by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Project Runway & r & & r & (Bravo, Wednesdays 10pm) & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & eality shows inevitably begin to suck. It's like a law of the universe. No matter how great they are to begin with, they all suck by Season Four or Five. It's true of most things left in a vacuum, and there's a clear antecedent in history. You get a king on the throne who comes to power through some great military or political coup, and he's a hero. Five generations of unchecked dynastic power later, though, and your empire is a shambles. From Caesar Augustus to Nero in four moves. Game over.
Project Runway isn't quite at Nero levels of ineffectiveness yet, but it's close. (It's more like Emperor Claudius, for my ladies in the house with a love for Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire).
Historically my favorite contest-based reality show, for its sharp, lean, bitchy mix of attitude and design prowess, Project Runway -- Season Four -- feels all soft and flabby. Season One threw everything into a pot and the result, while unrefined, was fresh and creatively honest. It's been clear for the last two seasons that the producers are tinkering with the formula, looking for exactly the right cast chemistry to yield haute fashion but also haute tension. They choose some contestants for raw chops (Mychael Knight, Season Three; Daniel Vosovic, Season Two). They choose others for their sass and bravado -- occasionally finding someone with all those characteristics (Santino, Season Two).
This season, methinks they doth tinker too much. Christian is a fop who hasn't, in his young life, developed a strong personal style (other than aping the '80s at every turn). Victorya's an autocrat whose most creative flourish was taking one of the i's in her name and making it a y. Sweet P is so skittish she must have been abused as a child. Ricky's an idiot and Steven ... Steven just looks like French Stewart. A quarter of the way through the season, no designs have really leapt to the fore and -- with the exception of Eliza, who licks her designs and grass-stains her fabrics -- no personalities have, either. The result is a reality TV muumuu, formless and hard to look at.
In Episode Four, each designer was given a way-out-of-date fashion trend. The designers were then grouped in threes and told to combine and update the styles. What resulted was a train wreck: The only decent collection -- Jillian, Rami and Kevin's -- was pretty awesome, despite actually looking inspired by train conductors. They're the frontrunners, I guess; it's just hard to care.
The show turned 300 last week. Yeah. 300 episodes. I stopped watching when Anthony Edwards' arm got chopped off by that helicopter rotor -- so, like, Episode 120? Out of curiosity about what could possibly be happening in Season 14, I went to the Website and was like, "Damn, what's Mekhi Phifer doing on there?... John Stamos?!" Guess it's been a while. Still it's as bland and formless as Season 8, and that's comforting. (NBC, Thursdays, 10 pm)
Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe
In a BBC Four series unavailable in most of the United States except through YouTube, the Guardian TV critic alternates between erudite examinations of TV form and screaming obscenities at the TV. It's awesome. (YouTube, any time)
If you've slept on Life, the cop show that's as much about Buddhism as scofflaws -- featuring the brilliant Damian Lewis (of Band of Brothers) -- you have a month to catch up before new episodes stop airing (NBC.com, whenever).