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How does the Lifetime era of 'Project Runway' measure up?

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"Project Runway" has officially gone from catty, cult Bravo series to pop culture phenomenon. In just the last few weeks, it's been mentioned on "Desperate Housewives," and "Ugly Betty's" little brother gushed, "This is my 'Project Runway' moment, and I'm going to make it work!"

As its audience has grown more mainstream, so has its tone.

The show's sixth season jumped to Lifetime, and filming moved to L.A. The result has been a warmer, fuzzier "Project Runway." Whereas past seasons reveled in the comedic stylings of Santino Rice and the fierceness of Christian Siriano, this year we've gotten more backstory about the designers. We learned, for instance, that fourth-place finisher Gordana Gehlhausen was born in a Yugoslavian village where she used onion peels, berries and beets to dye her dad's old shirts.

Season six was a tailored fit for the women's network - for the second year in a row, the three finalists are all women, and Lindsay Lohan, Eva Longoria-Parker and Christina Aguilera served as guest judges.

The ratings? There's good news, bad news, and good news again. A record 4.2 million people watched the premiere, but the numbers slipped about 20 percent as the season wore on. Then again, half of "Project Runway's" fans are new to Lifetime, and the show has helped lower the channel's median age to 46.4.

"I feel like the ratings are strong," says executive producer Sara Rea. "One thing we were up against that previous seasons weren't up against was the primetime fall network launches. That made it a little tough, but I think we're standing strong."

What's different about the Lifetime version? Among the biggest shockers this season:

The clothes are wearable.

Remember Austin Scarlett's corn husk dress from season one? Chris March trimming his collection with human hair? Christian Siriano's haute couture creation?

Yes. Yes I do.

Remember anything from this season?

The most distinctive look was the maternity outfit Malvin Vien designed for Rebecca Romijn, mainly because it looked like an egg in a sling. (Gunn talked him out of pairing it with jodhpurs, which was really for the best.) And he got voted out for that. There were separates, oversized sweaters, and a procession of tasteful evening gowns. Where's the fun in that?

The contestants are sound of mind.

There just has not been anything to compare with, say, Jeffrey Sebelia making someone's mom cry during a challenge, or the mania dancing behind Kenley Collins's eyes. (She was later accused of hurling a cat at her boyfriend.) The only real bickering was about copycat designs.

Tim Gunn is providing the most drama.

At this point, the man has been elevated to the status of a god. Rightfully so. And while he's been admirably composed throughout the competition, some of his comments have gotten edgier. ""It looks a lot like roadkill," Gunn told finalist Irina Shabayeva of her fur concoction. "You don't want this to be a post-apocalyptic moment." Last week he started a conversation by saying, "What is that, and why?"

One reason to tune into the finale Thursday night? Executive producer Rea promises there will be a bit of a mentor meltdown. "There's a moment when Tim says, 'I'm about to lose it,'" she says. "It was intense."

Let's hope so.

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This page contains a single entry by Paige Wiser published on November 16, 2009 4:29 AM.

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