Reality series. 10 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo.Despite being saddled with all the now-weary structural gimmicks, rules and tasks associated with “competitive reality” series, “Project Runway” manages to be entertaining as it kicks off its fourth season tonight.New and fresh – no. But then again, reality shows – especially the competitive ones like “Survivor” and “Amazing Race” – lose all pretense of originality somewhere between the moment they are pitched and the first five minutes of the first episode. All of these series take on the burden (some might argue “comfort”) of familiarity. Once viewers know the structure – who’s the host, what are the rules, what kind of tasks get assigned and, most important, what kind of people try out to be on the show – a kind of weariness sets in. Sometimes contempt follows.
But what sets apart a franchise reality series is something in the concept that continues to be watchable season after season. And “Project Runway” (10 p.m., Bravo) is entertaining and likable on so many levels that it’s hard to resist. (Maybe in the eighth season, this will no longer be true.)If you’ve never seen “Project Runway,” take a peek tonight. It’s valuable for a couple of reasons. One, with the Writers Guild of America strike looking like a major, insurmountable standoff, viewers are likely to be bombarded with reality (or unscripted) television shows. Many of them will be heinous. It’s always good to have a gander at one that’s inoffensively compelling (even riveting) after a long day at work competing in your own little arena.
The series, like all good reality shows, is remarkably straightforward. Would-be fashion designers go to New York and are put through a series of tasks that revolve around creating garments. Those garments are then worn by models. The work is judged – often harshly, but many times with great care – and the designers are whittled down to one, who gets an enormous amount of attention and not nearly enough money to start his or her own business. But “Project Runway,” by dint of its popularity, can be a career builder if the winner has talent.The series is hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum, who can be both gorgeously encouraging or coldly dismissive of the contestants. And the show’s secret weapon is Tim Gunn, chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne and mentor to the often frazzled designers. Gunn is the anti-Simon Cowell. His role is to offer constructive criticism based on years of experience in the fashion industry (and also some impeccable, if personal, taste). He really wants the designers to do their best work, to experience success, to learn. The “Project Runway” judges – those who ultimately make or break the designers’ fortunes on the show – are designer Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, fashion director at Elle magazine.