I feel as if I’m expected, on principle, to hate The Fashion Show, which debuts tonight on Bravo. It is certainly, whatever Bravo says, a shameless, tactical ripoff of Project Runway, which left Bravo and debuts this summer on Lifetime. That may be distracting to viewers. And it may well be a strategic mistake for Bravo’s larger upscale brand to associate it with something so shamelessly mercenary. (It’s not as if Bravo’s reality shows are all works of uplift, but at least the brand has developed a distinctive cachet, with does not include quickie reality ripoffs of the kind that, say, Fox broadcast network is famous for.)
But whatever—that’s Bravo’s problem, not mine. In the end, imitation is the sincerest form of reality. What matters for the viewer is if there’s a compelling and distinctive reason to watch The Fashion Show. But judging by the pilot, the only reason so far is that Project Runway is not on yet—and even that may not be enough.
The Fashion Show is not a horrible reality program. If I had never seen Project Runway and were shown the pilots of the two shows, alone and out of context, I’m not sure I would say this one was much worse. But no one who’s interested in this show can watch it out of context. The fact is, fair or not, Project Runway simply has—like an established tech company—a first-mover advantage. It stands out among reality shows in partly because of its hosts and judges, in part because of its high-for-reality production values, but partly simply because it is Project Runway. So as with any knockoff, the onus is on The Fashion Show to offer something different and better, and so far it does neither.
Obviously, the concept—a set of designers face elimination challenges every week, gaming for a grand prize—is exactly the same. The structure in the first episode is slightly different, in that there’s also a “mini challenge” in the early part of the show. That means it is ripping off Top Chef, not Project Runway. There is stay-off-my-sewing-machine drama and sponsorships galore—including Runway’s old sugar daddy, Tresemme.
The other distinctive reason to follow Runway season in and season out are the hosts and judges, and that’s where Fashion Show falls flat, surprisingly. Co-host Isaac Mizrahi is naturally telegenic and has hosted cable fashion series delightfully for years. But the pilot drains out what’s most likeable about him as a tube personality, his puckish personality. He seems to have been put through a reality-hostification machine, with his playfulness and arch quips replaced by hostile, cutting digs. His co-host, Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child, has pretty much the same attitude, meaning that the show has no Tim Gunn mentor figure, only underminers. (Part of the problem may be that Fashion Show does not have any standout judges, so Mizrahi has to play the Michael Kors role in addition to, or instead of, the Tim Gunn role.)
Maybe the hosts will grow into the show over time, and maybe the flaws will be easier to ignore as rooting favorites emerge among the contestants. But I have a feeling that by the time June rolls around, I’ll be devoting my weekly TiVo hour to Top Chef Masters instead of this. I don’t hate The Fashion Show; it’s not really distinctive enough to be worth hating. It just feels like the TV equivalent of a fake Louis Vuitton bag.