For years, I never thought that any gimmick, spin, angle or particular conceit could make me watch a reality TV program consistently and (mostly) without irony. The bits and pieces I’d seen of shows like “The Real World” and “American Idol” didn’t make me doubt this assertion; I considered myself immune to whatever quality that hooked most of the early ’00s world into watching untalented, fame-hungry middle Americans eat bugs and quarrel with each other. And temptation to watch this trash never presented itself: I was happy with “Iron Chef,” the occasional episode of “Jeopardy!” and “The Daily Show.” Besides, “Law & Order” airs about five times a day in primetime alone — when would I have the chance to catch even a glimpse of whatever new reality phenomenon had hit network television?

Then everything changed.

Early in the winter 2004 semester, my best friend from high school took a semester off from the brain-killing private liberal arts college she attended to live with me in Ann Arbor. Somehow — neither one of us have been able to pinpoint the exact moment or real cause of this phenomenon — we caught an episode of the second season of “America’s Next Top Model.” I knew then that I’d met my match; it was all over. I abandoned Tuesday night viewings of Sam Waterston & Co. Faster than you can say “Pack your bags, y’all, you’re going to Milan,” I became, in my own way, a fervent devotee of Tyra Banks and her freakishly proportioned charges.

As the weeks passed, the episodes just got better: We watched the 12 contestants compete to create the perfect Tyra-esque smoky eye (the catch: There’s only one makeup mirror!), deflect allegations of eating disorders, cheat on their boyfriends with Italian male models and bicker constantly over the dumbest shit you could think of. It was great — we laughed at the contestants, laughed at ourselves, made pronouncements that if we were stupid and shallow enough to lose 60 pounds, we could totally be on that show and just act like huge bitches to everyone.

After season 2 ended, UPN (in a move that briefly made them my favorite channel — after The Food Network, of course) aired Season 1 again, so I had something to watch all summer. Season 3 this past fall presented the absolute best catchphrase in the history of television — “Bitch poured beer on my weave” — for those of you who have better things to do than watch crappy programs like this. But the show had changed its focus: The models weren’t quite as weirdly tall and thin as they had been. The frontrunners were cute and pretty rather than striking and beautiful. Tyra emphasized the importance of photographs and print work rather than fashion shows and runway walks. The girls, when they got the chance, didn’t work couture as well as they used to. I still like the show, but this shift in focus was disappointing.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon another fashion-oriented show that’s all about the cutthroat world of high-fashion design. It’s Project Runway, the haute couture drama fest that’s supposedly Bravo’s highest rated program this season. The show follows a groups of 12 designers — one eliminated each week, naturally — who must come up with innovative, beautiful designs in a matter of days (or hours) on each week’s show. They’ve revamped U.S. Postal Service uniforms, created a collection to reflect high fashion in 2055 and double-crossed, lied to and bitched at each other.

My favorite aspect of “Project Runway” is that the show doesn’t choose amateurs who want to be designers. Each contestant is already a dressmaker, tailor or designer in their own right, and they’ve got the talent and ideas to actually make good with the $100,000 that serves as the program’s grand prize. As of this writing, the final three contestants — catty, hilarious vintage store owner Jay McCarroll, elegant frontrunner Kara Saun and self-proclaimed longshot/talentless bitch Wendy Pepper are set to debut their individual collections at New York’s Fashion Week.

I suppose my new TV obsession points to the fact that I’m a sucker for weird makeup and couture dresses — not to mention that each program shows the designers cutting, sewing and sizing interesting, if not gorgeous, pieces, finishing them and showing their designs on a runway to be judged by already-established designers and fashion editors. As any crafter knows, the best part of any sewing, knitting, crocheting or art project is the moment you finally finish the goddamn thing, and it’s satisfying and even inspiring to see people throw together clothing ensembles in a short amount of time and a limited budget.

That, or I’m gradually becoming as shallow as the rest of you.

 

Alexandra has opinions about “Manhunt” as well, but is saving those for another column. She can be reached at almajo@umich.edu.

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