, or as a sort of sporting event, or as a celebration of fabulousness, or of work, or even an arts-and-crafts show, albeit of an unusually tense kind. Unlike such superficially similar contests as "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," its challenges are not metaphorical abstractions of the theme but are the thing itself: It is a show about making clothes in which clothes are made. As with every reality show, its content is manipulated by its producers, but there is nothing pretend about what gets done.
"Project Runway" also has the appointments of a fairy tale -- gold spun from straw overnight, cleverness rewarded -- and there is something of Jiminy Cricket about Tim Gunn, who acts as liaison between the judges and the contestants and is the voice of encouragement and (usually ignored) constructive criticism. (When Gunn stepped in to replace an injured Jennifer Lopez as a judge of last season's finale, it felt wrong, almost a violation of trust.) What the designers can produce -- something from nothing, in no time at all -- is as good as magic; yet we are also shown, to some extent, how they do it, and the fascinating way in which different sensibilities emerge in the face of an identical task.
There is no way to win "Project Runway" other than by doing good work; it is a contest without strategy. (Attempts to second-guess the judges, or even to bend to their criticisms, are as likely as not to fail.) The show plays up the interpersonal aggravations and disputes -- it's clear from post-series cast interviews that conflicts are often exaggerated for effect. And a subtle disclaimer runs at the end of every episode stating that the on-screen judges -- Heidi Klum, "top American designer" Michael Kors and fashion-mag editor Nina Garcia, joined by a celebrity judge each week -- are not the sole arbiters of who goes home and who gets to stay. But over the long haul, most of the time, the better designers tend to survive.
We talk of people "deserving" to win, because they are good in some selfless way or because they have been the victims of horrible bad luck -- victim-heroes -- or deserving to lose, because they are bad people with too much good luck. These are desserts of the "just" kind -- cosmic settling of accounts -- and reality TV can make a feast of them.
But in "Project Runway," all that matters is talent. Being nice helps only in that it may make other players more likely to aid you in a pinch. By the same token, being a jerk will do you no good either. But it won't do you any harm, if you have vision and skill.
Just now, the pilot and crew who safely landed a crippled airliner in the Hudson River in New York City are being feted, rightly, as heroes. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Capt. Chesley Sullenberger "incredibly brave," but as Sullenberger himself says, they were only doing their job. Bravery doesn't enter into it. Ability, and the ability not to fold under pressure -- these things are worth celebrating for what they are. They don't need to be dressed up with extraneous merits.
And that's why I love "Project Runway."