Oscars Designer Challenge Puts The Dress Before the Drama

Yesterday, when I confessed to being fond of Heidi Klum, I didn’t mention that it was because I think Project Runway is one of the best reality shows on television, as it combines the dramatic personalities of the fashion world in a setting that spotlights their genuine artistic drive and talents. I only mention this because today, on Oscar.com, the Academy Awards clearly tried to capture some of that magic with the first episode of the Oscars Designer Challenge web series — but seeing how bad it is is an excellent reminder that making good reality programming isn’t as easy as it looks. Especially when it comes to allowing the audience to participate in the process.

Hosted by Runway second season alumni Nick Verreos, Behind the Dress purports to document the process behind the selection of the gown that will be worn Sunday night by the Oscar escort (otherwise known as the woman who carries the statue to the podium and gets groped by Jack Nicholson). What’s fascinating about this series is that the winning gown will be determined by viewer voting — or, to be more accurate, has been determined by viewer voting.

That’s right: site visitors had to register with go.com last week in order to vote on the completed dresses, as seen in runway videos. Now that voting has closed, we get to learn all about the dresses and their designers. It’s as if American Idol decided to start audience voting before anyone got to sing.

Sure, you could argue that by only allowing people to vote based on the completed gown, not on the designer’s background and personality, their opinions are unbiased. But in that case, why document the process and introduce the designers at all?

In the first episode, seven designers are invited to submit concepts, which are reviewed and critiqued by Oscars Fashion Coordinator Patty Fox — in following days, we’ll see the model selection and learn more about the construction of the gowns. The winning gown will be announced during ABC’s pre-Oscar coverage on Sunday.

The participating designers all seem to have a very similar design aesthetic — the classic, uncomplicated Hollywood gown — and not a ton of on-screen charisma (with the exception of Robert Rodriguez, who resembles a vaguely Latino David Boreanez and comes the closest to actually looking into the camera). They’re all very pretty dresses, but nothing that really stands out (my favorite might be Marianne Kooimans’s look, although I hate the brooch on the butt), perhaps because all we have to go on is video of bland models strutting down the runway.

The fun of Runway is knowing what goes into the creation of a beautiful piece of clothing, and understanding the labor and drama behind it. Without that knowledge, a dress is…well, just a dress.

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