Our dalliance with summer and its distractions has come to an end, and we can finally head back into our living rooms to watch fall premieres and catch a different kind of UV ray. But I can’t just go from zero to 60 items in my DVR. I need a segue, in the form of Project Runway.
The 12th season debuted in August with a few alterations: the runway shows are now anonymous, so the panel judges the work without knowing who’s behind it. The designers have to manage their own spending. But the most interesting updates concern Tim Gunn, who acts as the designers’ mentor. His spot-on critiques, along with his “Make it work” mantra (it is definitely not just a catchphrase), have made him a fan favorite. I think we identify more with him than with the designers. We murmur along approvingly with him when a contestant offers up a garment that’s divine, or wring our hands in solidarity when it’s a disaster.
Gunn is also the eyes and ears of the judging panel, helmed by Heidi Klum. In the past this job was limited to an occasional summons to the runway over an especially objectionable garment. This season the show’s producers finally decided to make proper use of Gunn’s dual role: he now watches the runway show alongside the panel, though he doesn’t vote on the designs. He also gets to offer his thoughts directly to the judges on the best and worst designs, in addition to answering questions about the designers’ missteps. But most importantly, he’s been endowed with the “Tim Gunn Save,” which allows him to save a designer whose time he feels has been cut short. But he can only do this once per season. How can he possibly wield this power responsibly?
I’ll spare you the suspense: the Tim Gunn Save has already been deployed (in episode eight), and it was every bit as glorious as I’d hoped. Justin LeBlanc, the show’s first deaf competitor, was overly ambitious (or perhaps just glue-gun crazy) and he was Auf’d. LeBlanc had shown promise, as well as good sportsmanship. The other designers hugged him and cried with him, as I sobbed from behind the fourth wall. But just then Gunn walked in, dressed for a fight in a camouflage suit (bespoke, of course), and pardoned LeBlanc! And then everyone cried some more because we had all witnessed a miracle.
What keeps the Tim Gunn Save from being just another gimmick is that it seems only natural. Why shouldn’t Gunn, who gets to know the designers in addition to their work, have an occasional say in who stays? It’s a logical move and not just pandering. With four episodes to go, though, it feels a little like the stakes have been lowered, and questions raised. Will Tim Gunn now simply diminish, go into the west, and remain fashionable but otherwise powerless? Does he, more so than our tweets, really represent the audience’s voice?