Which is it, Project Runway — are you in, or are you out?
After coming back home to Bravo earlier this year after 11 seasons on rival network Lifetime, Project Runway returns tonight for its 18th season. If you compare that number to, say, Survivor's nearly 40-season run, 18 seasons may not seem all that impressive. But the fashion design reality competition series is still a long-runner in the genre, of similar tenure to shows like American Idol, Big Brother, and network partner Top Chef. Most impressively, the show endures despite two channel hops — first when the now-defunct Weinstein Company shuttled the show to Lifetime after five acclaimed seasons on Bravo, then when it returned after the dissolution of TWC in the wake of Harvey Weinstein's numerous allegations of sexual harassment and assault. In short, Project Runway is a battle-tested show, and getting to 18 seasons is a major feat.
That said, the show has clearly seen stronger days, with rumors flying that the coming season could be its last, following a significant ratings drop after it returned to Bravo and series stalwarts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn left. The network denies that it's considering dropping the show, acknowledging that while last season's ratings were indeed lower than when the show was on Lifetime, they were solid for the new (er, old) network. For the finale, for example, Project Runway managed 2.2 million viewers in the Live+7 ratings, while Bravo stalwarts like The Real Housewives of New York City and Southern Charm registered similar numbers (2.5 million and 2.2 million, respectively).
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of a general sense of malaise when it comes to show came this summer, when the rebooted and refreshed Project Runway failed to earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Competition Series after being nominated every year for the previous 14. (Netflix's Nailed It! took Runway's place, a pyrrhic victory for me, a Nailed It! stan.)
But while the show's reputation has clearly taken a hit, as someone who watched every episode of season 17, I'm here to report that Project Runway 3.0 is actually not all that bad. Last season saw a host of upgrades that went beyond the cosmetic and put the focus back on designers creating great fashion. It had one hell of a top two, Hester Sunshine and Sebastian Grey, who demonstrated what happens when you mix particular, indelible aesthetics with killer construction skills. The latter took home the grand prize on the strength of a truly gorgeous final collection. Those who stuck around saw a show vastly improved from the Lifetime era (which was marred by superficial drama and mediocre design).
The issue is that improved as it may be, the newest incarnation of Project Runway still wasn't great, and in a sea of Too Much TV, I can see why a more casual fan might watch the reboot and wonder what the point is. It was a B+ when the show needed to be an absolute A to recapture audience attention. The talented-but-low-key cast, which more resembled the quiet professionals of Season 4 than the loudmouthed-but-passionate drama queens of Seasons 1 and 2, didn't make for the grabbiest personalities. And while the new talent team is engaging and likable (especially Christian Siriano as mentor), the chemistry of the new judging panel never quite came together.
That said, as we anticipate this second season back on Bravo, I think the show still has the potential to be great. Already I'm happy to see a couple of key changes. The finale will once again be at New York Fashion Week, as opposed to a private exhibition, which is perhaps archaic but ultimately necessary to help these designers feel like they're working toward something. Also, while I never loved the "Tim Gunn Save" in the Lifetime era of the show, it's back this season and I personally trust Christian Siriano more with the save than I did Gunn (who seemed to use it on emotional impulse, which seems less likely with the more professional Siriano). And getting Siriano more involved is a big way the show can improve, as he was the breakout star of Season 17, in much the same way as he was way back in Season 4 as a contestant.
A few other changes I'd love to see: Give the judges more distinct roles. Nina Garcia, the editor-in-chief of Elle and the only returning judge from the original series, should clearly and obviously be delineated as the head judge of the series. She always brings a sharp editorial eye, and that's more important than ever. Brandon Maxwell, a delightful designer and presence on the panel, should be looking at the construction and presentation of garments. Elaine Welteroth, late of Teen Vogue, is great when she thinks about how a look will present online. She should focus on that, rather than getting too connected to contestants' stories, which is where she often faltered in Season 17. (Emotion is a wonderful thing — advancing contestants who are not ready for the show based on their story is not.) Karlie Kloss, who proved much more able as a host than I expected, should serve as a moderator during judging. Her critiques aren't on the level of her fellow panelists' — hell, they're not even up to Heidi Klum's level — but Kloss does keep good conversation flowing.
The thing is, all the changes Project Runway needs to make are small. More time for critiques, more dramatic personalities in casting. The canvas is there for a great reboot of an iconic reality series. And right now, the show is batting about an .850. But for this new version to thrive, it needs to be consistently hitting home runs out of the park. That may not be a fair standard, but television is very different than it was when Project Runway was last on Bravo. To survive, the series must, well, make it work.
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Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.