Burned-out as I am on reality TV, I can’t resist season two of Project Runway. It’s no less cutthroat than any of those other reality farces, but Runway revolves around idiosyncratic, creative types rather than sub-Machiavellian schmoes from Middle America with no ambition beyond getting on TV. Last season’s sole Runway schemer was Wendy Pepper, a frumpy mom from Virginia. She instantly stood out because while everyone else obsessively fixated on making the dreamiest dress imaginable out of, say, corn husks or garbage bags, Wendy strategized and backstabbed like she was on Survivor or The Apprentice, convinced that game-playing could camouflage mediocrity. She did make it to the final three, most likely as a concession to the mainstream sponsors. After all, Wendy won the competition that most involved drabbing down one’s vision: designing a cocktail dress for the average Banana Republic customer.
Runway thrives on real talent, rooting out the couture losers before it hits the airwaves. The show doesn’t keep clunkers like William Hung around for comic effect, and it doesn’t need to: Host Heidi Klum’s ridiculously wooden delivery and lame attempts at a catchphrase—”You are in und you are out”—are amusing enough. None of the new designers appear to have the puckish wit of first-season winner Jay McCarroll, a pudgy eccentric with visions of Alexander McQueen dancing in his head. But quite a few fancy themselves artistes, especially Santino, with his Jesus beard and a penchant for self-promotion. “I want to leave a mark like Shakespeare,” he boasts in the first episode, even though Shakespeare wasn’t synonymous with snazzy duds. Andraé is bald, willowy, and so high-strung, he’s likely to fall to pieces at the slightest rip of a hem. With her talk about wearable computers, Diana fills the quiet-Asian-genius slot, while African American former model Zulema is already being framed as a troublemaker. “I don’t believe in fairness,” she snipes, seizing extra closet space in the glorified dorm room she shares with the other female designers. No glitzy lofts or limos for this bunch, who happily spend their days whipping up marvelous concoctions from scratch in the unglamorous Parsons workrooms, every episode an ode to willful eccentricity.