There’s a throwaway joke in Best in Show, where the turtlenecked yuppie couple reminisces about how they met: At Starbucks. We were at different Starbucks, they giggle. It’s a punchline, but it wasn't a fiction. In the late nineties/early aughts, Starbucks plopped two locations on opposite sides of Astor Place in New York City. Separated by the cube sculpture that I should never have ever touched with my bare hands if I knew what was good for me, Starbucks was responding to a study that showed their customers simply wouldn’t cross to the other side of the plaza for their lattes and thus, the Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks was born.
While the supernumerary Astor Place Starbucks died a quiet death a decade later, the problem they wanted to solve remains. How do you get your customers to come to you more when the only thing that’s stopping them is their own laziness? Netflix, no stranger to the inertial arts, seems to have the answer: knockoff television.
Netflix is churning out knockoff programming, quietly telling us it’s OK if we don’t have the time or energy to cross the street for our reality tv, because we have more or less the same thing right here!
Think of it as an 80 percent model. Netflix sees a popular show elsewhere. Sure, that ship has sailed, and they’ll never capture the popular imagination with their own back-solved version, but it’s good enough to get people to watch it. At the scale of Netflix, their 80-percent-good-enough version — and let’s be honest, 80-percent-good-enough a generous assessment of a lot of the chaff that they toss on their home screen — is good enough to be a screaming success for them. It probably costs a fraction of the original show they’re copying, too, as the TiVo to Netflix’s “DVR”. It’s also depressing, even in the context of filler reality tv content.
So, as my wife and I plowed through Netflix’s Next in Fashion — please, anything to take me away from our current political hellscape — I felt a weird pang of nostalgia. Project Runway debuted at the end of 2004, which is eons in both actual time and reality television time. I miss almost nothing from 2004, but Next in Fashion’s take on fashion and competition made me long for Project Runway’s softer, more intellectual vibe.
I don’t even know what Project Runway is like these days. I fell off watching it many seasons ago. The rubric it set lives on, though. Celebrity judges with actual expertise; a mentor; competitors, in general, on the come-up, as talented people trying to break into something and learning as they go. “Make it work” was encouragement, not a threat.
It’s not just that we grew sick of that formula in the intervening years, it’s also that we changed as a society. We’re living a different way now. Project Runway was exemplary because people were making things, using actual skills, on television. That was novel at the time! Now, it’s a given that people have skills before they appear on a reality television show. Of course they taught themselves to sew. They just watched YouTube until they figured it out.
Next in Fashion, however, has very different values than the ones Project Runway cooked up in 2004. All the competitors already have a brand or a label. Fairness is… I wouldn’t say unimportant, but the season’s big canned to-do, when the judges can’t reach a consensus about who to eliminate, is about the fact that the judges can’t reach a consensus, not that it would be unfair to make a decision at all. Rather than studio visits from a mentor before the designs are complete, the hosts Tan and Alexa visit after the runway shows. It’s halfway between needling the competitors and interrogating them about what, exactly, they were thinking when they ruched that sleeve.
Cruelty and reality television are no strangers, but there’s a philosophical difference between having Michael Kors be mean — here was a guy who disliked Heidi Klum so much before they worked together that he called her a “talentless German sausage,” a quote that lives on even if the New York Observer stories for which it was destined are no longer written — and having your hosts be catty about the designs as they parade down the runway.
Project Runway was also rooted very much in the idea that experts exist, that people can know things, and pass on their knowledge in a helpful way to others. Next in Fashion, in contrast, has no experts. Their hosts and judges are skilled, but in a different way; the difference between having editors and designers and teachers review your work and having a model/host, a host and a celebrity stylist critique it is stark; the latter telegraphs you guys are on your own.
Next in Fashion is perfectly fun and an enjoyable confection nevertheless, but for something so ostensibly light, it is reflective of our time in a way that sits uncomfortably. Project Runway-style reality television is outmoded now. Why should we defer to experts and their opinions when the only thing we can agree on is that there are no experts, and even if there are experts, we shouldn’t listen to them anyway, because they are lying to us? It doesn’t make it easy to determine a winner of a reality show competition, it just reinforces the idea that no, we’re not going to be able to make it work after all.